ST: Sleepy, oops Speakers' Corner (Aug 29)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Aug 29, 2008
Sleepy, oops, Speakers' Corner
It's now up to citizens to respond to the chance given by Government
By Chua Mui Hoong
SO SPEAKERS' Corner is set to become Demo Corner.

At least, if activists and citizens make use of the space.

The Government's move this month to allow outdoor demonstrations at
Speakers' Corner without the need to get a prior permit, has drawn
mixed reactions.

The 'half-full' camp hail the move as the latest in a series of small
steps of political liberalisation taken by the politically risk-averse
People's Action Party Government.

Other recent moves along this line include the 2000 decision to
designate Hong Lim Park as a venue where public speeches can be made
without a permit. Then there was the decision to allow indoor events
to proceed without a permit in 2004.

The 'half-empty' camp say the change is too little, too late, and is
in fact an insult to the spirit of the Constitution which guarantees
free speech.

Some in this camp say the latest move confines activists' zeal and
cramps their style by limiting protests to one venue.

People are of course entitled to their view of the issue. But it would
be a real pity if those in the 'half-empty' camp chose to disdain the
relaxation of rules, and never make use of the extra space - both
physical and political - given by the state.

In the end, whether Speakers' Corner remains a Sleepy Corner as it is
now - or whether it becomes a Sparkling Corner where sparks fly -
depends entirely on activists and citizens.

In the eight years since Hong Lim Park in the Chinatown area was
designated Speakers' Corner, little has changed in the area on the

The first year of its operation did see some public and media
interest. When it was launched in September 2000, 25 people registered
to speak. In the first year, one man, Mr Tan Kim Chuang, spoke 88 times.

The early years saw some testing of the rules and innovative use of
the space.

A group wanted to organise a run to mark International Human Rights
Day in December 2000 but this was turned down. In the end, local
activist group Think Centre and the Open Singapore Centre held a
protest to mark the day, chanting slogans and displaying banners
calling for an abolition of the Internal Security Act. This was deemed
an 'illegal assembly' and the organisers questioned, but let off with
a warning.

The venue was also used for a book launch and an advertising campaign
for a magazine, among other things.

Again applying the half-full or half-empty test, it is tempting to say
that Speakers' Corner has had little impact. Fiery speeches are few.
Most days, Hong Lim Park remains the haunt of the birds and elderly
folk who congregate there, especially on weekend evenings when the
outdoor stage of the Kreta Ayer Hong Lim Community Club in the park is
used for Chinese opera shows.

In fact, the impact of Speakers' Corner lies precisely in its

Eight years on, it has been established clearly that allowing free
speech, unpoliced, in one venue did not cause riots either in Hong Lim
Park or anywhere else in Singapore.

In the give-and-take tussle between the state and citizens, activists
learnt to use the space without disruption while the state -
especially the folk at the neighbourhood police post in the park -
learnt that relaxing free speech rules does not invite chaos if
citizens are responsible.

The most interesting and little-remarked aspect about the change, is
the decision to put the administration of the corner under the purview
of the National Parks Board (NParks), not the Singapore Police Force.

Hong Lim Park after all is one of the chains of parks under NParks and
came under the police only because of law and order concerns over
Speakers' Corner.

Moving it back to NParks' charge hints at the comfort level of the
police with citizens' ability to organise themselves peacefully. It is
a calculated risk for law enforcers - one they are prepared to take
only because of the eight years of calm at Speakers' Corner.

With the decision to allow protests at Speakers' Corner, the state has
thrown down the gauntlet to citizens, especially activists clamouring
for the right to hold demonstrations and protests.

We can debate whether the move was a rearguard or vanguard measure -
whether it is too little, too late, or whether it is in fact an astute
move to satisfy the vocal minority, ahead of the comfort level of the
silent majority of citizens.

What is more critical is how the space is used, and whether citizens
test the ground there.

For a start, will activists make use of the space for protests? Some
including Think Centre's Sinapan Samydorai have said they will.

Second, will citizens turn out in force to support these demonstrations?

Third, how will they conduct themselves? And fourth, how will
enforcement agencies respond to mass demonstration turnouts which may
be peaceful but provocative?

Unless these are tested on the ground, via actual demonstrations, the
rules will never be spelt out.

I am confident demonstrations will be organised and that Singaporeans
will support these, at least in the initial months. The momentum can
be sustained if activists seize the imagination of the public.

As for the state, the rhetoric so far from NParks suggests the
Government is more concerned about the state of the shrubbery than
with law and order concerns.

This remains to be seen.

Will police stand idly by if large crowds turn out to demonstrate
against rising costs or the Electronic Road Pricing hikes? What if a
fledgling Gay Pride March comes up against a rival protest organised
by Christians who are against homosexual activity?

Only with experimentation can activist groups and the state come to an
understanding of just where the limits of peaceable protest are in

Whether peaceful protests will take place in Orchard Road one day,
depends entirely on how citizens and enforcement officers square off
in Speakers' Corner in the years ahead.