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SEPTEMBER 15, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 36 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek.

Seen and Heard
It's not Hyde Park, but Speakers' Corner gives Singapore's people greater voice
By TODD CROWELL and JACINTHA STEPHENS Singapore

The old men who gather every day in Hong Lim Park for morning tai-chi exercises had something new for their amusement. As the sun rose on Friday, Sept. 1, one Ong Chin Guan, who drives a bus for a living, walked out into the park, plunked a wooden drawer down on the grass, climbed on it and began to talk. His subject: the declining birthrate. Ong, 38, garnered a few moments of fame by becoming one of the first people to speak in Singapore's new, officially sanctioned "Speakers' Corner."

Welcome to free speech Singapore-style. Here in this corner of the city's largest downtown park, in imitation of the famous Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, any citizen can speak on any subject that pops into his or her head. Well, almost anything. Speeches that incite racial or religious division are prohibited, and the republic's stringent slander laws apply, not to mention the Sedition Act, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act and the Penal Code.

Otherwise, anyone wanting to talk fills out a form at the nearby Kreta Ayer Police Post (their names stay on file for five years) and shows proof of citizenship. (The authorities don't want the corner turned into a venue "for foreigners to pursue their own agenda," to quote Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng.) But the police don't need to be told the subject beforehand, and no uniformed officers were seen in the crowd. The Speakers' Corner is part of the effort by the government to loosen up, as it pursues its aim to plug Singapore into the wide-open global economy. "This is an important symbol," says lawyer Kevin Tan of NGO discussion group Roundtable. "It signifies the coming of age of Singaporean civil society."

Hong Lim Park was once the scene of some of the more incendiary speeches in Singapore's early history as a self-governing nation. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, politicians used to haul in people by the busload to attend mass rallies featuring fiery orators like former PM Lee Kuan Yew. Now the speeches are tamer, ranging from the high cost of medical care to more high-minded subjects such as "independence of the mind." Said one speaker: "I want world peace, and let it start here." But more provocative issues were also explored, including what has become one of the island state's hottest topics: the recent pay raise for government ministers that has even junior cabinet members making nearly $600,000 a year. "What do you mean good pay for ministers," heckled one listener. "It's ridiculous pay. Nowhere else in the world is it so high."

Despite the uncontroversial nature of most subjects, speaker James Gomez of NGO Think Center reckons that many Singaporeans are still fearful of reprisal if they are too outspoken. "Singaporeans think, 'they may not get you now but they can get you later,' " says Gomez. When he offered to take questions from the audience, there was silence. "What kind of Speakers' Corner is this?" Gomez baited them. "Are we allowed to ask questions?" a soft female voice finally, meekly responded. Opposition figure Chee Soon Juan showed up but did not speak. Last year Chee was jailed twice for speaking in public without getting a permit. He said: "This is an illusion of freedom of speech."

Most people found the action around Speakers' Corner, if not totally enlightening, at least entertaining. "It's a good start, but I'd like to see how far people will push the boundaries," says a 30-year-old healthcare professional. There is also the question of whether public interest will be sustained. While 25 people registered for the first day, the number dipped somewhat in subsequent days.

In the end, opening day had a kind of carnival atmosphere about it. One man sat motionless with a handkerchief covering his mouth and a cardboard stuck on his headband with "peace" written on it. An elderly man advocated free holidays in Hawaii as an incentive to persuade couples to have more children, while another person earnestly explained how the solar system is moving and posing a threat to the earth. Complained one onlooker: "This thing isn't organized at all." Spoken in the spirit of a true Singaporean.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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