Holding onto my hat

Holding onto my hat

Friday, January 15, 2016

David Bowie: In Life, Surreal - In Death, Immortal

There is a famous English saying which goes "There are no atheists in foxholes."  The saying meant to argue that when a person is staring at the face of death with no way out, he will believe in God.  
David Bowie's last Instagram photo posted on his birthday, 8 Jan 2016

10 January 2016 saw the passing of perhaps the greatest artist of our generation - David Bowie.

He amazed his audience by the iconoclastic way in which he negotiated with contradictions. From the onset of his artistic career, he spurned categorisation into any sort of normative box. His appearance was androgynous. His sexual orientation was ambivalent. His musical style was eclectic.  

Through the decades, he seemed to live out his life as a flamboyant international pop star. He pandered to the flashbulbs, dressed to the nines and married a famous supermodel.  But he was also intensely private, sharing very little details about his personal life to the public.  So he was accessible to the public, yet opaque and private.    

He donned multiple personnas - Major Tom, Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke .... but which/who IS David Bowie? Were each or any of these personalities a fragment of Bowie himself? Or were they all complete inventions of his fertile imagination? We are not sure. His various personas were elaborately drawn, but Bowie himself remained enigmatic and elusive.

Alienation was recurring a theme of work. But the further he drifted out of earth's bounds, the stronger the tug he held at heartstrings and the more he resonated with his audience. So he was distant yet intimate.  

A singer becomes an artist when his performance become a canvas for communicating his perspectives of life, ideas and feelings.  His songs were not just tunes but a tapestry.  His lyrics were poetry hewn out from multi-layered introspection. 

In 1969 he captured the public’s attention with his now classic single “Space Oddity”. His repertoire through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and into the 21st century, was a fascinating exploration of futility and meaning, purpose and purposelessness, pride and pain.

"Look up here, I'm in heaven" goes the very first line of his latest single, 'Lazarus', released just three days before his death. (Click here for the video of 'Lazarus' and here for the full lyrics to 'Lazarus'.)  But the scene in which the line is expressed is far removed from heaven. We are shown a sick dying blindfolded man lying alone stuck on a hospital bed in a dreary room. 

Why does the blindfolded man lying down says "Look up here, I'm in heaven"?  We are confounded by the contradiction.  And at once you know that Bowie’s 'Lazarus' will deliver you with a heavy package of thoughts that will drive an arrow through your heart, mind and soul. 

That darkness portends epiphany is quintessential Bowie, and the darkest hour is hailed by the chime of Death at one’s door.

Transiting from life to lifelessness is the most personal of all journeys. Yet Bowie shares that last leg with us by allowing us to stand by his deathbed through this intensely intimate video.

As always, contradictions abound.  The Lazarus video is laced with religious as well as nihilistic imagery.  Euphoria ("I'm in heaven") is paired with fear ("I'm in danger"). Liberation ("I'll be free") is juxtaposed with constraints as the video shows him shuffling backwards into the confines of the armoire.

What truths did Bowie discover at the end of his journey through this world?  Did he look for God? Did he find God? Did he conclude there is no God?  With ‘Lazarus’, Bowie’s audience cannot help being drawn to wonder about his spiritual orientation.

Having been cornered into a "foxhole", did he embrace the existence of God and thereby proved true the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes? 

Or is ‘Lazarus’ Bowie’s way of telling us that he saw no God and no afterlife and was braving the reality as he saw it – that death is the absolute end?  

I don’t think that Bowie intends to deliver us any answers.  Instead, I surmise that Bowie is calling us to embark on our own personal journey of discovery.  So that instead of wondering about Bowie’s spiritual beliefs, perhaps we should instead be pondering about our own beliefs about truth and destiny.   

For me, a true artist is one whose artwork gives just enough clues to evoke and provoke us to ask the questions which are important to us - yet leaves sufficient gaps to allow us to import our own relevance and meaning into what we see on the canvas.  

I see Bowie as that true artist who helps us to plumb the depths of our own sorrows and misgivings – yet never imposes or prescribes the conclusions and resolutions which are for us to draw and find for ourselves.  

Bowie's body of work is an exhilarating journey. We have had the privilege of hitching a ride on his “tin can” which flouted the laws of gravity, time and space and floated across the universe of his imagination.  But where Bowie believed his journey ended, is only for him to know.  

But there is one truth which Bowie lets on and which we all can subscribe to. The man known as David Robert Jones born on 8 January 1947 passed away from this world on 10 January 2016. 

The icon known as David Bowie is still very much alive and it looks like he will be around for a while.  

