Jehovah's Witness loses suit
Straits Times Oct 23, 1998
By GEOFFREY PEREIRA
Teacher took his employer to court for wrongful dismissal after he was sacked for refusing to recite the pledge and sing the national anthem
A JEHOVAH'S Witness who took his employer to court for wrongful dismissal after he was sacked for refusing to recite the Pledge and sing the National Anthem has lost his case.
The High Court rejected Mr Peter Williams Nappalli's claim that the dismissal was unconstitutional.
It also rejected his claims that singing the anthem and reciting the pledge were not part of his employment contract.
The High Court also rejected the 37-year-old ex-training officer's argument that his employer, the Institute of Technical Education, had affirmed his stance by hiring him and allowing him to serve for 10 years before taking action to sack him.
Mr Nappalli was sacked in 1994. His case was heard in August this year, and Justice Tan Lee Meng handed out his written judgment yesterday. Jehovah's Witness, a group that has been banned in Singapore since 1972, opposes military service.
Members also refuse to swear oaths of allegiance to the state or salute the state flag.
Mr Nappalli had argued that the ITE should have known, when it hired him, that he would not sing the anthem or recite the Pledge. His contract also made no reference to them.
But the judge found that they were part of school life here, and that teachers' roles in education clearly included making students good citizens.
The judge added that Mr Nappalli was also "not particularly forthright" in giving information about his beliefs.
When asked in the application form for the Institute of Technical Education job whether he had ever been convicted in a court of law, he had said no when he had been convicted by a military court for refusing to do national service.
This, the judge said, was unacceptable as he had suppressed information that he knew could lead to disqualification or dismissal.
Mr Nappalli had also argued that for years after he was hired, the ITE had not said or done anything about his behaviour.
This meant that the ITE accepted it.
But the judge noted that it was only in 1988, when reciting the pledge included holding the right fist clenched over the heart, that his behaviour became noticeable.
It was also difficult for Mr Nappalli's supervisors to notice he was not singing or reciting as they were at the front of the school assembly.
In rejecting the claim that his constitutional rights were violated, the judge said:
"A person who cannot carry out an obligation in a proposed contract because of his religious beliefs should ensure that the other contracting party agrees to release him from the obligation in question.
"If this cannot be done, he should not enter into the contract."
He added: "Such an approach does not affect in any way a citizen's right to profess, practise and propagate his religious belief, as provided for under Article 15 of the Constitution.
"Nor does it stifle freedom of speech or infringe the right to equality before the law.
"Indeed, it preserves every person's right to enter into a valid contract of his own choice."
THE SAGA: Sequence of events
HERE is the saga of Mr Nappalli's run-in with the ITE authorities from the time he was hired in 1984.
1984-1988: He does not sing the national anthem or recite the pledge as required. The ITE does not notice his behaviour.
1988: The Ministry of Education introduces a new way of taking the pledge, which involves having the right clenched fist over the heart while reciting it. He still escapes ITE's notice.
Jan 2, 1991: Mr Nappalli is warned in writing to take the pledge and sing the anthem, or face disciplinary action, after a supervisor reports him.
Jan 7, 1994: At a meeting with the ITE's director, Dr Law Song Seng, he is told to comply with rules and advised to resign if he could not.
Jan 12, 1994: He states in writing that he will not comply and will not resign.
Jan 14, 1994: He is warned of disciplinary action if he does not take the pledge.
Feb 14, 1994: His training manager reports that he has still not complied.
April 6, 1994: He is told that disciplinary action is being taken against him.
Nov 1, 1994: He is dismissed.
August 1998: His suit against the ITE for wrongful dismissal is heard in the High Court.