Speakers' Corner: Some face issues holding events

A few groups say application process can be faster and permit requirements made clearer

An event held at Hong Lim Park in March 2015. Groups say there are ambiguities in the rules and regulations on public assembly.
An event held at Hong Lim Park in March 2015. Groups say there are ambiguities in the rules and regulations on public assembly. ST FILE PHOTO

When women's rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) organised its International Women's Day carnival at the Speakers' Corner in 2015, it expected the application process to be smooth sailing.

After all, it had held the same event the previous year with no incidents.

This time round, things were different. More than two months after its application to the National Parks Board (NParks), Aware was told it now needed to apply for a separate police permit.

The reason given: The group would be using a sound system. This is even though it is not listed as a condition for which a police permit is necessary.

In the end, Aware got the green light - just three days before the event.

The episode illustrates what some civil society and arts groups say are ambiguities in the rules and regulations on public assembly in Singapore.

They call for more clarity as well as for the authorities to process permit applications quicker, so that organisers can better firm up their plans.

  • Falling demand

  • Over the years, the Speakers' Corner appears to have become less popular as a venue. The National Parks Board said it received around 50 applications to use the venue annually between 2010 and last year, most of which are for the delivery of speeches.

    This figure is half the 102 applications for speeches made between September 2008 and August 2009. The Speakers' Corner was created in 2000.

    This dip in numbers could be due to two factors, said Associate Professor Benjamin Detenber from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University. His research expertise includes political communication.

    First, the novelty of the Speakers' Corner could have worn off fairly quickly.

    "Prior to its implementation, average Singaporeans had few opportunities to voice their opinions widely, so when it started, it was seen as a real boon to free speech," he said.

    However, as it "still requires some effort" to voice views there, those less committed are unlikely to go through the trouble of putting up an application.

    Second, social media has given people other platforms to share their opinions. "The barriers to entry for most social media are quite low, so it's an easy alternative for many people," said Prof Detenber.

    But he noted that places like Hong Lim Park still have a role as "online forums don't have the immediacy that face-to-face communication has".

    The figure of 50 applications a year - about one per week - is also quite a significant number, he added.

    "The initial rush of 100-plus applications a year was probably inflated by the novelty factor, and now that people realise free speech involves some effort, only the truly dedicated will go through the process."

    Yuen Sin

Said Aware's head of advocacy and research, Ms Jolene Tan: "The uncertainty and difficulty of finding out about permit requirements is a barrier to event organisers.

"Finding out exactly which permits apply usually involves correspondence with various agencies and preparing large amounts of information for them before you even seek the permit itself."

Such concerns have surfaced in the wake of charges brought against civil rights activist Jolovan Wham last month for organising public assemblies without a police permit.

Under the Public Order Act, it is a criminal offence to organise or participate in a public assembly without a police permit.

The sole exception is Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park. Created in 2000, it is the only place in Singapore where people can hold outdoor demonstrations without a police permit. It would be required if foreigners are involved or if race and religion will be discussed.

For instance, at a memorial for deceased South Korean pop star Kim Jong Hyun last night, ID checks and pre-registrations were required to ensure only Singaporeans and permanent residents took part.

Approval from NParks is still required for use of the space even if a police permit is not needed.

Interviews with 10 groups that have organised activities at the Speakers' Corner over the years found a mixed bag of experiences.

Ms Elaine Chow, president of Breastfeeding Mothers' Support Group, said that the process can be an "arduous process" for those unfamiliar with the requirements.

It got a police permit just one day before its 2015 event Big Latch On which celebrates World Breastfeeding Week, making for a nerve-racking experience. It was open to foreigners, and the group had applied three weeks in advance.

But, added Ms Chow, the authorities also helped to facilitate the application process. NParks alerted it to the need for a police permit and the police also asked if it had any other requirements such as help with traffic control.

Currently, applications to hold events at the Speakers' Corner are made through a form on the NParks website. It contains links to legal requirements under the Public Order Act and the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act that applicants have to meet.

But despite going through it with a fine-tooth comb, artist Liz Kow, 24, who is staging a performance at Speakers' Corner next month, found it a "tedious and misleading" process.

It was only after checking in with the authorities that she found out she could have foreign participants in her performance if she had an arts entertainment licence - something not clearly stated in the online application.

When contacted, the police did not address the specific cases raised.

It said that those who require clarification can approach it for assistance. They "should furnish as much information as they can regarding the event, such as the proposed speakers, entertainment segments, etc". They should also submit their application at least 14 working days in advance, the police added.

Some activists argued that the two week notice period was too long, especially for events held in response to current affairs issues.

But others, including the organisers of the annual gay rights rally Pink Dot SG, said they are taking it in their stride, adding that the lengthy process "is not uncommon for most big public events".

National University of Singapore sociologist Chua Beng Huat called for more transparency on rules pertaining to the use of the Speakers' Corner given the importance of the space in giving visibility to public opinions.

" The physical presence of participants may be indicative of the level of popular support of the causes in question. Civil society is materialised through the public gatherings, while their presence in social media remain invisible, abstract."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2017, with the headline Speakers' Corner: Some face issues holding events. Subscribe