David Robert Jones (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016) RIP

David Bowie "Blackstar" (11 July 1969 – ) Lives on



Saturday, January 9, 2016

Fielding Police Powers, Plugging Plot Holes

The recently reported decision of Wham Kwok Han Jolavan v Attorney-General[1] has clarified that police warnings are “no more than an expressions of the opinion of the relevant authority that the recipient has committed an offence”.  As such, there is no decision for the Court to quash. 

In his written judgment, the Judge made the following points:

  1. That a warning is not binding on its recipient such that it affects his legal rights, interests or liabilities.[2]
  2. That a recipient is entitled to challenge the warning.[3]
These two statements are puzzling for several reasons.

Warnings do have prejudicial effect on recipients

The fact that someone has received a warning from the police clearly has adverse effects on its recipient. 

Firstly, the opinion of the police carries significant weight.  The Judge in Mr Wham’s case said that a police warning does not and cannot amount to a legally binding pronouncement of guilt or finding of fact.  Only a court of law has the power to make such a pronouncement of guilt or finding of fact.  Saying that a recipient of a police warning is to be presumed innocent until found guilty by a court of law is talking small potatoes compared with the heavyweight pronouncement of guilt bellowing from the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

Secondly, the warning is on record.  How long it will stay on police record before it is considered spent or expired is unclear.  It is also a mystery to what extent other parties (government or non-government) are able to access such information.  Disclosure of a recipient’s police record to other agencies will cause the recipient to suffer privacy intrusion, personal embarrassment and reputational harm. 

If for example, the recipient is applying for a government scholarship or public-sector job, will those who are deciding his scholarship or job application have access to his police record?  If so, then the recipient’s scholarship or job prospects will be affected.

On 11 May 2013, 21 Malaysians were arrested for gathering illegally at Merlion Park. Concerning their fate, the media reported [4]:

"The Police will be issuing conditional warnings to all 21 Malaysians who participated in the illegal gathering at Merlion Park on 11 May. Their employers will be informed of this. The authorities have also initiated the revocation of the work pass of one of these 21 persons for being involved in both the 8 and 11 May illegal gatherings.  In addition, the authorities have cancelled the visit passes of another two of them. As for the remaining 18 persons, their work passes will be reviewed upon completion of further investigations."

Hence, it appears that a non-Singaporean who receives a warning in lieu of prosecution will be at risk of losing his job, of having his work pass revoked, visit passes cancelled or being repatriated. Those are dire consequences for non-Singaporeans who are living and working in Singapore.

Making public announcements of warnings given

There have been many instances where authorities have issued press releases to inform the public that certain individuals have been issued with a police warning in lieu of prosecution.  In some cases, the recipient of the warning is named in the press release while in other cases, the recipient is unnamed. 

A press release by the Singapore Police Force on 10 August 2011 stated that the Police had administered a stern warning to Ms Tin Pei Ling’s unnamed friend for her breach of the Parliamentary Elections Act.[5]

On 23 June 2013, the Attorney-General’s Chambers issued a press release[6] to inform the public that they had issued a letter of warning to Ms Lee Seng Lynn for her having committed contempt of court. 

Has the police an unfettered discretion to decide when they wish to make public the names and circumstances of individuals who have been issued with warnings?  What about the unwanted attention and public humiliation the recipient has to suffer?

When someone’s name enters the public domain on account of having been found guilty of a crime by the Attorney-General, the reputational damage is immeasurable and long-lasting.  How are recipients in such cases going to deal with the court of public opinion against them? Such a recipient pays a heavy personal price even though he has not been convicted by a court of law. 

So even though the Judge in Mr Wham’s case said that a warning is not binding on its recipient such that it affects his legal rights, interests or liabilities, clearly the issuance of a warning can cause permanent and persistent prejudice to the recipient.

Recipients have no remedy against warnings

The Judge in Mr Wham’s case said that the recipient is entitled to challenge the warning. He suggested that Mr Wham could have sent a letter to the police to say that he disputes that he has committed an offence and that the warning is inappropriate.[7]  In fact, Mr Wham did write to the police and also to the Attorney-General’s Chambers to protest the issuance of the warning against him, but the police and the AGC never replied him.[8]

What good will it do for the recipient to write to the police to object the issuance of the warning?

Of what the weight is the recipient’s opinion that he has not committed any offence to warrant the warning compared with the weight of police opinion that the recipient has committed an offence?

In any case, the decision in Mr Wham’s case is that a police warning cannot be quashed by the Court.

All said, I am not sure I understand why the Judge said that the recipient is entitled to challenge the warning because the recipient has no recourse to the Court and in practical terms, there is little he can do at his end to mitigate the adverse effects of receiving a police warning.

How are individuals safeguarded from wrongful issuance of warnings?

