The alternative reality of ‘sovcits’

Lofty claims: Paramjeet (left) and Glynn both described themselves as sovereign citizens. — The Straits Times/ANN

THEY say governments are illegitimate and laws do not apply to them. Yet, they want access to what countries provide.

Sovereign citizens, also known as “sovcits”, have had their claims labelled as strange or dangerous.

Sovcits recently gained prominence in the media, with many making headlines around the world for refusing to comply with measures to deal with the pandemic.

They took to the streets in Melbourne last month and again yesterday, protesting against the wearing of masks and lockdowns.

About a week ago, 20 sovcits tried to seize a historic castle in Scotland to protest against lockdown measures there.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam commented on the movement last year when a video of a Singaporean woman claiming to be sovereign and refusing to wear a mask at Shunfu Mart was shared widely on social media.

“Such people should not live within society. She should not expect any of the benefits that come from this system of governance, including security and medical care,” he said.

Paramjeet Kaur, 41, was jailed for two weeks and fined for failing to wear a mask in public and being a public nuisance.The day she was sentenced on May 7, Briton Benjamin Glynn, 40, was caught on video refusing to wear a mask on the train.

He too claimed to be a sovcit, and was sentenced last Wednesday to six weeks’ jail for two counts of not wearing a mask, and one count each of harassment and being a public nuisance. Glynn has since been deported.

The police are now investigating a 51-year-old Singaporean woman who claimed to be a “living woman” on the day of Glynn’s trial, shouting “kangaroo court” during the proceedings.

Like Glynn, she said she had no contract with the Singapore government and thus the authorities had no right to tell her what to do.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan believes many sovcits make the argument that they are sovereign only when they get into legal trouble.

“There are significant logical gaps in their arguments, and the reality is that the rules continue to bind them,” he said.

“I’m not convinced that those who assert this sovereign argument completely stick to it, or even understand the implications and what it actually means.”

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said sovcits reflect “an extreme form of polarisation in society amidst a social condition, such as the pandemic”.

“While most people are willing to put up with the inconveniences of complying with safe distancing measures, there are those who take it to extremes and decide that they live in an alternative reality where the rules do not apply to them,” he said.

However, he noted that sovcits have created their own communities and are not as sovereign as they believe themselves to be.

“If sovcits see themselves as part of a community, (albeit) with their own reality, they would still need to abide by some set of rules or norms in their own community,” he said.

In Glynn’s case, he tried to introduce as his counsel a man who called himself an “advocate of Kingdom Filipina Hacienda”. The “kingdom” has a social media presence and a website spelling out its purported history.Describing itself as an autocratic sovereign monarchy, it has as its head a woman described as “Queen of the Motherland”, and claims to be the “New Philippines”.

The group claims sovereignty on the basis of divine empowerment and the principles of “common law”. But for all its claims and hundreds of pages of legalese, Kingdom Filipina Hacienda holds the legal recognition of, at best, an unregistered fan club here.

Assoc Prof Eugene Tan, who specialises in constitutional law, said Singapore’s sovereign status is declared in the Proclamation of Singapore signed by then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew in 1965.

It was also endorsed by then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, recognising Singapore’s sovereignty.

Prof Tan said this recognition is essential, and sovcits who make proclamations with similar wordings have no power to their claim as they do not have the same recognition.Sovcits often refer to what they call the “common law”, claiming that their rights are based on this set of laws. But they are ill-defined and can be interpreted wildly differently from one sovcit to another.

Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser does not think more people will buy into the movement in Singapore: “Given that sovcits constitute probably a minute minority, at least in Singapore, I’d argue that they are more of a nuisance than a threat.” — The Straits Times/ANN

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