Workers' Party's AHPETC fined $800 for running CNY fair without permit: 5 things to know about the case

The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), run by the Workers' Party, has been taken to court over a Chinese New Year fair that it held in Hougang Central in January this year. --  PHOTO: ST FILE
The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), run by the Workers' Party, has been taken to court over a Chinese New Year fair that it held in Hougang Central in January this year. --  PHOTO: ST FILE

The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC), run by the Workers' Party, was taken to court over a Chinese New Year fair that it held in Hougang Central in January this year.

At the heart of the case was whether the town council, whose chairman is Aljunied GRC MP Sylvia Lim, flouted Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act by holding the fair without a permit.

The National Environment Agency (NEA), prosecuting the case, said it did, but the town council challenged the charge.

In a judgement in November, District Judge Victor Yeo said the event was a “temporary fair” and therefore required a permit. The town council was fined $800 on Dec 24.

Here are five things of note about the case:

1. How the case ended up in the State Court

On Dec 20 last year, AHPETC sent an e-mail to the NEA to ask if it would need a permit for the fair. The NEA's reply, three days later, said that a permit was required. It sent the relevant application forms: for a Trade Fair Permit and a Trade Fair Foodstall Licence.

The town council regarded the forms as unsuitable. But as the NEA insisted that permits were required, the town council submitted the forms on Dec 31, but struck off the words "Trade Fair" in the forms and substituted them with the word "Event".

On Jan 4, the NEA responded saying that the application was still missing other required documents.

On Jan 8, AHPETC submitted some of these additional documents, including an approval from the Singapore Civil Defence Force on fire safety measures.

A day later, the NEA informed it that the application was still incomplete and could not be processed.

But the town council went ahead with the fair, which ran from Jan 9 to Jan 30.

The NEA sent warnings, saying the fair must be stopped until a permit was granted. But AHPETC did not comply.

The town council was served with a summons on Jan 27 and was also given the option to pay a composition fine in lieu of prosecution.

But AHPETC decided to challenge the summons by claiming trial.

Six stall holders at the fair were also summoned for illegal hawking. They have compounded their offences.

2. Letter of support from the Citizens Consultative Committee

Among the supporting documents required for a permit to be granted, was a letter of support from the Citizens Consultative Committee (CCC) of the area.

Hougang Central came under the ambit of Bedok Reservoir-Punggol CCC, which is chaired by a government-appointed grassroots leader.

The letter was one of the documents missing from the town council's application.

During the hearing, Ms Lim explained why: "Since my colleagues and I were elected to manage the town council under the Town Councils Act, we do not see how the town council should be required to get a supporting letter from the CCC for something held in the common area under our charge."

AHPETC had also argued that a permit was not needed since the event was held in an area under its charge.

But Judge Yeo said the Town Council Act did not give a town council complete freedom to act as it wished, without regard to other prevailing laws and regulations.

3. A matter of forms

Another issue that emerged in court centred on the application forms for the permit.

The NEA sent application forms for a Trade Fair Permit and a Trade Fair Foodstall Licence. Both had to be completed by the fair operator.

The application form states that "only grassroots organisations and charitable, civic, educational, religious or social institutions are allowed to hold fairs".

As the town council was organising the fair and did not appoint an operator, it considered the forms "not suitable or relevant", Ms Lim said in court.

But it did submit the forms, after amending them with the word "Event".

Lawyers for the town council also attempted to question the NEA over a change in the wording of the form, in which the words "town councils" was omitted.

They compared the current application form to one in July 2008 which said that "only grassroots organisations, town councils and charitable, civic, educational, religious or social institutions are allowed to hold fairs".

The prosecution objected saying this was irrelevant as the issue before the court is whether the event needed a permit.

Judge Yeo, in his judgement, said: “The true objection in my view appeared to be the conditions stated in the application form, and not that a permit was required per se.”

4. Does size matter?

The Chinese New Year fair, which was on a 560 sq m space between Blocks 811 and 814, had five stalls selling festive decorations, cookies and sweets, fruits, flowers and assorted potted plants.

Lawyers for the town council said it was a "mini-fair" or "event", and so did not require a permit.

Under Section 35 of the Environmental Public Health Act, a permit is required for "any temporary fair, stage show or other such function or activity".

The NEA's lawyer argued that the law does not make a distinction "between mini-fairs and what has been termed for the purposes of contrast as 'large fairs'... (and) only talks about temporary fairs with no reference to size".

This was affirmed by Judge Yeo who said the event fits the dictionary definition of a “fair”, which is a gathering of buyers and sellers at a particular place and time.

He noted the law makes no reference to the purpose or type of fair, its size, scale, location or duration.

5. What's at stake?

The town council was found guilty of operating a trade fair without a permit and has been fined $800.

It could have been fined a maximum of $1,000.

However, following amendments to the law that kicked in on April 1, the maximum fine for such an offence is now $10,000. AHPETC was not subject to this as its fair took place before the tougher penalties took effect.

yuenc@sph.com.sg