New rules relaxing restrictions on outdoor demonstrations in Singapore took effect at a specially-designated park Monday; but no one showed up to take advantage of the new rules.
Archive picture of an -- illegal -- demonstration in Singapore. These demonstrators were later arrested.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Long had announced early last month on Independence Day that the restrictions on public speaking would be relaxed: "We have a Speaker's Corner at Hong Lim Park. Well-defined location, accessible -- not so many speakers, but if you want to go, there is place there. Just put your name down and you can speak," Lee said. "So I think that we should allow outdoor public demonstrations also at the Speakers' Corner."
The place would not be re-named "Demonstrators' Corner", Lee joked, but promised it would be "managed with a light touch". At the same time, he made clear that some restrictions would remain, stressing that demonstrations would be "subject to basic rules of law and order" and would have to "stay away from race, language and religion."
Current rules for foreigners will remain too -- they will still need police permission to demonstrate. Generally, though, the police wants to have less influence on Speaker’s Corner and public speaking, as Wong Hong Kuan, a spokesman for the Singapore police, promised: "If there is no issue of concern, there won't be overt police presence there all the time", he said. "We'll just manage it as we police other places in Singapore."
In the 1960s, there were several violent conflicts between Singapore’s different ethnic groups. That’s when public political gatherings were banned. But four years ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long relaxed the rules, allowing demonstrations in closed spaces, such as sports halls.
The new rules allow the dissemination of political information through the electronic media. Restrictions on political films will also be relaxed. In future, it will be possible to broadcast political videos and documentaries online ahead of elections. Prime Minister Lee said the Ministry of Information would work out all the new rules by the end of this year. "I don't think an outright ban is still sensible", he explained. "Because this is how people communicate on the web in daily life: They make videos, pass clips around. So we've got to allow political videos, but with some safeguards."
Academics and activists in Singapore have welcomed the relaxation of the regulations, saying they are a step in the right direction. But Alex Au, a gay rights activist in Singapore, is angry that demonstrations about gay rights remain banned. He said the new rules didn’t go far enough:
"I will not dignify this tokenism by organizing anything there. It will have to be at a proper place like in the Raffles Place or down a major street -- or nothing!"
Over the past few years, a festival and theatre subculture has emerged in Singapore, with people broaching controversial topics and criticising social structures. Ken Kwek wrote a play called Apocalypse Live, which treats censorship and the control of the media:
"Let's be frank: You cannot deal with some of these very sensitive issues in the mainstream media," he said. "But in theatre, we have a much more liberal forum."
By relaxing the rules, Singapore wants to consolidate its global city status but at the same time it is careful not to go too far.