The video opened with a old man, hair in white shouting out to an empty park. “why are you afraid of me… I am on a one man crusade… a one man show… one man fighting a regime” cried Ooi Boon Ewe, believing himself to be a prophet crying out in the wilderness.
The scene then shifted to another another elderly man, this one bespectacled, “well, to me it’s very successful… because very few people want to go there to speak”
The first person was Ooi Boon Ewe, one of the colourful perennial non-candidates in Singapore’s political scene and the second person was Goh Chok Tong, the second Prime Minister of Singapore. They were speaking about the Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park located in the heart of the city. The Speakers Corner was set up in 2000 modelled after Hyde Park in London.
But why, how did this modern but highly controlled city come about deciding to set up a corner for free speech?
To answer that, we need to go a little further back. It is here that I must caveat that I was born in the late 1980s and my impressions were shaped by the societal transition from the 1990s to 2000s. I do not speak with first hand but anecdotal and academic experience of the earlier period.
Singapore in the 1950s and 60s was a very open and vocal place. From the coffeeshops to the chambers of court, everyone had an opinion on the state of the nation and everyone wanted to be heard. This curtain was slowly being drawn on the colonial era and the people had been fighting for self-government. The city saw a mushrooming of political parties representing all sorts, the biggest being the pro-self governance Labour Front led by David Marshall and pro-British Progressive Party led by CC Tan and John Laycock. In their midst was a small pro-self governance leftist party called the People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong. The elections were won by the leftist party Labour Front instead of the British friendly Progressives.
Debates in the first legislative assembly, won by the Labour Front with an incredibly small majority (13 to the opposition’s 12) were raucous and dramatic, just go to the Hansard and read the drama. The government of David Marshall had enemies on all sides, the British despised him, the communist did not like him, his alliance was shaky. He resigned in one year after a promise to achieve self-governance for Singapore failed and his position as Chief Minister was taken over by another the late Haji Omar Lim Yew Hock. Lim’s government was plagued with scandal including one of corruption which was unveiled by the opposition PAP and soon the votes moved to the PAP.
In 1957, a group led by Ong Eng Guan won the city council elections, then in 1959 the PAP Legislative Assembly team led by Lee Kuan Yew won the popular vote.
The PAP has governed Singapore ever since.
The early days of PAP rule were tough, the PAP faced strong internal problems precipitated in a huge party split in 1961 over the fate of the city (and merger with Malaya). This led to an election in 1963 when the PAP had 37 of 51 seats and the opposition had 14. Singapore ended up in Malaysia after the PAP won a highly contentious referendum*. Incensed, the leader of the then opposition, Lee Siew Choh led a boycott of the a massive tactical error led to the opposition party boycotting the next general election, giving the PAP a cleansweep of all seats. Even today, the recollection of events is contrasting. The government based media and interviews describe the Barisan as commuinst while the former Barisan members insist then as they do now that they were not communist.
As time went by, parliamentary debate in Singapore turned from debate to discussion, and free speech was a lot less free than before. Opposition leaders were put in jail (Chia Thye Poh, an opposition Member of Parliament was put in detention for 32 years, longer than Nelson Mandela), political opponents were sued till bankruptcy, social activist were put in jail for being Marxist Conspirators. A political chill eventually blanketed Singapore and people progressively lost interest in politics.
This era, known as the Lee Kuan Yew era continued till around 1990 (and his presence loomed large after that)**. Newspapers of the time praised Singapore for its economic growth but caveated its growth by decrying its lack of human rights, prompting a fierce rebuttal of Asian values from the Singaporean leader even in his later years.
Lee’s retirement as Prime Minister brought a new person to the premiership, Goh Chok Tong was the successor anointed by the party, waiting in the wings for 6 years. Stepping into the large shoes of Lee, Goh promised a more consultative approach. The Singapore that Goh took over faced a different world than Lee’s. The battle of ideology was over, the battle for money had begun. China had begun its major reformations under Deng Xiaoping and many other nations were beginning to catch up, the world was also entering a battle not of goods but of people – brain power was becoming progressively important. Singapore’s fundamental’s as a hub location meant that it had to evolve and now provide higher level services rather than be a manufacturing centre for products. It needed to draw people in – foreign talent was the catchphrase that Goh popularised – top financiers, lawyers, researchers essentially top PMETs. But how could a tight, controlled, repressive, boring city draw anyone in?
