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Whose idea is it anyway?

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
Whose idea is it anyway?
Speaker's Corner in Hong Lim Park is the only place where Singaporeans can assemble for a cause without a permit. But changes to the rules governing Speaker's Corner are now shrinking civil society space even further.

Hong Lim Park, a small green area near Singapore's Central Business District, is a familiar haunt to many of the city-state's activists. It's the only place in the entire country where Singaporeans (and Permanent Residents) are allowed to gather for a cause without a permit. It's basically the only place in Singapore where a citizen can exercise his or her freedom of assembly, with limits – provided you register your activity beforehand on the NParks website.

But even this very limited freedom has been further curtailed as of 1 November, when the Public Order (Unrestricted Area) (Amendment) Order 2016 came into force. This subsidiary legislation was not debated in Parliament or put to a vote; presented as an administrative act, it did not have to be. The Ministry of Home Affairs simply announced it towards the end of October, and that was that.

The amendments to the rules governing the use of Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park mostly relate to foreign participation, particularly in terms of support and sponsorship. From now on foreign entities will have to apply for permits to be allowed to organise or assist in the organisation of events at Speakers' Corner. Previously, permits also had to be obtained before a non-Singaporean can speak at a Speakers' Corner event. This requirement has now been extended even to situations where the non-Singaporean is speaking via teleconference (eg. Skyping into the event) or speaking via a pre-recorded message.

The apparent trigger for these changes was Pink Dot, Singapore's annual LGBT rights rally, which has attracted numerous multinational sponsors like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Goldman Sachs and Barclays, among others. Following the Ministry's announcement, much of the discussion about these changes has been about the need to combat foreign meddling or interference.

It's all well and good to talk about the importance of sovereignty, but that's not actually the issue here. 

(And even if it were, further restrictions on freedom of assembly is hardly the solution.)

Firstly, an important distinction has not been made in both the government's announcement and most of the mainstream media coverage of the amendments: the difference between a foreign-directed campaign/agenda, and a locally-directed, foreign-supported one. Foreign sponsorship does not immediately relegate local actors to subordinate positions, condemned to play out the role of puppet as crafty foreigners pull the strings. The Singapore government doesn't relinquish control of its programmes and goals when it acquires private sector partners; why do we act as if Singaporean civil society has no such agency? (Besides, the government is a great cheerleader of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which would literally let corporations sue governments, so all the rhetoric about foreign interference is a little hard to swallow.)

But more importantly, what we should be focused on is not whether a value, or idea, or campaign is foreign or local, but whether it's good and worth taking on board. Instead of worrying about whether a cause like Pink Dot (or any other) has foreign support, we should be worrying about whether Singaporeans respond to and adopt values and principles that respect everyone's rights, and promotes inclusion, equality and democratic participation.

Trying to separate ideas and values into "local" and "foreign" is a losing battle. Singaporeans are highly-connected to the world via the Internet and our smartphones. Many Singaporeans are also lucky enough to be highly mobile, constantly travelling overseas for study, work and leisure. Over a third of the marriages that took place in Singapore in 2015 were transnational. It's a foregone conclusion that Singaporeans will be influenced by arguments, values and ideals that come from beyond the confines of the island.

This exposure to the wider world isn't always seen as a bad thing, either. Singapore constantly tries to position itself as a 'hub' for everything from law to medicine to the arts, welcoming investors with promises of a populace that is fluent in English and able to work across different cultures and needs. The government can't have their cake and eat it too, either Singaporeans need to be open to the world (which would also involve being open to different ideals) or become insular to ensure that no foreign interference can penetrate.

The origin of an idea is not our problem; how the idea is processed is.

Imposing further restrictions on foreign participation in cause-related activities will do little to protect Singapore or ensure that Singaporeans are well-prepared to deal with the massive amounts of information, data and arguments that we're exposed to on a daily basis.

What we really need is for people to be educated, aware and empowered to make their own decisions on the things they come across in life. We need situations where, instead of fearing undue and undesirable foreign influence, we can be confident that Singaporeans will be able to assess and reject principles and values that don't resonate in our society. We need to beat the slippery slope – "it's Pink Dot now, but what if foreigners come and lobby for things like gun ownership?" – through more education and dialogue, not less. If foreigners want to sponsor a lobby for gun ownership in Singapore, we need to be in a place where Singaporeans are able to assess the arguments for ourselves and stand up to reject the agenda, rather than waiting for the government to take action on our behalf via more rules and regulations that end up curbing our own freedoms.

#Singapore, #politics, #civil liberties, #human rights


Herbert Eng

3 years ago

Good luck trying to educate the people. In the first place, why do we need to rely on Hong Lim Park? There are apps out there that culminate in a persistent digital HLP on demand: