The High Court has struck out an application by a former volunteer Sikh religious counsellor with the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) who had taken issue with the prison’s hair grooming policy for Sikh inmates and said his right to propagate his faith had been violated, after the SPS did not renew his volunteer pass.
Justice Quentin Loh said the applicant, Mr Madan Mohan Singh, did not have reasonable cause and that his application to start judicial review proceedings on these issues was “frivolous, and vexatious and/or otherwise an abuse of the processes of Court”.
Mr Singh, who was represented by lawyer M Ravi, had filed an application in 2013 to quash the labelling of Sikh prisoners as “practising” or “non-practising”. He had also sought a declaration that the SPS had violated his right to propagate his religion — which is contingent on him obtaining leave for the quashing order.
In response, the Attorney-General applied to have these applications struck out.
Based on the facts set out in Justice Loh’s judgment published yesterday, Mr Singh, a counsellor with the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association’s Sikh Aftercare (Counselling) Services, began volunteering with the SPS in 2000.
In 2010, he wrote to the SPS requesting a review of the prison’s hair grooming policy for Sikh inmates. Sikhs who have unshorn hair and beards at the point of admission can keep them unshorn during their incarceration. But those who had shorn their hair and beards at the time of admission or during incarceration would not be allowed to grow them out.
In his request, Mr Singh asked the authorities to look into incidents where the policy had not been adhered to. He also objected to the terms “practising” and “non-practising” Sikhs, used at the time to distinguish between Sikh inmates with shorn and unshorn hair and beards.
The SPS has since switched to using the terms “shorn” and “unshorn”.
Following his request, the SPS saw a spike in the number of Sikh inmates requesting to keep their hair long. Upon investigation, it found Mr Singh had “actively and persistently encouraged” inmates to keep their hair and beard unshorn to challenge the policy. This was deemed a threat to prison discipline and safety. In December 2011, Mr Singh was told his volunteer pass would not be renewed.
Mr Ravi had argued that Mr Singh had the right to seek the quashing order, as by not renewing his volunteer pass, the SPS was curtailing Mr Singh’s right to propagate his religion to a group of Sikhs to whom he owed a duty to rehabilitate.
But Justice Loh disagreed, noting that the application, interpreted substantively, was to quash the hair grooming policy, not challenge the non-renewal of Mr Singh’s pass. Even if he accepted the argument that the policy was the reason for the non-renewal, this was still not an infringement of Mr Singh’s constitutional rights. This was because prisons are restricted spaces, within which inmates suffer temporary exclusion from society. “A person would thus ordinarily have no access to a prison, much less free access to propagate his religion to the inmates,” he said.
Justice Loh also noted that Mr Singh did not object to the policy in the first 10 years of his stint with the SPS.
Two prominent members of the Sikh community, including chairman of the Sikh Welfare Council’s Inmate Counselling Subcommittee Manmohan Singh, also filed affidavits on behalf of the Attorney-General attesting to the fairness of the policy, he said.