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Hot News // Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A more open field

S’poreans can now stage demos using loud hailers, placards, and hold overnight candlelight vigils

derrick A paulo

deputy news editor

derrick@… BURN an effigy of a Singapore political leader? Organise a gay pride event outdoors? From next week, protests like these will have a place in Singapore.

These were some of the scenarios put to the Police, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the National Parks Board (NParks) yesterday when they announced the details on liberalising the use of Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park to allow public protests. None of the agencies objected.

“We want to be as open as possible,” said MHA senior director (policy and operations) Tai Wei Shyong at the press conference yesterday.

He did concede that because of the many possible scenarios that could arise, the liberalisation of Speakers’ Corner will be a “work in evolution”.

Come Sept 1, Singaporeans can organise and participate in any demonstration at Speakers’ Corner” except those that involve race and religion” without having to obtain a police permit.

Permanent residents (PRs) can also participate in these demonstrations, in recognition of the stake they have in Singapore. But they have to apply for a permit if they wish to give a speech or organise a protest themselves.

Foreigners will have to apply for a permit to conduct or participate in any activity” to make the distinction that the political rights of citizens are different from those of non-citizens. Which raises this possible scenario: What happens if a foreigner joins the protest without the organiser’s knowledge?

“The rules will be interpreted reasonably … If there’s no way to stop him, we’ll look at that,” said Mr Tai. The rules will be administered by the NParks. Its chief operating officer, Dr Leong Chee Chiew, said he was not anticipating “worst-case scenarios”.

Since Speakers’ Corner was set up on Sept 1, 2000, there has not been any breach of the rules, according to Singapore Police Force director (operations) Wong Hong Kuan. During this time, there was a total of 2,144 registrations involving 508 speakers.

With the liberalisation, the 7am-to-7pm restriction will be abolished, thereby allowing all-night vigils. Any form of banners, placards, posters and other visual aids can be used for speeches or demonstrations, as long as they do not contain violent or obscene messages or any that pertain to race or religion. And on top of making a scene, NParks will allow the use of loud hailers and other amplification equipment between 9am and 10.30pm in Hong Lim Park, which can hold 3,000 to 4,000 people.

A point to note: A group of protesters may have to share the park with other protesters. NParks’ new online registration allows you to head down to Hong Lim Park immediately after you register” there is no booking system.

“We work very much on the basis of trust. We are not going to do screening and make sure you speak on what you said you will speak on. But if you give information, you must know you’re accountable for it,” said Dr Leong.

The mandatory registration information includes your personal details, the date and nature of the event and the topic.

Would the police have any knowledge of the registrations with NParks? They would not rule it out yesterday.

“What if someone puts on the website that he’s going to do bad things?” Mr Wong offered as a scenario.

But he wanted to “dispel the perception that there’s a preponderance of police presence” at Speakers’ Corner, which is located next to Kreta Ayer Police Station.

He said that police presence would be kept “minimal”. But the police will intervene to enforce law and order or if there are complaints from the public.

“There are no limits (to the protests) subject to public safety … for example, the crowd is so big that it obstructs the public,” said Mr Wong.

An agitated crowd is fine“ demonstrations are designed as such, noted Mr Wong “ but he suggested that organisers choose “some calming words” or call the protests off if they cannot control the crowd.

Lawyer and activist Chia Ti Lik believes this step to open up is “an attempt to return control over something (the government) won’t be able to control”. “Their stand against demonstrations won’t hold up in real democracies,” he said.

So, will there be any takers for public protests come September?

Gay rights activist Alex Au does not plan to “dignify tokenism”, but the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society is in discussions to organise a demonstration, its executive director Louis Ng told Channel NewsAsia.

NParks is ready to take on this new role.

“Our primary motivation is to keep Speakers’ Corner for use in as well-maintained conditions as possible … If there’s a need to make good on anything, we can follow up,” said Dr Leong.

“So, don’t damage our shrubs.”

Which means effigies can be burnt“ but with care. – Additional reporting by Esther Ng

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