TodayOnline: Softly spoken at the Corner (Sept 2 2008)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Softly spoken at the Corner

Tuesday • September 2, 2008

Tan Hui Leng

THUS was a milestone in free expression marked: A lone businessman putting up posters to draw attention to failed overseas investments, and a group staging an express demonstration on the plight of abused maids.

But if such fledgling efforts at public demonstrations were disappointing to some who turned up expecting far more fire, at least, it was not the no-show that had been expected originally.

At about 9am yesterday — the first day that rules were relaxed at Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park — 52-year-old businessman Teng Liang Huat registered to put up an exhibition that afternoon.

And at the last minute, non-profit group Hearers of Cries, which had earlier registered its evening event as a speech, decided to change this into a demonstration instead, complete with banners.

Much fanfare had led up to the liberalisation of rules: A police permit was no longer needed to speak at the park, visual aids were allowed as were sound amplifiers. Scenarios such as the burning of political effigies or a gay pride parade had seemed real possibilities, with authorities not objecting when these were suggested to them.

So it was that many, like retiree Roger Poh, 61, dropped by in keen anticipation yesterday evening, to see what would take place.

Mr Poh, who came all the way from Jalan Kayu, felt short-changed by the 22-minute ‘demonstration’ from Hearer of Cries – it began with founder Mike Goh appealing for whistle-blowers on maid abuses, after which a volunteer dressed up as an abused maid (complete with paint-on bruises and neck brace) appealed for help.

The speeches lasted less than three minutes in all.

“I’m very disappointed, I expected more,” Mr Poh told TODAY. “I was hoping for demonstrations at the last minute on more controversial topics such as ERP, ministerial salaries and cost of living. This (maid abuse) issue is innocuous. It’s an anti-climax.”

Alan Tan bemoaned the turnout of about 30 to 40 persons. “I though all of Singapore knew, why are they not here?” asked the 50-year-old teacher. “It’s Teacher’s Day today – we should see more students and teachers. Are they scared or are they just not interested?”

And where was the opposition, or other local activists, some wondered.

As Mr Poh said: “It’s the first day and all the media is here; it’s the perfect opportunity to be heard.”

SUBHD: ‘Hopefully someone can help me’

Some expressed pessimism over whether interest in Hong Lim Park could be sustained.

One or two in the crowd were heard mumbling that it would likely “die a natural death” – the same way that Speaker’s Corner had opened on Sept 1, 2000 with a bang that quickly sizzled out, some said largely due to its out-of-the-way location.

Architect Foo Siew Mun, for one, believes that the Internet is now the focal point as a new-age discussion forum and real live demonstrations have become less effective in pushing causes.

But for individuals like Mr Teng – who literally put his name in the record books when he registered to put up posters yesterday – it was a way to vent his frustrations.

Between 1pm and 5pm, he put up hundreds of notices in Chinese typeface, expounding on Singapore businessmen’s misadventures overseas and the bureaucratic red-tape faced. He had apparently run into legal issues when investing in a property overseas.

“I’m using this as a platform to voice my concerns about issues and hopefully, somebody can help me out,” said Mr Teng, who had learnt about the looser rules at Speakers’ Corner only the day before.

He was approached by members of the media, curious tourists and other passers-by, like law student Kerushnan who had dropped by with friends to see if there was “any action”.

Mr Kerushnan, 38, was upbeat about the opportunity for the man in the street to voice his opinions and concerns. Unfortunately, the second event of the day ended too early for the student who had classes in the evening – Hearer of Cries had registered for their demonstration to end at 9pm, but started packing up before 7.25pm.

The seven-member group, which set up a website in 2002, encourages the public to report maid abuse and offers vouchers as rewards. Founder Mr Goh appeared a tad overwhelmed by the keen media attention and declined to elaborate much on the organisation, refering reporters instead to its website.

“Everyone of us here can play apart to prevent maid abuse,” he said, and yesterday’s demonstration was a small start – the group intends to use Speakers’ Corner as a regular platform to spread its message.

After all, as architect Mr Foo put it succintly: “It’s a start.”

And a soft one at that.