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From Hong Lim Park to Speakers’ Corner – 15 years to be made?

By Howard Lee

So Speakers’ Corner turned 14 years old on 1 September, and the minor deluge of articles about it in both traditional and online media were generous in drawing some significance to the place that, by now, many activists have called home.

Of course, technically, Hong Lim Park itself, on which Speakers’ Corner shares the same locality, dates back much further than 14 years. Wikipedia gave this historical description:

“Created by Hokkien businessman and philanthropist Cheang Hong Lim in 1885, Hong Lim Park was the first public garden in Singapore. It was the venue for many election rallies and political speeches in the 1950s and 1960s.”

In that sense, Hong Lim Park as a political space deserves more than just the 14-year mention we see today. Instead, the attribution of honour has to be recognised in the appropriate context.

This is not to say that in the past 14 years, all that happened at the barely one-hectare piece of greenery at the heart of the city-state is little more than a pale comparison to its former political glory days. In fact, Hong Lim Park will be well remembered for some of the most significant events in Singapore’s modern history of activism.

Pink Dot would easily be counted as the most consistent, if not the most numerous, occupant of the park. Since 2009, the gathering of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has been an annual event that riled feathers outside of the green patch, inciting counters from religious communities this year.

And who could forget the protest against the Population White Paper, which saw 6,000 fill the park in a single event to register their unhappiness about a public policy matter. The event immediately sparked a race by mainstream media to downplay its significance, as it was seen as a direct challenge to the authoritative position of the current government.

And the protest I am most familiar with: The FreeMyInternet collective of bloggers who took to the field to denounce the amendments to the Broadcasting Act by the Media Development Authority. Few would imagine that an issue most believe to concern online media – or only official broadcast media, depending on whether you have been reading the right thing or not – would draw a crowd of 2,500, and lead to the eventual submission of a policy brief to Members of Parliament for debate.

I am, of course, hopelessly inadequate in history and biased in my view of what is important, and as such must also acknowledge the many events and protests that happened at Hong Lim Park which has meant something to their organisers, as each try to rally support for the issues they hold dear. They were all worthy causes, because they meant something to someone.

With that, I want to draw attention to the level of public discourse that has evolved from Speakers’ Corner since it was “institutionalised” by the government in 2000.

With the Population White Paper protest of 6,000, some have begun to see any number less than that to be insignificant as a social movement. That is not fair to either the many event organisers at the event, who are likely well aware of the attention they would receive for the issues they champion.

It is also a discredit to them when Singaporeans opine, usually online, that the level of media attention given to an event is an indication of its ability to resonate with Singaporeans.

Such views basically forget the reason why Hong Lim Park was plotted out as “Speakers’ Corner” to begin with, after its namesake in Hyde Park, London: As a place where people can voice their views for no other reason than the need to maintain free speech in the country.

In fact, such views would be deemed moot, if one were to go to Hyde Park in London and witness the actual practice. There is no media on most days, with the exception of the odd curious photographer. Londoners participate freely in the exchange of views, the “stage” is often a scattering of makeshift milk crates that speakers bring, and no one has dominion of views over another. There is no official voice or someone to dutifully listen to, and any can challenge the views of the speakers.

For sure, such a cacophony of voices does very little to advance social change in any way, but it offers the argument that Londoners have, in essence, what the late J.B. Jeyaretnam felt that Speakers’ Corner cannot possibly be: A representation of true freedom of speech, when the right to speak freely is not limited by an allocated space and a set of rules.

His views were shared, partly or in whole, by others such as activists Alex Au and Isrizal Mohamed Isa, who view the right for Singaporeans to speak openly about issues, anywhere they like, to be fundamental for all citizens.

As such, the 14th birthday of Speakers’ Corner, in considering the many events that have been held there since 2000, can be seen as progress, but also a lack.

It is lacking because, after all these years, Singaporeans have not pushed for the right of expression beyond the “OB Markers” of Hong Lim Park’s greens. Yes, the rules have been relaxed, but these have always been at the fancy of the authorities. In this sense, where have we progressed beyond Speakers’ Corner?

Next year will be the 15th anniversary of Speakers’ Corner – a nice round number, commensurate with the 50th birthday of the nation. We do not have much time to make the significant change that, in my personal view, is essential to make Hong Lim Park closer to something that is for the people, by the people.

For that reason, those who choose to use Hong Lim Park, as much as those who wish to cast valued judgement on its use, need to re-evaluate their views, or forever be trapped in the Speakers’ Corner as it was first mooted in 2000.

The first is the need to normalise free speech. Protests at Hong Lim Park should not be viewed as some freak show that either warrants media attention, or to be justifiably ignored by “sane” Singaporeans. It is a shared space for us to push the limits of discourse, no matter personal or societal, the numbers attending or the volume of the speakers.

The second is the extension of that space into other aspects of society. The continued use of Speakers’ Corner and Speakers’ Corner only, as the one key bastion of free speech in Singapore, will run us into a rut of perceptions.  Every other protest will be compared to the one before, and fatigue will eventually set in. What can we do outside of that green spot – lobby for government action, petition for change, submit policy papers, boycott companies, open dialogues, start discussion forums, do competitions, drive campaigns… – anything that means Hong Lim Park is only the beginning, not the finale, for any civil movement?

Can we, in the next year, do credit to the political legacy of Hong Lim Park, in the years before it was Speakers’ Corner?