SINGAPORE: A woman who caused a commotion at a market during the "circuit breaker" period last year by refusing to wear a mask and calling herself a "sovereign" was sentenced to two weeks' jail and a fine of S$2,000 on Friday (May 7).
Paramjeet Kaur, 41, pleaded guilty to a charge each of causing a public nuisance and of failing to wear a mask. Another five charges including occasions where she failed to wear a mask were considered in sentencing.
As Kaur had previously been remanded at the Institute of Mental Health for two weeks with no mental disorder found, she will not have to serve any additional jail time.
Kaur, who had her mask below her nose throughout her time in court, claimed that she suffered from asthma and did not want to wear a mask as she thought it would affect her ability to breathe.
Her lawyer also told the court that his client, a physiotherapist who lived for many years in Australia, has been "humiliated" as well as "harassed" by reporters and commenters on social media.
The court heard that Kaur went to the wet market section at the basement of a hawker centre at Blk 320, Shunfu Road on the morning of May 3, 2020, to buy groceries.
She deliberately went near the closing time as she wanted to avoid any crowd, her lawyers said.
LACK OF MASK DREW ATTENTION FROM ONLOOKERS
Kaur was not wearing a mask at the time and drew the attention of several people at the market. A woman whose parents owned a stall at the market confronted Kaur and told her she should be wearing a mask.
Kaur retorted that she did not need to wear a mask as she was not sick, said the prosecutor.
By 12.16pm, the exchange had led to an argument and a commotion, as Kaur was "defiant and adamant" on not wearing a mask. The other woman called the police.
Hawker stall owners and customers at the wet market were drawn to the scene, with at least seven witnesses listed in court documents.
Kaur was shouting loudly and said the police could not do anything to her, and that she was a "sovereign". She also said she was not a person, but "we the people", the court heard.
This behaviour caused annoyance to those there, said Deputy Public Prosecutor V Jesudevan. Kaur also refused to wear a mask that was offered to her by someone in the crowd.
PROSECUTOR CALLS FOR JAIL AND MAXIMUM FINE
Mr Jesudevan asked for two weeks' jail for the mask offence and the maximum fine of S$2,000 for the public nuisance charge. He said Kaur was "an openly defiant person in the face of law enforcement being present and the glare of the public".
"One must also bear in mind what she uttered here - when she uttered that she was sovereign, we take it to be that she is referring to a movement in the US, which its adherence ... rejects Government, rejects authority and rejects police," he said.
He said the charges taken into consideration involve Kaur travelling some distance without a mask.
Taking aim at the defence's arguments and reliance on private psychiatric reports claiming that Kaur suffers from asthma and depression, Mr Jesudevan said the IMH did not find that Kaur had any mental disorder.
Referring to a 2013 medical report the defence tendered indicating acute bronchitis in Kaur, the prosecutor pointed out that Kaur had left the clinic without her medicine or an asthma management plan, which shows it could not have been very serious.
Another diagnosis was given by a doctor in Australia in October 2020 while Kaur was in Singapore, and "it's curious to see how the doctor is able to physically diagnose her", said Mr Jesudevan.
He added that if Kaur had complied with a doctor's order to use an inhaler, he did not see why she could not wear a mask. None of the doctors' notes said she was not in a position to don a mask, he said.
"Certainly, she's wearing one now, even though it's not covering her nose," he said.
He added that reports relied on by the defence showed that Kaur was not eventually diagnosed with depression, even though she had previously been given antidepressants.
DEFENCE HIGHLIGHTS DIFFICULT CHILDHOOD, PERSONAL CIRCUMSTANCES
Defence lawyer Kertar Singh sought a fine, saying his client had "a very difficult childhood", with her father leaving the matrimonial home when she was four or five.
Her mother raised her and her younger brother single-handedly, but she was "motivated to excel" despite this, he said. She did a course in biotechnology in Ngee Ann Polytechnic and left Singapore in 2001 for Canberra, where she obtained a bachelor's degree in applied science and later took a master's degree.
She worked as a physiotherapist in Australia before returning to Singapore in 2008 to be closer to her mother. After her return, she tried to find a job in Singapore, but failed to do so.
"In 2020, the COVID-19 situation made things even worse for her," said Mr Singh. "It changed the social and economic landscape, which adversely affected her, and it was during this period sometime in late January 2020, in the midst of a nationwide panic to stock up on masks, where the (multi-ministry taskforce) said to wear a mask only if you are sick and need to see a doctor."
He said this was the first impression that Kaur got, and the Government subsequently changed their stance on the use of masks. The offence was committed days after the Government mandated the wearing of masks when leaving the home, said Mr Singh.
He pointed to the "extent of humiliation" his client received from the crowd at the market, taking pictures and videos of her and shouting at her.
"Pam felt frightened and terrified," he said. He added that she thought wearing a mask would hinder her ability to breathe normally or comfortably.
He said the police investigations as well as her remand at IMH amounted to a traumatic experience for her and have left an indelible impression on her.
Commentary: We declare a goal of ending mental health stigma yet viciously mock the woman at Shunfu Market
HUMILIATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA
"Further, your honour, the matter appears to have attracted an unhealthy level of publicity. Given her fragile state of mind, she is unable to cope with the humiliation from social media, badgering by members of the public," said Mr Singh.
He added that his client has "suffered in silence" and seeks to put this episode behind her, but is worried that the social media bullying will continue even after she has paid the price.
She has since been careful to adhere to the measures and "has been dutifully wearing a mask when she leaves home", said Mr Singh.
When his colleague tried to argue about how the members of the public had chosen to gather around Kaur during the pandemic, the judge pointed out that she had drawn attention to herself by not wearing a mask.
District Judge Ronald Gwee said the incidents demonstrate "an egregious disregard for provisions that were imposed for the safety of everyone during the early days of the most serious aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic".
"Such provisions were made public and there's no reason for anyone to state that they were not aware of such provisions and more so to be in blatant disregard and disobedience of such provisions," he said.
For not wearing a mask without reasonable excuse, Kaur could have been jailed up to six months, fined up to S$10,000, or both. For public nuisance, she could have been fined up to S$2,000.