Speak! Or (And?) be Damned
The scope of activities allowed at Speakers’ Corner was broadened on September 1, 2007, to include public demonstrations. After eight years, does this signal a rebirth for this maligned corner of Hong Lim Park or merely a false dawn?

By Ramesh William | Jan 08, 2009

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  • Speak! Or (And?) be Damned
    Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park

That Hong Lim Park was chosen as the site for Speakers’ Corner in 2000 isn’t without historical significance. In the 1950s and 1960s the football pitch-sized urban park throbbed to the fervent chants of slogans and battle cries during nation-building election rallies. It is also, unbeknownst to most, the first public garden in Singapore, set up in 1885 by prominent Hokkien businessman and philanthropist Cheng Hong Lim. He created this public garden for all to enjoy in what was then a desolate part on Chinatown, first naming it Dunman Green. The name was changed after Hong Lim’s death in 1893.

Modeled after its namesake in London’s Hyde Park, where Karl Marx once preached against capitalism, Speakers’ Corner was given the green light in early 2000. The then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who said he would usher in a kinder, gentler, more consultative form of government when he took over the prime ministerial seat in 1990, told Channel NewsAsia then, “It’s not going to be as free as London’s Speakers’ Corner. There must be rules, but of course at a minimum.” Thus, there was a mixed reaction of sorts when the space officially opened on September 1, 2000, as some heralded the era as a step in the right direction towards political openness while others lambasted it as “purely cosmetic.”

Simon Tay, who was a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) at the time, was suitably enthusiastic and was quoted remarking, “If Singapore is going to be opening up—and we think there is an opening-up—you need signals and indicators, and this could be a starting point. It is a micro-step, but change comes from whittling away at things.” Others however, were unmoved. The late J.B. Jeyaretnam, for instance, took an opposing view. “I’m sorry; it’s mirage. Keeping speakers bound by existing limits would make the free-speech venue a contradiction in terms,” he told the Associated Press.

And so with some stringent rules in tow—speakers had to register at the adjoining police station in person and speak without amplification systems—Singapore ushered in a new era of “freedom” on the aforementioned date in late 2000 with 13 registering to speak on topics ranging from the state of the economy to political awareness in Singapore.

But despite the initial excitement, the numbers speaking at Speakers’ Corner dropped to a mere handful within a year—395 in September 2000 to 11 in August of 2001. Another former NMP Chandra Mohan Nair remarked in 2001, “It’s partly apathy, partly fear. The government have given the people a chance and if they don’t respond, it’s their own fault.” And in the intervening years, the numbers plummeted further, leading some to call it “Hide Park.” Others called it a “wasteland” while most called it “The quietest corner in Singapore.”

A New Era?

So when the Government announced earlier in 2008 that they would relax the rules at Speakers’ Corner—allowing the use of microphones, making the space available 24 hours and no longer needing speakers to register with the police—and allow public demonstrations at Speakers’ Corner on September 1, few found the need to get unnecessarily excited.

But, the figures have, naturally, some would say, gone up; more than 65 registered to speak in the first two months of the liberalized rules being in place. There has been a dip in numbers since, but nevertheless, will the new ruling bring forth a new era of activism in Singapore or is it merely another false dawn?

Singapore Democratic Party chief Dr Chee Soon Juan, who in 2002 became the first person to be charged with flouting the Corner’s rules (on not speaking on race or religion) when he questioned a government ban on tudungs (Islamic headscarves) in public schools, remains unimpressed by the authorities’ latest arroach to Speakers’ Corner. “The move to relax Speakers’ Corner to allow demonstrations is but mere tokenism designed to deflect criticism of the lack of freedom of expression in Singapore,” he says. “The Government has no genuine intention to democratize the country. Nonetheless, it is an important admission and concession by the Government of the desire by the people for freedom in Singapore.”

Two prominent activists also echo Dr. Chee’s views. Prominent gay activist and blogger Alex Au said that continuing to corral speakers into a small corner of the island isn’t much of a change at all. “The fact is when you speak at Speakers’ Corner it is still pretty much a case of preaching to the converted,” he says. “To really get ‘free speech’ going in Singapore, you must be allowed to speak in areas with high pedestrian traffic, like Raffles Place on weekdays and Orchard Road on weekends.”

