By Imelda Saad
SINGAPORE: Political observers and civil activists have welcomed the government’s move to ease rules governing the Speakers’ Corner.
The site will now be managed by Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks) instead of the Home Affairs Ministry and public outdoor demonstrations will be allowed there.
However, many activists also want the political openess to extend to other pockets around the island.
22-year-old Choo Zheng Xi was possibly one of the youngest Singaporeans, at age 14 then, to speak at the Speakers’ Corner when it opened eight years ago. He touched on topics such as public transport costs and the lack of an opposition voice in Parliament which he felt were relevant issues.
However, he has not spoken there since, preferring to take his discourse online.
Choo Zheng Xi, Editor, The Online Citizen, said: “What is the larger applicability of this openess? Will it forever be confined to a green patch here? Or will it be broadened throughout the country?
“I think unless you want to forever keep this as a symbol or as an excuse, you need to be genuine about liberalisation and apply it to the country as a whole.”
Some said it is all about visibility as some events cannot be confined to a specific area.
Zheng Xi, a final-year law student, cited the Myanmar Peace Awareness Day as an example. The event was organised by Singapore’s three universities in October last year.
The students had wanted to hold an outdoor candlelight vigil but their application was turned down by both the Office of Student Affairs and the Police.
Zheng Xi continued: “We would prefer to have some events at a venue that means something to us. So when we were organising the Myanmar Peace Awareness Day, it was a student effort and we wanted to hold it on campus. So to say that we could hold it here, I don’t think it makes much sense.”
NCMP Sylvia Lim, Chairman, The Worker’s Party, said: “Visibility is very important. People want to be seen and they want to be seen in a group to show that there is some weight in public opinion behind a certain measure or against a certain measure. So to confine people to the Speakers’ Corner might defeat the purpose.
“I think you might recall that some time back, Workers’ Party applied for a permit to hold a mass cycling event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the party. It was turned down and we were told to cycle in a stadium and I think that just defeats the purpose of such an activity. I think the question is – is this step too much of a baby step?”
Others want clarification on the Miscellaneous Public Offences Act which disallows illegal assemblies, and the Public Entertainments and Meetings Act, now that outdoor demonstrations will be allowed at the Speakers’ Corner.
In fact, Zheng Xi is already mulling over a gathering, on the public transport fare hike.
But will the new rules inject life back to this sleepy corner of Singapore?
Many people Channel NewsAsia spoke to seem to have already forgotten about the Speakers’ Corner.
One man said: “I see some people playing soccer here, for recreation. Other than that, I don’t really know what it’s for.”
Previous reports said about 400 people registered to speak at the Speakers’ Corner in its first year, but the numbers dwindled drastically to just 26 in 2006.
Details on the new regulations are expected next week. Singapore’s Home Affairs Ministry and NParks are expected to give details on the new regulations next week. – CNA/vm