“Even in the cyberage, some things don’t change”

Look out for TOC’s National Day special from August 1st. Our writers share their personal take on each sentence of the National Pledge.

Andrew Loh

We will manage it [Speakers’ Corner] with a light touch. So I think there’s no need for the police to get involved.” (Straits Times)

That was what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long said in August 2008 when he announced the relaxation of the rules for public demonstrations at Speakers’ Corner. The new rules came into effect on 1st September 2008. Singaporeans who wanted to hold public demonstrations at the park no longer had to apply for a police permit to do so.

We will hand this over. Mah Bow Tan has agreed, NParks (National Parks Board) will take over,” the Prime Minister explained during his National Day Rally speech. “And NParks, you know their green fingers, everything will grow nicely, it will be well in hand.”

When Speakers’ Corner was first created in September 2000, Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng gave a similar assurance, saying that the Internal Security Department “has a lot of better things to do” than monitor the movements of the speakers. He was responding to opposition politician Mr JB Jeyaretnam’s concerns that Singaporeans were required to provide personal details when registering to speak at Hong Lim Park. (Singapore Window)

With such assurances by the Prime Minister and the Home Affairs Minister, one must wonder why there are now five closed-circuit televisions (CCTV) at Hong Lim Park. Coming on the heels of the recent spate of new rules such as the amendments to the Films Act and the introduction of a new Public Order Act, Singaporeans are wondering if political space is being curbed, instead of being opened up, which was what the Prime Minister had promised.

When I visited Speakers’ Corner on Friday, 24 July, there were three cameras mounted along the perimeter of the field – one just outside the entrance to Clark Quay MRT station, a second near the Kreta Ayer Police Station and the third just in front of the stage. All three face the open field.

A fourth one is located near the car park and the fifth mounted on the external wall of the police station, facing the park.

Why is there a need to have five security cameras at a relatively small area?

To find out the reasons, I visited the Kreta Ayer police station, which is located beside the park. The officer there told me he knows nothing about the cameras, except the one mounted on the police station building. I asked him who monitors the cameras. He said the park is under the charge of the National Parks Board (Nparks) and gave me a number to call them. So I did.

I was told that the cameras were installed by the police and that my query has been passed to the relevant department of the police force. (We will update this article when we receive a reply from the police.)

In reply to queries by the Today newspaper, the police say the cameras are for “safety and security” reasons. “CCTVs are used to complement police presence on the ground and to project a greater sense of security,” the police statement to Today said. (Today)

A few questions naturally arise.

One, have there been complaints from the public that Hong Lim Park is unsafe? How many complaints, if any, have there been so far? More importantly, what is the crime rate at the park to warrant five cameras to be installed? In April 2009, Member of Parliament Ms Irene Ng said, “We have been fairly successful with our experiment at Speakers’ Corner. The protests there have been peaceful thus far.” She was so impressed by the peaceful events that she called for street processions to be allowed as well. “We should take that experiment further and allow certain streets which lead up to the Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park to be designated safe for processions,” she said. (MFA)

So clearly, the police’s reasons for installing the CCTVs – “safety and security” – are at best dubious ones. Surely, the crime rate there could not have suddenly spiraled since April, which is just three months ago, when Ms Ng made her remarks. Besides, Hong Lim Park has also been rather quiet the last three months. So, the police’s fear of “safety and security” does not stand either. In any case, isn’t it strange that the police officers at the Kreta Ayer police station, which is virtually within the park itself, do not even know about the CCTVs?

Two, the police’s statement is interesting to note. It said, “CCTVs are used to complement police presence on the ground and to project a greater sense of security.” Notice that the police does not say the cameras are to provide a greater sense of security but only to “project” it. Put another way, the cameras are for deterrence.

The question is: Who are the police trying to deter? There is no evidence of any significant presence of crime at the park. So, criminals cannot be the target. Are the cameras suppose to deter activists, as some have suggested? Yet, why would the police want to do this? Isn’t Speakers’ Corner supposed to be a free space where demonstrations are even allowed now?

Three, does not the police feel that the presence of the cameras would instead be contradicting the promises of the Prime Minister, who said that “there is no need for the police to get involved”?

Perhaps the government did not expect huge crowds to turn up for events at Speakers’ Corner and thus was caught by surprise. Hence, this back-peddling and the presence of the five cameras. Crowds as large as 1,000 people turned up to protest their predicament during the structured products saga last year. More recently, 700 people showed up for the Pink Dot event, organized by the gay community in Singapore. By local standards, these crowds are huge.

Perhaps the government should not be alarmed that more Singaporeans are now willing to participate in such events. They should be encouraged and not curtailed – or seen to be curtailed. This has been what our ministers have been urging Singaporeans to do – to get involved, to speak up, and so on. The PM even called on Singaporeans to “mobilize” themselves.

Indeed, our former Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, said:

Singapore’s political and social climate needs to give space for more ventilation and variation.

Diversity will affect how the people and the Government relate. If Singapore is to become a place where people can fulfill their aspirations, where they can explore many different things, it will no longer make sense for the Government to always control and regulate every activity.” (TOC)

Fimmaker Mr Martyn See sees the presence of the CCTVs as further proof that political space in Singapore is being further constrained. “There is a chronic, deep-seated political climate of fear in Singapore. The Government will pretend it doesn’t exist but they know it does. And this explains the installation of CCTVs in Hong Lim Park, the introduction of the Public Order Act and the new restrictions to the Films Act. These measures are not there to deter a handful of already-determined activists,” Mr See said, “but they are calculated to further instill fear in the general public. “

“Lee Hsien Loong’s government is not freeing up political space. They are calibrating it so that they [can] better manage it,” he added.

While the security cameras may deter ordinary Singaporeans, activist Mr Seelan Palay says he will continue to use the park to express himself. “The cameras being installed at Hong Lim Park only go to show that ‘liberalization’ of political space is something that the PAP government only pays lip service to,” he said. “But their fear tactics will not deter me from being there to support various causes because in my heart I know I am on the side of justice and truth.”

Former Nominated Member of Parliament, Mr Siew Kum Hong, called the presence of the cameras “ridiculous”.

In his National Day Rally speech last year, the Prime Minister said the following:

“We’ve got to think through our own problems ourselves, find the right path for Singapore. Crossing a river by feeling for the stones, step by step, as Deng Xiaoping said. But please remember, even in the cyberage, some things don’t change.”

Indeed, it seems they don’t.


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