Another activist, Isrizal Mohamed Isa, shares Au’s sentiments. “What will be dangerous is if Singaporeans think that Speakers’ Corner is the only place in Singapore where they can exercise their constitutional rights of freedom of speech,” he says. “As citizens, we must be allowed to speak freely anywhere within our country.” Isrizal also added that speaking about race and religion shouldn’t be taboo, saying, “The fact that people want to talk about race, religion and language shows there are real problems concerning such topics and thus must be given the space to talk about it. We must be trusted to be mature enough as a society to handle such issues.”

Since the new rules came into force, only one application, from real estate agent Thamilselvan Karuppya, who wanted to speak about the use of Tamil-language signs in public, has been denied by the police and National Parks, who now manage the corner.

Some Concerns?
Another activist, Sinapan Samydorai of ThinkCentre, says while the new ruling is a step in the right direction for freedom expression in Singapore, some very real concerns persist.

“People are still confused by the ‘OB (Out-of-Bounds) markers’ and a genuine fear of saying the wrong things; fearing the wrath of courts; a fear that they will be charged with defamation, lose their homes and savings to pay for substantial damages possibly awarded against them, and face bankruptcy,” he says. “People are asking: Is it going to be a form an entrapment if you go there and speak or perform? Will they charge you? Where are the OB markers? What would the government do with them if they go beyond the OB markers? But we should have confidence; take any space that is offered. That should be the way to work within the law and we can press for further policy changes along the way.”

Samydorai also feels that whether the new relaxed rules at Speakers’ Corner is effective depends very much on the on the will of the government to listen to the voices and views expressed by the people.  “There are many more subtle policies, legislation and procedures that continue to restrict the work of civil society organizations,” he says. “We need more substantive policy changes and legal amendments to create space for a vibrant political society and to overcome democratic deficits. Outside formal feedback avenues, meet-the-people sessions with MPs and writing letters to the press, there continues to be limited space for freedom of expression for the people.”

With Other Channels
Meanwhile, sociology lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Professor Tan Ern Ser believes that Speakers’ Corner can be effective if used in tandem with other channels. But he adds that while Speakers’ Corner is highly visible, it is somewhat constrained in terms of time, space, and location, although, he notes, such limitations can be overcome. “If there is sufficient coverage through the press and the Internet, the message can have a far greater reach, less restricted by time, space, and location,” he says. “But clearly what is most critical is to deliver simple, credible, timely, powerful messages which have tremendous impact on the intended audience, and produce sufficient resonance and momentum.”

Tan also warns that not everyone will find going down to Speakers’ Corner an effective platform for airing their views and championing their causes. “It involves a lot of time, effort, resources, and energy to stage a demonstration, and besides, a large number of people do not have the organizational set up and resources to do anything on a sustained basis,” he says. “Some may also not want to be identified and prefer the relative anonymity of cyberspace to physical space.”
He adds that just because most do not come forward to speak their mind or champion their causes at the “new” Speakers’ Corner doesn’t mean they are scared of repercussions. “You have to take into account that a certain segment of the population may not feel strongly about any issue,” he says. “One shouldn’t also rule out the possibility that most Singaporeans may not have any serious concerns which they feel is not already being addressed by the state.”

“I do not believe in demonstrating for demonstrating’ sake. The bottom line is that citizens’ voice must be heard, their rights protected, and their welfare enhanced, while the government must be transparent, accountable, and competent.”

Good Training Ground

Another political activist, Yap Kheng Ho, better known as Uncle Yap in the blogosphere, feels it’s a good training ground for online activists. “Activists and potential activists now have a SAFE space to sharpen their skills, enhance their capabilities and prepare themselves to become thoroughly competent in forwarding their respective causes,” he says. “Speakers’ Corner can serve as their training ground. When they reach a higher level they will be ready for stronger challenges outside the boundaries of that ‘little corner.’ That is how I recommend people take advantage of Speakers’ Corner.” 

But he adds that more can be done in addition to the changes made post September 1. “I’d like to see a stage being built for starters,” he says. “The stage at Hong Lim Park belongs to the nearby community club. The Peoples’ Association which runs the community club charges $5,000 for the use of the stage; it’s a ridiculous state of affairs!”

Colorful Scenes, Uncertain Future?

But since September 1, a slew of various interest groups, activists and online bloggers have descended—though not quite en masse—to put forward various ways on how to improve this society of ours. The very first group to make use of the less stringent regulations was the group Hearer of Cries, who champions the cause of abused maids in Singapore. They were swiftly followed by The Online Citizen (see our interview with website editor Choo Zheng Xi on the following page), a socio-political website, that spoke about the rising costs of transport; drawing one of the biggest crowds ever at the corner.

