The Straits Times says

Keeping domestic issues for locals

Participants attending a protest against issues such as an influx of foreigners into Singapore and public transport fare hikes held at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park on Jan 31, 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE

The decision to situate Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park was in recognition of its strong local character going back to 1876, a place for storytelling, recreation, Chinese opera and domestic politics. Similar names notwithstanding, the intention was never to emulate London's Speakers' Corner, which its ardent supporters call the "most famous location for free speech in the world". The preference here is for only Singaporeans to use Hong Lim Park for public speeches or demonstrations without official sanction.

Most would agree that domestic issues, especially controversial socio-political issues, should be a matter for Singaporeans alone to debate among themselves. Lately, the Home Affairs Ministry has made it clear that foreign firms will need a permit to sponsor, publicly promote or get their staff to participate in events at the Speakers' Corner. There is scope for foreign entities to use the Corner but there are limits, given that sensitivities of race and religion need to be handled with care in multiracial Singapore. There are, for example, regulations against the palpable exploitation of religious matters at the Corner and elsewhere too. Complications are caused when other issues touch on religion. Pink Dot, the annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rally, is a case in point. It has attracted support from multinational companies such as Google, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Visa and General Electric. But it also has drawn the countervailing presence of the Wear White campaign, which opposes homosexuality.

Such contests could become more intense when foreign groups intervene in the evolving direction of Singapore society through support for their preferred causes. In the amorphous sphere of social activism, a free-for-all climate would make the Corner an anonymous terrain on which foreign economic entities use their material strength to influence social outcomes. Similar concerns are also the reason for other laws like the Political Donations Act, which prevents foreigners from interfering in Singapore's domestic politics by funding candidates and political associations. It's common elsewhere to check the hand of foreign players in domestic politics.

While Singapore remains open to economic inputs and people from across the globe, it cannot afford to lose sight of what it takes to remain a cohesive society. A practical way of averting possible tensions is to leave the shaping of social and political outcomes to Singaporeans, and them alone. Local companies or non-governmental organisations will no longer need permits to hold events at the Speakers' Corner. But it is proper for foreign entities to declare their presence if they wish to take a stand. The Corner has become part of a larger ecology of public expression that is essentially local. There are good reasons to keep it that way.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'Keeping domestic issues for locals'. Subscribe