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Uncornering Speakers: On Political Speech in Singapore

Ong Chin Guan standing on a drawer in Speakers’ Corner. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Uncornering Speakers: On Political Speech in Singapore

Sometime after its designation in 2000, the Speakers’ Corner—the only state-authorized space in Singapore where public speech is allowed without permit—was criticized for being purely a gesture. Prominent activists, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations condemned the demarcated space as, among other things, “an exercise in tokenism;” “an example of the familiar tactic of allowing limited liberalization while retaining tight control;” and “a window dressing attempt of the government to deceive the international community.” Intersecting with the emergence of virtual political forums and blogs, the corner was further suspected to be an instrument to lure Internet-based dissent out into the open.


The critique was not without some validity. The space was operated under tight regulations, denying its claim to freeness. To deliver a speech at the space, you—who first of all must be a Singaporean—were required to register in advance at the adjacent police post, a process that includes stating your topic. Hence, even if no permit was required, registration was. Issues related to racial or religious matters were prohibited. If your registration was accepted, you were finally able to speak at the space, using no languages other than Singapore’s official ones (English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil) and with no amplification devices or visual aids such as banners or placards. Your allowed time slot would be sometime between 7:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. What makes Speakers’ Corner notable has less to do with its urbanism than its special treatment under Singapore’s Public Entertainments and Meetings Act (PEMA). This law regulates licenses for arts and public entertainment in public spaces, including, from before 2009, any play reading, recital, lecture, talk, address, debate, or discussion. [4] Public speeches at the Speakers’ Corner are exempted from these licensing requirements. This exemption, however, is shadowed by many other existing laws—with the Penal Code being the most spatially critical.


The Penal Code, which defines as “unlawful” any assembly of five or more persons protesting the government or any public servant, has been influential in defining the fate of protests inside and outside the Speakers’ Corner. On the one hand, the law creates ongoing fear about collectively voicing dissent in public. No event exemplifies this more than “Occupy Raffles Place,” a protest held on October 15, 2011, in Singapore’s financial center, which received three thousand followers on Facebook with seventy-five accounts indicating they would attend. In the end, the only “attendees” who reportedly showed up were five members of the press, one police truck, a couple of police, and a handful of pigeons. Without any protesters, the protest never happened—even the organizers did not present themselves.


On the other hand, the Penal Code has produced unexpected forms of protest that have tactically exploited the code’s loopholes. For instance, a silent protest by members of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) on August 11, 2005, held in front of the headquarters of the Central Provident Fund Board (Singapore’s government agency that administers the state-managed pension fund) cracked the law’s quantitative definition. The protest gathered four persons—one below the lawful cut-off—to stand on the street with provocative messages demanding transparency and accountability for fund management written on their T-shirts. As if making a joke out of the law, two additional members of the protest opened a book stand selling political tracts and shouted against the government, just far enough away from the other four members to prevent them from being grouped together as an unlawful assembly. In a way that may have gone unforeseen by both the government and its critics, many moments in the Speakers’ Corner’s sixteen-year history have embraced the spirit of the latter protest more than the former. Since 2000, this official space for public speech has evolved into a contested (and on occasion, fully repressed) site that has tested, and to some extent expanded, the limit of freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly—rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Singapore, and yet the perennially top-listed human rights issue in the country’s entry of the Human Rights Watch World Report. Critical in activating the rights to public speech is the effort to produce spaces of resistance within, and beyond, the Corner’s architectural boundaries.


Read the full article here.