Even in Singapore’s collectivist society where citizens are largely law-abiding, sovereign citizens have been making the news recently for disobeying laws. This uptick in cases involving sovereign citizens possibly occurred in response to how COVID-19 regulations, such as mask-wearing and vaccination-differentiated rules, have been seen by them to impinge on people’s autonomy.
Although cases of self-proclaimed sovereign citizens in Singapore seem to be isolated and not symptomatic of a radical undercurrent, there seem to be a very small number of such people locally. Regardless, sovereign citizens are not recognised in Singapore (and most other sovereign states).
This article will cover:
- What it means to be a sovereign citizen
- Whether a sovereign citizen is legally recognised in Singapore
- Incidents of “sovereign citizens” falling afoul of Singapore law
- What you can do if you encounter someone who appears to think of themselves as a sovereign citizen
What Does It Mean to be a Sovereign Citizen?
Sovereign citizens believe that they are exempted from the laws of the country they live in. Armed with this ideology, they refuse to “contract” with the state (i.e. comply with the state’s laws) through carrying out acts such as obtaining driver’s licences before driving, or paying taxes and fines. They commonly engage in what is known as “paper terrorism” where they fabricate legal-looking documents for self-proclaiming certain rights of their own.
The sovereign citizen movement arose in the United States decades ago based on a conspiracy theory that the American government, which was set up through a common law legal system, was secretly replaced with an admiralty law system. The admiralty law system is the law of the sea and international commerce, which frames every matter as a contractual dispute. The sovereign citizen movement has ties to anti-Semitic and white supremacist groups.
Typically, common law refers to the legal system followed by Commonwealth countries where the judicial systems are bound by precedent – legal cases over which previous judges have presided. This is as opposed to civil law, which is followed in most European states, where judicial systems are primarily bound by codified systems.
However, sovereign citizens refer to “common law” as their own version of their law where they pick and choose which regulations they want to follow.
Perhaps the most prominent instance of a sovereign citizen in the news occurred in May 2020, when a Singaporean citizen named Paramjeet Kaur refused to wear a face mask in public at Shunfu Mart. When members of the public confronted Ms Kaur about this, she started declaring that she was a “sovereign” and that the police “had no say” over her.
Overseas, and particularly in the United States, the sovereign citizen movement has been gaining traction, with its followers committing violent crimes such as breaking into homes to claim them as their own, and engaging in standoffs with the police.
Is a Sovereign Citizen Legally Recognised in Singapore?
As stated above, sovereign citizens are not legally recognised in Singapore. They cannot simply declare themselves a member of an unrecognised state (“sovereign state”) and disobey the laws of the country they are physically in.
To explain further, a valid state cannot be created simply by virtue of a group of dispersed people declaring themselves a state. For example, the 1933 Montevideo Convention declared that a state must possess:
- A permanent population;
- A defined territory;
- A government; and
- The capacity to conduct international relations.
The Convention is an agreement amongst certain countries that established the standard definition of a state under international law. Do note that the Montevideo Convention’s definition of a state is not definitive, but acts as a guide when other countries decide whether to recognise a group as a state.
Although sovereign citizens subscribe to the worldview that they do not have to obey the law, the government of the country they live in has the right to exercise its power to ensure their inhabitants comply with the law.
Commenting on the sovereign citizen movement, Law Minister K. Shanmugam declared that people who claim to be sovereign citizens above the law should not be able to enjoy the benefits that come with orderly governance, such as security and medical care.
Incidents of “Sovereign Citizens” Falling Afoul of Singapore Law
Although sovereign citizens labour under the misconception that laws do not apply to them, they are mistaken. In fact, many self-proclaimed sovereign citizens yield to the authorities when they find themselves entangled with the law.
Singaporean who refused to wear a mask at Shunfu Mart given 2 weeks’ jail and fined
For refusing to wear a face mask in public at Shunfu Mart, Ms Kaur was charged with 2 charges of public nuisance, with 5 other charges for refusing to sign a police statement and failing to report a change of residence to the authorities taken into consideration for sentencing. In May 2021, she pleaded guilty to her charges and was jailed for 2 weeks and fined $2,000.
Ms Kaur, during her altercation at Shunfu Mart, had also stated, “I am not a person. I’m ‘We the people'”. “We the people” is likely a reference to the first line of the United States Constitution, which reads:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“We the people” is used in the United States Constitution to show that the citizens are the ones who give the government power through the Constitution. Ironically, as discussed above, sovereign citizens cannot give a state any power just by declaring they are a state.
Briton who refused to wear a mask in an MRT given 6 weeks’ jail
In May 2021, Benjamin Glynn, a self-proclaimed sovereign, refused to wear a mask while riding in an MRT train. For his actions, Mr Glynn was confronted by the police at his home. He then turned aggressive and purportedly claimed, “I will f***ing drop anyone who tries to cuff me.”
Mr Glynn was charged with 2 charges under the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act for failing to wear a mask, and 1 count each of harassment and being a public nuisance. He was remanded in the Institute of Mental Health for psychiatric observation and remained in remand until he was sentenced, as his bail was revoked.
During trial, the court found him guilty, and he was jailed for 6 weeks with his jail term backdated to the start of his remand. He has since been deported and permanently banned from working in Singapore.
During court proceedings, a man claiming to be Mr Glynn’s lawyer, but who did not have a licence to practise law in Singapore, alleged to be an “ambassador at large and advocate of Kingdom Filipina Hacienda”, and was ultimately turned away by the court.
Kingdom Filipina Hacienda is a non-existent state that claims to own the Philippines. According to its Facebook page, it holds itself out as a “government official” and disseminates pseudo-legal documents such as bank documents, identification documents and driver’s licences to its followers.
What Can You Do If You Encounter Someone Who Appears to Think of Themselves as a Sovereign Citizen?
If you encounter someone who appears to think of themselves as a sovereign citizen, try not to engage with them as they have shown a history of resorting to lawless violence in extreme cases.
Alternatively, if such a self-proclaimed sovereign citizen appears to be committing an offence, you could report the matter to the police and let the relevant authorities handle them.
It may seem enticing to be able to pick and choose the laws that you want to follow, but it comes as no surprise that Singapore does not recognise sovereign citizens. Everyone is subject to the laws of the country they are in, regardless of whether you are a citizen of the country or a foreigner, and also regardless of whether you see yourself as a “sovereign” citizen or not.