The police wield considerable powers over the individual. How the police administers its powers on individuals and what are the safeguards against unprincipled exercise of police powers on individuals are a matters of great importance to the general public.

For when the lone individual is at the receiving end of the strong arm of the law bearing down on him, we need to entrust him to the integrity of the system and to have faith that the machinery will be applied to him in a principled manner. 

If individuals lack adequate protection from and recourses against arbitrary exercise of police powers, the relationship between rulers and the ruled will be strained and eventually the justice system will break down.

Present Situation

In respect of warnings, the following applies for now:

  • Warnings can be given only orally, without the need for any formal document to be issued.
  • The warning may be given without requiring the recipient's consent to being warned.
  • The warning may be given whether or not the recipient's admits to having committed the crime.
  • Once given, a warning cannot be quashed by the Court.
  • The warning is on record, but for how long the record is kept by the police before it is considered spent or expired is not known.
  • When, how and to what extent the police shares the recipient’s record with other agencies is not known.
  • As to what control, if any, the recipient has over what the police does with his record is not known.
  • When announcing to the public the fact that some has received a warning, the police may, as it deems fit, disclose the name of the recipient, the circumstances of the case and any other details.
  • Whether and to what extent the police needs to consider the recipient’s personal detriment arising from the publication of his name is not known.

An unsatisfactory ending

The judgment in Mr Wham’s case is like a story which has a beginning, a middle but no ending.  We are left hanging at the cliff’s edge. 

The Court says that warnings have no legal effects, but warnings are prejudicial to its recipients.  The police is empowered to issue warnings, which the recipient is powerless to do anything about.    

I dearly hope that the decision in Mr Wham’s case is not the Court’s last word on the matter of police warnings.  There is still a lot of plot holes to clear up, you know.  And if the Court is not going to plug the gaps, I am not sure who will.

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss



[1]  [2015 SGHC 324] at http://www.singaporelawwatch.sg/slw/attachments/75114/[2015]%20SGHC%20324.pdf
[2] Paragraph 33 of the Judgment
[3] Paragraph 34 of the Judgment
[4] “Singapore revokes passes of 3 Malaysians in illegal protests” by AsiaOne on 15 May 2013 at http://news.asiaone.com/News/Latest+News/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130515-422607.html
[5] http://www.police.gov.sg/mic/2011/08/20110810_update_offences_GE2011.html
[6] https://www.agc.gov.sg/DATA/0/Docs/NewsFiles/AGC%20MEDIA%20STATEMENT_LETTER%20OF%20WARNING%20TO%20LEE%20SENG%20LYNN_14%20June%202013.pdf
[7] Paragraph 34 of the Judgment
[8] Paragraph 7 of the Judgment

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Wham vs AG: Judge glares spotlight on the Police

The recently reported decision of Wham Kwok Han Jolovan v Attorney-General [1]  is intriguing in more ways than one. 

The case has received public attention for its clarification on the legal effects of police warnings – that they are “no more than an expressions of the opinion of the relevant authority that the recipient has committed an offence”. [2]

But the written judgment of this case by Justice Woo Bih Li is also significant for its critique on how the warning was administered to the recipient in the case.  The Judge shone the spotlight on how the police treated the recipient of the warning - and the police did not come up smelling like a rose.

This is a side of the reported decision which not only opens the lid on police processes, but also makes a fascinating story.

It should be noted at the onset that this is not your run-of-the-mill criminal case.  This case concerns an offence which cannot be committed anywhere on the island of Singapore except at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park. The recipient of the police warning in this case was a Singapore citizen who was exercising his constitutional rights.  The context of the case being in the lofty realms of police constraints on civil activity, it adds a special flavour to the story which the Judge unfolds.

Background - what the case is about

On 1 October 2014, Mr Jolovan Wham organised an event at Speakers' Corner. The publicity for event expressly stated that foreigners and permanent residents required a permit in order to participate in the event. At the start of the event, Mr Wham also informed the participants that only Singapore citizens were allowed to participate.

After the event, the Central Police Division (CPD) commenced investigations against Mr Wham as CPD officers had observed that there were participants that appeared to be foreigners. Subsequently, the Attorney-General decided to direct the CPD to issue a warning to Mr Wham to refrain from conduct amounting to an offence under the Public Order (Unrestricted Area) Order 2013 [3] or any other criminal conduct in the future, instead of charging Mr Wham.

On 25 March 2015 at the CPD Headquarters, Mr Wham was verbally warned as directed by the Attorney-General.

Believing that he had done nothing wrong to warrant a warning, Mr Wham applied to Court to challenge the warning given.

Judge unsure whether there was even any warning given

Right at paragraph one of his judgment, the Judge declared it was not even clear whether any warning was given at all.  

