Restrained speech

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2003, 12:00am

Speakers' Corner has just celebrated its third birthday, but the fact that it still exists does not really say much about the state of free speech in Singapore.

Loosely modelled on its namesake in London's Hyde Park and tucked away in a forgotten little park near the central business district's skyscrapers, the soapbox venue to air views can hardly qualify as a success.

Hong Lim Park was chosen as a symbol - it used to be a political battleground in the late 1950s.

But nowadays, it only attracts a handful of regular speakers with a meagre crowd of less than 20 on weekdays, and it has certainly not stuck in the collective mind as a place to express one's opinion.

Indeed, according to a police spokesman, the number of speakers who registered has nearly halved, falling from 365 in the 12 months to August last year, to 177 for the 12 months to this August.

Speakers' Corner is saddled with restrictions: loudspeakers are outlawed, 'opening time' is confined to the hot daytimes (7am to 7pm), only Singaporeans are allowed to speak and they must avoid offensive topics (like race or religion) that could incite violence.

While the last restraint is understandable, given the multiracial nature of the society, the fact that you first need to register your name with the police is probably the main reason why Speakers' Corner has not taken off.

All this has prompted observers to call the corner a 'cosmetic free-speech space'.

But it would be wrong to think that Singaporeans are not voicing their opinions. Dissenting views on a wide variety of subjects are regularly raised in newspaper columns (within certain limits) and these have been distinctively punchier of late.

And Singaporeans are not afraid to express their opinions in the letters pages of the dailies, even though they have to give their name.

But in a society still unsure about what it can openly discuss, with constant reference to 'OB' markers (out-of-bounds, for the uninitiated), having your name registered in advance with the police, even at the last minute, may equate to being 'tagged' a troublemaker. As long as this restriction remains, Speakers' Corner is unlikely to spark fireworks.