Ban on outdoor demos eased at Speakers Corner

Posted by Sue-Ann Chia under Human Rights Watch on 22 November 2008

Singapore's political liberalisation takes a small step forward with outdoor demonstrations being permitted at Speakers' Corner [1 September 2008].

Groups can gather at Speakers' Corner, but race and religion are out

SINGAPORE'S political liberalisation takes a small step forward with outdoor demonstrations being permitted at Speakers' Corner from Monday.

Its evolution into a protest park comes eight years after the site at Hong Lim was first designated a national soapbox.

Releasing details yesterday, officers from the Police and the National Parks Board (NParks) held out the promise of less regulation and monitoring.

For a start, NParks will take over the administration of the venue from the Police. Demonstrators need not pre-apply at the Kreta Ayer Police Post as is the case now for speakers. They need only to register online at the NParks website, similar to applying for barbecue pits in public parks. This can be done from Saturday.

While they need to state the topic of their demonstration, NParks chief operating officer Leong Chee Chiew gave the assurance that there would be no prior screening. 'We are not going to go through and screen...what you say and want to speak on,' he said.

The liberalisation however comes with caveats: Race and religion issues are out of bounds, as are lewd or violent visuals.

Foreigners will be barred from organising or participating in protests, unless they have obtained a permit from the police in advance. They can however be passive spectators.

The current rule limiting activities at the park from 7am to 7pm will be lifted; demonstrations can be held round the clock. Loudhailers, however, will be allowed only from 9am to 10.30pm.

There will be no limit on the number of demonstrations on any one day, as long as they are contained within the park which can hold between 3,000 and 4,000 people.

This means two opposing groups could face off at the park. 'People will need to learn to co-exist,' said Dr Leong. 'If the authorities need to decide, it defeats the purpose of having a more open system.'

Can demonstrators burn effigies of political leaders? His reply: 'We are not pre-judging anything. Just please, in burning the effigies, don't burn down our trees and shrubs.'

The Police will patrol the park in the same way they do any other area, but will take a hands-off approach.

'There will be no conscious monitoring,' said Mr Wong Hong Kuan, the Police Force's director of operations. It will investigate only if it receives public complaints.

He said that since Speakers' Corner was set up in 2000, there have been no major law and order issues there.

So far, there have been 2,144 registrations and 508 occasions of people speaking.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first broke the news of the impending relaxation in his National Day Rally address two Sundays ago.

Yesterday, reactions to the news ranged from a lackadaisical 'It's no big deal' to doubt that Singaporeans were ready for demonstrations, even in a controlled environment.

'Maybe we need to go through a course, Public Demonstration 101,' said Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the maid welfare advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home).

Think Centre president Sinapan Samydorai said: 'It's good to see Singapore opening up, even if people will remain sceptical about what they see as small changes.'

What changes, what doesn't


- Online registration at NParks website, as opposed to pre-application at police post

- 24 hours, as opposed to 7am to 7pm previously

- Banners and placards allowed

- Hand-held loudhailers allowed between 9am and 10.30pm

- Permanent residents can participate


- No race or religion issues

- No violent or lewd visuals

- Only the four official languages and related dialects allowed

- Foreigners must apply for permits from the Police

More freedom, more speeches?

The Government yesterday disclosed rules on public demonstrations at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park and promised it will be managed with a lighter touch. Analysts and activists react


'All said and done, life in Singapore is not so bad that you need to take to the streets and protest. What is likely to happen is a possible spike in activity initially but it will dwindle later. The fact that you zone it in a certain area will have an impact: People might feel that their concerns are trivialised, they become more an entertainment and a comic spectacle.'

Political analyst Terence Chong from the Institute of SouthEast Asian Studies


'I'm glad that they (the Government) have put their money where their mouth is. But I wish to see public demonstrations extended to the rest of Singapore. If nothing bad happens in the next two or three years, they should start expanding it, incrementally, to the whole country.'

Activist Choo Zheng Xi, who runs the The Online Citizen blog


'Four years ago, the Government allowed indoor meetings without permits. So we took advantage of that and conducted indoor meetings. Now, they are allowing public demonstration at Speakers' Corner, and we plan to use it as well. We'll probably do something in December in conjunction with Human Rights Day.'

Mr Sinapan Samydorai, president of Think Centre


'I was surprised when I heard the news. But it did give me the idea that we could hold a public demonstration as part of our campaign for maids to get a day off. Will people use the space? It is not an issue of whether we have permission to protest, but whether we are used to expressing ourselves publicly. Maybe we need to go through a course, Public Demonstration 101, to learn to do so.'

Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home)


'It's no big deal. It is actually enshrined in our Constitution, the freedom of speech and expression. So it should have been there in the first place.'

Mr Yaw Shin Leong, organising secretary of the Workers' Party


'The position of the Council has always been one of neutrality. We don't think picketing is the way to go. We would rather have dialogues with stakeholders and engage the public rather than have vocal demonstrations.'

Mr Yatin Premchand, general manager of the Singapore Environment Council


'The liberalisation to allow public demonstrations but confined to Speakers' Corner is not meaningful. The details on the new rules are just icing on the cake. I do not intend to dignify the tokenism. Why should we be shunted to Speakers' Corner? As citizens, we will do what we want, where we want. There are no excuses to shunt us into a quarantine.'

Gay rights activist Alex Au

Sources and Relevant Links:

The Straits Times Ban on outdoor demos eased 26 August 2008 Speakers Corner, Singapore by Sue-Ann Chia, Political Correspondent

Show some love,

Back to Previous Page