High Court: Vandalism includes more than damage to public property

To a layman, vandalism may need to include some sort of damage to public property, but this is not the case under the law.

This was made clear by the High Court in rejecting the appeal of a woman convicted of vandalism for hanging banners and placards.

Justice See Kee Oon, in judgment grounds issued last week, said that acts of vandalism destroying or damaging public property may have nothing in common with affixing or displaying a poster, but both acts carry criminal liability under the Vandalism Act (VA)... "although the prescribed punishments may be different", he explained, adding that "the statutory language is clear and unambiguous".

Singaporean Ng Chye Huay was convicted in the State Courts of six charges. She hung banners on the railings of the Esplanade Bridge, displayed placards on the overhead bridge at People's Park Complex and the walkway between Pearl's Centre and the People's Park Complex - all of which were public property.

The banners and placards carried messages about falungong and its practitioners. Falungong is a form of Chinese spiritual practice that includes meditation and qigong exercises.

A district judge, noting that she was a serial offender, had fined her $12,000: $2,000 for each of the six acts of vandalism between 2013 and 2014. Last month, in her appeal, her lawyers argued that there had been no vandalism as there was no permanent damage and no intent to cause damage or social disruption.

Deputy Public Prosecutors Kumaresan Gohulabalan and Dwayne Lum countered that an offence is committed even if there was no damage given the broad meaning in the Act, and any damage would draw more serious punishment.

Justice See noted that there was no damage but held that as long as the items were being displayed, there certainly was "defacement" of the property.

Pointing out that her conduct was the kind of anti-social behaviour the Act sought to address, the judge stressed that such behaviour "might cause, and in most cases is likely to cause, social disruptions".

The judge also rejected her claim that the Act unlawfully curtailed her rights to freedom of speech and religion as provided under the Constitution.

He said the Act "validly restricts freedom of speech and freedom of religion", and cited a 2005 judgment by then Chief Justice Yong Pung How, who said: "Parliament is empowered to legislate restrictions on those rights, which are qualified rather than absolute".

K. C. Vijayan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2017, with the headline 'High Court: Vandalism includes more than damage to public property'. Print Edition | Subscribe