Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Singapore's Speaker's Corner Shut Down for Polls

The city state can’t tolerate unrestricted speech during an election campaign

Singapore's very limited haven for free speech is not such a haven anymore with elections looming.

The only place in the city-state where citizens can speak their minds in public without a permit or fear of arrest, Speakers' Corner, Singapore's version of London's Hyde Park, will be off limits during the campaign period for coming general elections without official permission.

It might seem odd to citizens of democracies, where election activities occasion more, not less, free speech, but Singapore takes few chances even though the results of polls are hardly an issue. The ruling People’s Action Party has won every general election since 1963 and secured 82 of 84 seats in parliament in the 2006 general election.

The Elections Department said Monday, according to Singapore press reports, that the area of Hong Lim Park designated as a free speech zone will be locked down once general elections are called — just like the rest of the city-state.

"Elections is a sensitive period when tensions can run high. In order to manage the heightened law and order risks and ensure that the election rally permit regime is not bypassed,” the department said, “we have decided to revoke the status of the Speaker's Corner as an unrestricted area for public speaking and demonstrations under the Public Order Act (POA) during the campaigning period.”

The department added that Singaporeans who feel a need to gather for some non-election related cause or event may still do so at the park as long as they secure a police permit.

According to Singapore-based Channel News Asia, “police and other relevant authorities” will assess the risk to public order from use of the corner "holistically" before deciding on a permit application.

The Straits Times newspaper said authorities were concerned that some people might “circumvent” strict rules on election rallies by using Speaker’s Corner to discuss election issues.

It is expected that the little island of free speech will return to “unrestricted” status after elections are held later this year.

The corner was set up in 2000 as a tiny concession to civil liberties in one of Asia’s most prosperous enclaves. Prior to that, authorities consistently held that the threat of disorder was too great to allow unrestricted speech anywhere in the country. Currently, users only have to register online for a pro-forma license to speak at the corner.

Use of the corner has declined in recent years, largely because Singaporeans can speak their minds with relative ease on the Internet, where chat rooms and forums are allowed to flourish with relatively little intervention. In September 2010, Singapore’s Today newspaper reported that the number of groups registering to stage events at Speakers' Corner had fallen from 39 between September 2008 and August 2009, to nine between September 2009 and August 2010, according to a Wikipedia entry.

Opposition Socialist Front secretary-general Chia Ti Lik told the Straits Times Monday, “If they found it was okay to let people use the space to air their views normally, all the more they should make it easier for people to hear what the opposition has to say during an election.”

Another change introduced Monday under Singapore’s tough Public Order Act will give officials at nomination centers the power to decide whether candidates for parliament will be allowed to address their supporters anywhere. Asia Sentinel

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