The Judge then went on to scrutinise what transpired between DSP Pannirselvam (the CPD Officer) and Mr Wham, which may be summarised as follows:
  1. On 25 March 2015, Mr Wham met the CPD Officer at the CPD Headquarters. 
  2. The CPD Officer administered Mr Wham with an oral warning and then invited Mr Wham to sign a document called "Notice of Warning" to acknowledge that he had received the document. 
  3. Mr Wham refused to sign the Notice of Warning. 
  4. Mr Wham informed the CPD Officer that he wanted to consult his lawyers and requested a copy of the Notice of Warning.  
  5. The CPD Officer refused to give Mr Wham a copy of the Notice of Warning.  
  6. The CPD Officer then made a handwritten note on his paper that "No copies of the warning was issued to him."  
  7. On 4 May 2015, Mr Wham contacted CPD to enquire about the outcome of the investigations against him.  
  8. On 5 May 2015, CPD sent a letter to Mr Wham stating that it had been placed on CPD’s record that Mr Wham was “warned by … DSP S Pannirselvam on 25 March 2015".

The Judge having laid out the sequence of events, it becomes evident to the casual observer that the way the CPD dealt with Mr Wham was ambiguous and inconsistent. 

Did the CPD intend to administer the warning to Mr Wham orally or in written form?

How the CPD intended to administer the warning to Mr Wham was not clear.

Handwritten notes on the Notice of Warning stated
"No copies of the warning was issued to him."
According to the Judge, if it was the intention of CPD was to administer the warning orally, then the wording of the Notice of Warning was inconsistent because it stated "You are hereby warned", and not "you have been warned" and that a stern warning “would be administered”, and not “has been administered”.[4]

The Judge also noted that DSP Pannirselvam's handwritten notes stated "No copies of the warning was issued to him", which seemed to indicate that he was treating the Notice of Warning as the warning itself. [5]

The Judge commented: "If indeed CPD had intended all along for DSP Pannirselvam to administer a warning orally followed by a notice that the oral warning had been administered, then the Notice of Warning was poorly drafted." [6]

The Notice of Warning was poorly drafted in more ways than one.  The Judge pointed out that the Notice of Warning had no date and that it carelessly used the terms “warning” and “stern warning” interchangeably.

The Judge suggested: "However, when the Notice of Warning was not handed to Mr Wham because he had said he wanted to consult a lawyer, there was a problem as to whether a warning had been administered to Mr Wham at all. Perhaps it was because of this problem that the position was then taken by CPD that an oral warning had already been issued."  [7]

Then, there is also the mystery as to why the CPD officer refused Mr Wham’s request for a copy of the Notice of Warning.  On this point, the Judge thought that CPD officer should not have withheld it from Mr Wham. 

The Judge said: "It seems to me that if CPD’s intention was to hand over a copy of the Notice of Warning to Mr Wham after the warning had been administered, then DSP Pannirselvam should have handed over a copy even though Mr Wham chose not to sign the acknowledgement.…… Furthermore, it is not illogical for someone who is informed about a warning of an offence to want to seek legal advice before signing any document pertaining to the warning." [8]

Notably, the Judge vindicated Mr Wham’s wish to consult a lawyer before signing any document.

AGC’s Acknowledgement of Remiss

Clearly, there was needless inconsistency and ambiguity in the way the CPD conducted its proceedings with Mr Wham.

In what appears to be an acknowledgment of their remiss, the Attorney-General’s Chambers told the media: "The Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Singapore Police Force are reviewing the process by which stern warnings are administered and the use of the notice, in the light of the High Court's comments in the judgment." [9]

The Judge’s relentless scrutiny of how the CPD dealt with Mr Wham revealed much to be desired of police processes, at least in the area of administering warnings. 

The Straits Times headlined their report on the Court’s decision as “Activist fails to get police warning quashed”. 

Perhaps in an alternative universe would we see the Straits Times using this as the headline instead: “Judge finds fault with how police warned activist”.  

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss



[1] [2015 SGHC 324] at http://www.singaporelawwatch.sg/slw/attachments/75114/[2015]%20SGHC%20324.pdf
[2] Paragraph 34 of the Judgment
[3] Paragraph 4(1)(b) which provides that an organiser of any demonstration held in Speakers’ Corner must not allow any person who is neither a Singapore citizen nor a permanent resident to take part in the demonstration.
[4] Paragraph 10 of the Judgment
[5] Paragraph 12 of the Judgment
[6] Paragraph 16 of the Judgment
[7] Paragraph 14 of the Judgment
[8] Paragraph 18 of the Judgment
[9] The Straits Times “Activist fails to get police warning quashed” (25 December 2015)