So things started to change, boring Singapore had to be shed a lighter version of the 1800s Sin-galore had to be recreated, Singapore’s night had to come alive. Alfresco dining, clubbing, drinking all these rules were relaxed; the most flashy example – bar top dancing was permitted in 2003.
But that was not enough. Even with sensuality and booze more openly traded in Singapore, it’s control on free speech was still a sticking point. That was when the Speaker’s Corner idea was mooted. It was proposed as a means to address criticism of tight control on free speech and human rights and was an particularly useful example when Singapore’s control of free speech was brought up. But this was also where authorities were perhaps the most squeamish. Speeches, protests and the like are closely linked to politics. As a famous political watcher, Catherine Lim once said and I paraphrase, it is in the poltiical world where their authority can be questioned the the authorities are most uncomfortable about opening up.
The opening of the park hence created a buzz that saw many people sign up to speak. There were rules aplenty. Certain topics, such as race and religion were still out of bounds, speakers had to apply for a permit with the police two weeks in advance, only Singaporeans could organise events and participants had to be Singaporean citizen or permanent resident and these were just some rules. Rules were one thing, the other was the quality of speakers. After a while it became clear that the people speaking were whining and had not bright ideas. People soon left, there were better things to do (like chase good food) than just listen to people complain during their lunch break.
The Park found renewed life instead as a place for carnivals particularly as a place for where the annual pride event – Pink Dot takes place.
However, until 2013, there were practically no speakers at the speakers corner. In fact even up till 2013, people did not believe that Singaporeans cared enough to protest. It was an ill-timed government white paper to increase the population size to 6.9 million as a “planning parameter”*** that drew a public protest in 2015 drew 4000 (and yes, they followed the rules and applied for a permit).
Most Singaporeans were shocked that their fellow countrymen would turn up to protest. I know I was. But that protest said something, perhaps for the first time, Singapore Inc was cracking, the “digits in the machine (said by Lee Kuan Yew)” wanted Singapore to be their home and not their factory. The sentiment was excited in 2015 when Singapore went to the polls, for the first time in its independent history, the whole nation would be going to the elections, the opposition quality had gone up many notches, with many candidates more than capable of holding their own against ruling party ministers, was this a turning point in Singapore’s history? The whole nation was however also caught in a prisoners dilemma, and a shock result (to both the voters, opposition and ruling party) saw the ruling party win a massive 69% of the popular vote bringing a dampener the building moment of change.
When I walked by one day, the park stage was under maintenance. Behind it was a new skyline and one of the most fancy new hotels in the city, almost as if to ask people, what do you have to protest?
I looked up at the buildings and snapped the shot, “it was this, hotel Singapore, that people were protesting in 2013.”
ON THE MAP
*the referendum was regarding merger with Malaysia, however the three options presented only offered three different ways to merge with Malaysia. The PAP had used its prerogative as ruling party to decided the question and it decided that the referendum would be about the terms of the referendum. The main opposition Barisan Socialis wanted a referendum on whether to merge in the first place. And told people that they should cast blank ballots as a form of protest. The PAP claimed however that blank ballots would mean no firm opinion, but since they were at the booth they must favour merger. The PAP won the referendum with 92% of the vote.
** I hasten to add that knuckle duster and tough as his approach was, Lee did win all his elections either through walkovers, or winning the popular vote in the seat. A combination of political killer instinct, lack of credible opposition and most importantly effective performance in government virtually guaranteed that no opposition would win.
*** Singapore had a previous population target of 5 million by 2030, that was breached by 2010.The 6.9 million population proposed a citizen population of 40%. Few believed the government’s insistence that 6.9 million was a planning parameter and not a target, not when the former head of the housing board claimed that Singapore could house 10 million people. Coming at a time when Singaporeans were feeling the squeeze and a sense of disillusionment with being diluted out of their own country, the announcements and ideas were seen as tone-death and a sign of an out of touch political and administrative elite.