In October, four students from Nanyang Technological University turned up to voice their displeasure against the university’s decision to pull several politically tinged articles from its campus newspaper. While on a lighter vein, a duo from tech blog geeksnotfreaks.com sang and rapped on about the high costs of mobile phone usage. It has to be noted that the pair attracted more than their fair share of onlookers and (widespread) attention in the mainstream media, while other more notable speakers championing worthier causes went unheard and unreported. If these sort of gimmickry acts take hold at this important piece of civic society real estate, then the credibility of Speaker’s Corner will come into question. While in recent weeks, investors burnt from the fallout of the economic crisis have regularly staged weekend protests there, prompting Sinapan Samydorai of ThinkCentre to remark, “It’s interesting to observe those who have come down to defend their economic interests.” The Singapore Democratic Party organized their very own New Year’s countdown here, and a memorial for the late J.B. Jeyaretnam was held here earlier this month.

It still remains unclear whether the ease of restrictions at Speakers’ Corner heralds a new dawn for freedom of expression in Singapore or merely something whose embers will burn out once the initial excitement fades. Already the January line-up for the corner on local blog Let’s Go to Speakers’ Corner (http://letsgotospeakerscorner.blogspot.com) is worryingly bereft. For now, it will be the citizens who will determine its fate and (possible) success. But as one prominent activist said when the corner opened eight years ago—”If people overstep the boundaries, the Government can easily shut the space down”—it is still very much a case of pushing the envelope one little nudge at a time.

The Online Citizen Speaks
On September 5, 2008, The Online Citizen (TOC) (www.theonlinecitizen.com ) staged a demonstration at the Speakers’ Corner concerning the rising costs of public transport. We speak to its editor-in-chief Choo Zheng Xi on what the new-feel Speakers’ Corner means for Singapore, civil society and freedom of expression.

How can Speakers’ Corner, given its recent revamp to include public demonstrations, help with freedom of speech in Singapore?

The most enduring effect will be the changing of the default perception of public demonstrations: They will slowly become de-stigmatized, and evolve into a regular aspect of the political scene. As more demonstrations are successfully and peacefully staged at Speakers’ Corner, the government’s rationale for maintaining other restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly will increasingly be undermined. Then Speakers’ Corner can be Singaporeans’ way of telling the government “Yes We Can” and a place to hold peaceful and responsible public demonstrations.

What are your own views on the new, “relaxed” Speakers’ Corner? How has it helped TOC spread its own message?
I’m happy with the changes, but this is only a small step in the right direction. The final destination should be a comprehensive repeal of the laws prohibiting gatherings of more than five people and the requirement that politicians register before addressing members of the public. Speakers’ Corner has helped us reach new audiences who aren’t necessarily Internet savvy, a very important demographic to engage especially when we’re raising bread and butter issues like the cost of public transport.

In your opinion, why aren’t more Singaporeans making use of this opportunity to voice their concerns?
I think given our political reserved-ness, a surprising number of groups championing a variety of causes have already made use of this space. Of course, there could be more, but given the chilling political climate many Singaporeans are familiar with, we’re all going to take some time to thaw out before fully utilizing this space.

Is the Speakers’ Corner an effective platform for the public to air their grievances?
Depends on your yardstick of gauging effectiveness. If you’re expecting policies to be changed overnight, then you’re kidding yourself if you think you can move the government from a soapbox. But I think demonstrations held at the Speakers’ Corner have benefited from healthy media attention and public interest so far, whether the issue at hand is public transport, financial products, migrant worker’s rights, or civil political issues.

How do you think the revamped Speakers’ Corner can help civil society in Singapore?

It can provide a “spiritual” focal point for civil society activism, the way the Substation and Rowell Road’s Post Museum have evolved into popular activist chill out areas. More importantly, the venue has the potential to help anchor the image of activism in the public eye, an identity that we haven’t been able to shape with sufficient clarity yet. Perhaps activists will one day be remembered as “the children of Hong Lim.”

What would you like to see taking place at Speakers’ Corner?

I’d like to see a concerted attempt by activists to claim this space as our own, and use this as the springboard to gain more ground. One way of claiming ownership over this space could be a regular civil society carnival at Speaker’s Corner. Most importantly, civil society needs to fully utilize this space to reach out to the public and capture their imagination.

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