Welcome Move Towards Making a More Open Society

Posted by Sinapan Samydorai under Breaking News on 24 August 2004

Think Centre welcomes the "procedural changes" announced by PM Lee towards making a more open society. Its a concrete step and in the right direction. But not a leap forward towards more democracy and freedoms.

Singaporeans are allowed to perform and exhibit at the Speakers' Corner without having to apply for a license. Moreover, indoor seminars and meetings no longer require the PELU issued permit. It will surely remove the "red-tape" paper work and anxiety waiting for the approval and permit from PELU. Its a concrete step and in the right direction. But not a leap forward towards more democracy and freedoms. Permits are still required to hold public exhibitions, and outdoor speeches, beyond the Speakers Corner. There should be more freedoms beyond the Speakers Corner and indoor conferences.

PM LEE joked "Once in a while the Think Centre says they want to go to the Speakers' Corner and they want to plant 100 flowers and let the flowers bloom, I say go ahead. They want to water the flowers - go ahead. They want to turn the flowers down - go ahead. Free expression, so long as you don't get into race and religion and don't start a riot. It's a signal, speak, speak your voice, be heard, take responsibility for your views." Its an indication, he is willing to ease restrictions on our freedom of expression.

Sinapan Samydorai, President, Think Centre, said "There will be skeptics. People will say is it going to be an entrapment if you go there and speak, perform, will they charge you? People are worried...where do they stand? Where is the OB markers? What would the government do with them if they go beyond the OB marker? But yet again we should have the confidence and take any space that is offered and make recommendations if you want. That should be the way to work, within the law and ask for policy changes."


There are subtle policies, legislation and procedures, which continue to restrict the work of civil society organizations. We need more substantive policy changes and legal amendments to create space for a vibrant political society and overcome democratic deficits. Both Civil society and the government should encourage and promote the value of freedom of expression, association, assembly and the importance of dissent. Civil society organizations [CSO] are partners of the government to promote freedom from fear and freedom from want - peace, justice and development. The most difficult barriers are what we build inside our minds against unpleasant realities and immovable problems. We could only overcome these barriers through wider public education.

The Public Entertainments and Meetings Act 1959 could be used to detain and charge those who speak or assemble in public without license. Police permit is required for all assemblies of five or more people. Participation in peaceful assembly [without the required license] can result in charges of illegal assembly or public entertainment without license.

Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, association and assembly. The Speakers' Corner launched in September 2000 to allow space for expression of opinion is a positive signal in a state well known for its strict controls on political speech and regulated media. At the speakers corner Singapore citizens could speak without having to apply for Public Entertainment License but they may face defamation charges for libel. Demonstrations or marches are not permitted at the avenue no displaying of placards or slogan shouting without permits. Thus few speakers venture to speak at the corner and much less crowd is attracted.

They fear of being charged for defamation, losing their homes and savings to pay for the substantial damages awarded against them, and face bankruptcy. In 1997, Amnesty International reported that the Singapore government has used civil defamation suits against political opponents in a manner that violates their right to freely hold and peacefully express their convictions, and which prevents them from acting in public life.

In December 2000, Think Centre and the Open Singapore Centre had organised a peaceful gathering at the speakers corner to mark international human rights day. In 2001, two activists from Think Centre and Open Singapore Centre were questioned by police regarding the gathering. The speakers had highlighted the need to abolish the ISA and called for more basic freedoms. There could be no real freedom of speech without reform of restrictive laws such as the ISA, which allows for indefinite detention without trial.


The intimidation felt by Civil Society leaders results in them abstaining from activities for the promotion and protection of human rights. For example, activists fear surveillance by the authorities, phone lines being tapped and their internet accounts being monitored. If arrested their homes will be searched. They may suffer attacks from the pro-government media.

This atmosphere of fear does not encourage or motivate many concerned citizens to even dare to think of political participation. Some had hoped the Singapore 21 and the Remaking Singapore consultations to address this conflict and confusion regarding the participation of the citizens in civil society. But that is not the case, thus political participation is lacking due to fear.

In this political climate, Think Centre prefers a multi-partisan approach to serve the people and create a politically vibrant society. The multi-partisan approach has the potential to greater freedom of expression and welcomes participation from all regardless of their political background for the well being of the people. The idea of the multi-partisan approach is to serve the gradual entrenchment of human rights, pluralism and democracy. We are trying a process where political parties and organization would work for the good of the public instead of their narrow partisan or organizational interest.

Think Centre believes the government under the leadership of PM Lee will initiate substantive and concrete changes for more democracy and freedoms:

1. Remove old and outdated OB markers, policies, laws and restrictions on public speech, assembly, and if posible abolish the ISA. If the ISA is to continue to exist, it should only be applied under a state of emergency and approved by the parliament.

2. Fulfill its responsibilities to ensure that workers have a decent and just living wage and sufficient time for meaningful participation. The government bears the primary responsibility to ensure the participation of the unemployed. The government must put people at the centre of everything it does. The workers' are not mere digits of economic growth. They are human beings with dignity.

3. Respect and promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR]. It is crucial to the protection of defenders that all citizens are capable of defending their own rights, thus human rights education be initiated. For example, all government departments should display the text of the UDHR, in all the relevant languages, in their offices and on their Internet sites, and to print the UDHR for public distribution.

4. Public education through media of the UDHR, Convention on Childs Right [CRC}, Covention on the Elimination of Decrimination Against Women [CEDAW], and labour rights standard; initiate trainings on human rights standards to civil servants, law enforcement and judicial officials.

5. Implement compulsory school education on human rights starting with the UDHR, Convention on Childs Right [CRC}, Covention on the Elimination of Decrimination Against Women [CEDAW], and labour rights standard that are fundamental to live with dignity in a globalized world.

PM Lee's government should understand that material well-being to the individual is only a basic precondition in the search for security, freedom, cultural and self-expression. The promotion of human rights is not the same as encouraging confrontations or disruption. It is about protecting individual rights, representing their collective interest, in a unequal and unfair position, to seek remedies, for example, from discrimination and abuses.

23 August 2004

Sources and Relevant Links:

JGNews Playing Politics with Civil society

ChannelNewsAsia Singaporeans welcome PM Lee's move to ease rules on public expression 23 August 2004

The Straits Times: No licence needed for indoor talks 23 AUG 2004

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