ST: Who needs Speakers' Corner? (Aug 29)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Aug 29, 2008
Who needs Speakers' Corner?
By Hong Xinyi
YOU may have heard: The Government has loosened the regulations for
Speakers' Corner.

The administration of this famous little patch of land in Hong Lim
Park will soon be the responsibility of NParks rather than the police,
and demonstrations will be allowed there.

Even the burning of effigies at Speakers' Corner will not be
'pre-judged', according to an NParks official.

A Straits Times report stated that 'reactions to the news ranged from
a lackadaisical 'It's no big deal' to doubt that Singaporeans were
ready for demonstrations, even in a controlled environment'.

As a symbol of increased liberalisation, one could make a case for the
revamped Speakers' Corner as a significant milestone.

But perhaps the less than enthusiastic reaction to this relaxing of
rules is partly due to the fact that Singaporeans have felt little
need to air their opinions at Hong Lim Park. Instead, they have simply
come up with more effective ways of communication.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that the old chestnut of
Singaporeans being too apathetic and afraid to speak up for their
rights is becoming an outdated idea.

A few months ago, after meeting a group of anti-en bloc neighbours, I
decided to shop a theory around: the two most significant ground-up
civil rights developments of 2007 were the factions that coalesced
around their support of and opposition to Section 377A, and the
private property owners fuming about being forced out of their homes
by en bloc sales.

The Internet was an effective tool for those passionate about both
issues, with viral videos, online petitions and crusading blogs
featuring prominently in galvanising supporters.

The results, at first blush, seem to have been starkly different.

The debate that bubbled up around 377A seems to have faded into the
background, and this section of the Penal Code, which criminalises gay
sex, remains unchanged.

On the other hand, the Government introduced stricter regulations for
the en bloc process in September last year, due at least partly to the
unhappiness of home owners who felt they were being coerced into
participating in collective sales. Articles on contentious en bloc
sales also continue to appear in local newspapers.

What accounts for the different outcomes for these two 'movements',
both carried out with passion and a great deal of Internet savvy?

Cynics may suggest that it takes an issue as deeply pragmatic and
quantifiable as home ownership to get Singaporeans to speak up with
fervour and demand policy changes - and get them. And while collective
sales have led to nasty disputes among neighbours, I would argue that
it's nowhere near as divisive as 377A is.

I spoke to Dr Minority, the author of (he
prefers to remain anonymous on record as he is concerned about the
impact his anti-enbloc views will have on his professional
advancement), a while back.

This blogger said he did not believe that the home owners against
collective sales qualified as activists, nor did he consider the issue
'a cause', even though for many home owners, the thing at stake is the
emotional rather than financial value of their homes.

'This is a largely middle-class problem, and this particular class may
make a lot of noise, but ultimately they hope the Government will fix
things. As for holding rallies, that's not likely,' he said.

'But bear in mind, three years ago, the extent of any kind of
resistance amounted to anonymous letters being distributed. Now people
have become more organised. There has been a slight progression.
People are prepared to voice their own opinions. That's quite important.'

Meanwhile, blogger Alex Au, a prominent local gay rights activist,
pointed out to me that just because the mainstream media hasn't done
much post-377A coverage doesn't mean that the issues brought up by
this debate have been swept under the carpet.

He has seen more schools inviting speakers like him to discuss these
issues, for instance. And the nature of the gay rights movement here,
which is, according to him, quite informally organised and responsive
to topical issues, is also effective in its own way. 'It's like a
multi-headed hydra because there are so many different people doing
different things. The chaos is part of the effectiveness.'

What these two examples illustrate is that participating in public
discourse in Singapore is no longer - if it ever was - a matter of
getting a permit to speak at a particular corner.

The very notion of what is considered a civil liberty is being
expanded. In the age of the Internet, discourse is very often virtual
and fragmented, but it is most definitely already present.

So, sure, relaxing the rules at Speakers' Corner is a great sign of
good faith by the Government. But, perhaps, the time for symbolic
gestures has already passed.