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Speakers' Corner, 14 years on

The number of applications to use the venue for events like speeches and demonstrations has been on the rise since 2011 – a sign that Singapore is moving towards a more active and outspoken citizenry, academics say.

SINGAPORE: Monday (Sep 1) marked 14 years since the Speakers' Corner was set up at Hong Lim Park, giving Singaporeans a public space to speak on any issue without needing a licence or permit.

Established in 2000, the Speakers' Corner was modelled after a similar corner in London's Hyde Park. One reason why Hong Lim Park was chosen over others was its proximity to the business district and Chinatown.

Those who were there remember the buzz when the Speakers' Corner first opened 14 years ago, like 60-year-old Tan Buck Cher, who runs Yee Hiang Tea Merchant shop opposite Hong Lim Park.

Mr Tan said: "I am just opposite, and once in a while would go over to take a look during lunch time. In the beginning, there'd be more people. I'm not sure if they were curious, or just wanted to have a listen."

One man who is no stranger to the Speakers' Corner is lawyer and activist Choo Zheng Xi. In 2000, he became the youngest person to give a speech at the Corner at the age of 15.

Mr Choo, who is also the founder of The Online Citizen, said discussions held at the area then were a mixed bag of opinions and pet peeves. "In the early days, the discussions were very unfocused and ad-hoc. You had a lot of individuals coming here to make a lot of strange speeches about their pet peeves.

"But these days, the events that you see at the Speakers' Corner are very organised, very sophisticated. The Speakers' Corner has reflected a greater openness in society and a greater willingness of people to speak out on issues they care about. So you see the Speakers' Corner being used to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, social issues,
cost of living issues, transport, population, CPF. And you see it also being used for human rights issues and civil liberties issues, such as Gaza and human rights for Burma. So you see a whole range of issues, using the Speakers' Corner as a platform to get the message across."

There are rules that speakers have to abide by. For example, they cannot touch on religious matters or cause hostility between racial or religious groups in Singapore.

But the Government has been slowly easing the rules. In 2008, for example, it allowed Singaporeans to organise demonstrations without a permit. That was also the year that the police handed over the management of the space to NParks.

GROWING DESIRE FOR VIEWS TO BE HEARD

Interest in the Speakers' Corner has picked up recently, according to NParks, which said the number of applications to use the space fell between 2009 and 2011. But the government statutory board received 169 applications last year – almost double the 2011 low of 85 requests.

A total of 89 applications have already been submitted between January and July this year. Crowds have also grown, as seen at the protests against the Population White Paper last year, and those against the Central Provident Fund system this year.

Several academics attributed this to a growing desire among Singaporeans to get their views heard.

One of them is Dr Kirpal Singh, Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre at the Singapore Management University. "In the old days – 14 years ago, even up to about four, five years ago – the myth was that if you said something that was a bit out of turn, or that the authorities didn't like, you'd be caught, arrested, lose your job, end up in prison, all kinds of things.

"Now I think that myth has 'exploded' because of all the blogging and Facebook notes that go on, and the tweeting that's around. All of these is convincing people that it's OK to make noise. People today are bolder, they're also better educated and they're more willing to engage on national issues and causes that are important to them."

The Pink Dot gathering, held annually since 2009, is another notable event at the Speakers' Corner. Organisers of the pro-LGBT gathering have relied on social media to promote their movement, but they stressed that a physical gathering is necessary.

Mr Paerin Choa, spokesperson for Pink Dot SG, explained: "People go online to express their views and opinions, but a physical gathering is more tangible. It allows young people to bring their parents – who may not have access to social media – to come down to experience and to understand. It creates more awareness in terms of society. We've seen more dialogue happening for LGBT issues."

"LEGITIMISES ALTERNATIVE VIEWS"

Sociologist Paulin Straughan, an associate professor with the National University of Singapore, said the Speakers' Corner legitimises alternative views. "The problem with social media is it's anonymous, a lot of times we don't know who is speaking ... and whether or not it's a legitimate concern voiced by a Singaporean, or a mischief maker. So having a platform like the Speakers' Corner brings real people together. You cannot dismiss it as just noise on the internet when you see real, ordinary Singaporeans gathering together to either show support or voice concerns."

Going forward, Assoc Prof Straughan said she hoped to see the Speakers' Corner used for a wider purpose to allow greater discussion. Singaporeans also need to learn to air their views in a constructive and coherent manner.

"We are moving towards becoming a more 'noisy' nation and that's good. But the next step for us is to learn how to speak in a constructive manner because you don't want the speech to destabilise society and cause rifts in the population, or to polarise Singaporeans because we are, after all, one nation," she said.

"The presence of Speakers' Corner and other avenues for Singaporeans to voice their concerns are all very important because collectively, they give Singaporeans an opportunity to learn how to present their alternative viewpoints and their ideas in a constructive manner that will make it easy for lawmakers to translate into laws, regulations and tweaks to policies."

Singaporeans should not simply use the Speakers' Corner as an outlet for venting their anger, she added. "We shouldn't just be going down to the Speakers' Corner when we're angry and we're not happy about things. We should be going down to the Speakers' Corner in general, just because we want to have a conversation, to join in like-minded gatherings. It doesn't have to be always about protesting something. It could be about affirming something. That's the part we don't do as much. That's why the silent majority must be awakened so that their voices can be heard."

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