Ex-counsellor's case against Prisons thrown out

Ex-counsellor's case against Prisons thrown out

SINGAPORE - The High Court has struck out a former volunteer prison counsellor's claim that the prison authorities violated his right to promote the Sikh religion in jails, pointing out that he had no standing to bring the challenge.

Justice Quentin Loh found Mr Madan Mohan Singh, 62, did not have a personal right because the prison is a restricted, enclosed security zone that a person ordinarily would have no access to, let alone promote his faith there.

Mr Singh had served with the prisons department as a volunteer Sikh religious counsellor from 2000 to December 2011, when his volunteer pass was not renewed.

This was after a probe in 2011 found that he had actively encouraged Sikh inmates to challenge the hair-grooming policy by making requests to keep their hair and beard unshorn in prison.

In January last year, Mr Singh sought a court declaration that the Singapore Prison Service breached his right to promote the Sikh religion among Sikh inmates.

In judgment grounds released on Thursday, Justice Loh held that Mr Singh had to show an "actual or arguable" breach of his constitutional rights before standing can be established.

"This is to prevent 'mere busybodies', whose rights are unaffected from being granted standing to launch unmeritorious challenges," the judge said.

The prisons department has a policy where Sikh inmates with unshorn hair and beards, when admitted, are allowed to remain so during their jail term.

But those who profess to practise the Sikh religion are not allowed to keep their beards or hair unshorn if they were admitted with hair or beard shorn by their choice.

The policy has been in practice for about 40 years. Prisons found Mr Singh's alleged actions to be a serious threat to the discipline, security, safety and order of the prison, noted Justice Loh.

Mr Singh's lawyer, Mr M. Ravi, had argued that the policy breached the right of Sikh inmates to practise their religion and this led to a violation of his right to propagate his religion, among other things.

The judge found that Mr Singh's arguments were "misplaced" as there was no logical link between the hair-grooming policy and the non-renewal of Mr Singh's volunteer pass to counsel in prisons.

He said the renewal of his volunteer pass depended on Prisons' assessment of his suitability and compliance with prison rules and regulations, among other things.

Quashing the substance of the hair-grooming policy would in "no way lead to the renewal of (his) volunteer pass and thereby vindicate his alleged right to propagate to the Sikh inmates".

Justice Loh made it clear Mr Singh is not an inmate and the hair-grooming policy did not apply to him. "This is obviously not a right that is personal to (Mr Singh) and he has no standing to pursue the issue."

Mr Singh's application to quash the labelling of prisoners as practising or non-practising Sikhs by Prisons also failed "to get off the ground", said Justice Loh.

This is because Prisons dropped the terminology in 2013 and used the terms "shorn" and "unshorn" to differentiate between Sikh inmates for the purposes of the hair-grooming policy.

The judge noted that two dialogue sessions were held between the Sikh Welfare Council, the Sikh Advisory Board, and Prisons and Ministry of Home Affairs officials in 2013.

During those sessions, the authorities reviewed the policy and said it was inappropriate to allow Sikh inmates with shorn hair to be given the same concession as Sikh inmates admitted to prisons with unshorn hair.

Mr Singh, a sports shop owner, said he would be filing an appeal. He acknowledged that this was a "sensitive case".

vijayan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on February 28, 2015.
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