Set up in Hong Lim Park on 1 September 2000, Speakers’ Corner is Singapore’s first and only outdoor venue where its citizens are permitted to give public speeches without the Public Entertainment Licence.1 In 2004, activities exempted from licensing requirements at the venue were expanded to include performances and exhibitions.2 Restrictions were further eased in 2008, when demonstrations organised by Singapore citizens were allowed to be held in Speakers’ Corner without police permit.3 Following the rule relaxation in 2008, Speakers’ Corner saw an increase in activities, with a number of events attracting crowds of hundreds or thousands.4
In early 1999, during an interview for The New York Times, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew shared that Joseph Nye – dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and advisor to the Singapore government at the time – had suggested that Singapore set up a legal public-speaking area similar to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.5 Lee expressed during the interview that Singapore would probably take on the suggestion.6 In addition, similar ideas also surfaced in The Straits Times after Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party insisted on speaking without a permit at Raffles Place on 29 December 1998 and 5 January 1999.7
The government initially had reservations towards the idea of a “speakers’ corner”, as it could potentially cause public disorder in Singapore’s multiracial and multireligious society. However, after studying the matter further, the government decided that the risk could be managed and the idea worth a try, especially given the support it had attracted from civil-society groups.8
On 1 September 2000, some 6,000 sq m of Hong Lim Park was opened as Speakers’ Corner.9 It is Singapore’s first and only designated outdoor venue where its citizens can give public speeches without having to apply for the Public Entertainment Licence.10 Hong Lim Park, a popular venue for political rallies and speeches during the 1950s and 1960s, was selected as the location of Speakers’ Corner in view of its proximity to the Central Business District and Chinatown, which are areas with a high concentration of people and activities.11
Establishment of rules
Modelled after Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, the initial rules for the use of Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park were kept to a minimum. Although it was placed under the purview of the Singapore Police Force at the time of its establishment, a minimalist and hands-off approach was adopted by the law enforcers, barring any law and order problems.12
Upon its launch in 2000, Speakers’ Corner was open daily from 7 am to 7 pm, and only Singapore citizens were allowed to give speeches there.13 All speakers had to apply for a police permit in person at the Kreta Ayer Neighbourhood Police Post (NPP) located next to Speakers’ Corner before making their speeches, using their identity cards or passports to prove their citizenship. Speakers were not required to inform the police on their speech topics, and approvals would be granted on the spot.14
Speakers may bring their own soapboxes and choose to speak from anywhere within Speakers’ Corner. There is no restriction on the number of speakers at any one time, and audience participation is allowed.15
When making a speech, speakers are required to use any of the four official languages of Singapore (English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil) as well as any related dialect.16 They can also speak on any subject – except for religion or themes that may contribute to hostility between racial or religious groups – while prevailing laws such as the Sedition Act would have to be obeyed. Sound amplification devices were disallowed, so as to minimise noise pollution and prevent one speaker from drowning out the others.17
Changes in rules and regulations
2004 – Exhibitions and performances permitted
In August 2004, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced during the National Day Rally that activities exempted from licensing requirements at Speakers’ Corner would be expanded to include performances and exhibitions, in addition to speeches. The rule relaxation took effect on 1 September 2004, subject to the condition that both the event organisers and participants are Singapore citizens. As in the case of speeches, the organisers of performances and exhibitions would have to register at the Kreta Ayer NPP, and the events must steer clear of issues related to race or religion. To prevent any event from escalating into a demonstration or protest march, participants were not allowed to carry placards or banners.18
2008 – Demonstrations permitted and further relaxation
As part of the government’s move to liberalise the Singapore society and widen the space for expression, restrictions were further eased with a number of changes implemented on 1 September 2008.
Lee announced at the 2008 National Day Rally that outdoor public demonstrations would be allowed at Speakers’ Corner – without the need for police permit. The management of Speakers’ Corner was transferred from the Singapore Police Force to the National Parks Board (NParks), and police permits are also no longer necessary for events and speeches, as long as the participants and organisers are Singaporeans.19 An online registration system run by NParks replaced permit applications at the Kreta Ayer NPP, although speakers or event organisers will have to state their topics as they register online.20
Events at Speakers’ Corner can be held around the clock, and handheld, self-powered amplification equipment can be used from 9 am and 10.30 pm.21 Any form of banners, placards, posters and other visual aids are also allowed, as long as they do not contain violent or obscene messages.22 Issues relating to race and religion, however, remain prohibited for all events at Speakers’ Corner.23
Permanent residents can participate in events at Speakers’ Corner, in recognition of the stake they have in the country. However, they have to apply for police permits if they wish to give speeches or organise events.24 Foreigners, on the other hand, have to apply for police permits before they can organise or participate in any of these activities.25
2011 – Election campaigning periods
In 2011, the status of Speakers’ Corner as an unrestricted area for public speaking and demonstrations was temporarily revoked during the respective campaigning periods of the general election and presidential election.26 Police permits were required for all events held at Speakers’ Corner during these periods, including those that were unrelated to the polls, so as to ensure that rules on election rally permits were not bypassed.27
Speakers and events
The opening of Speakers’ Corner on 1 September 2000 attracted more than 20 speakers and an audience of several hundred individuals on the first day.28 The speakers spoke on a range of issues, including ministerial salaries, measures to increase fertility rates, promotion of the local arts scene as well as their own personal concerns.29
Viewed by foreign media as an unexpected departure from the country’s long-standing policy of requiring a permit for speaking in public, the launch of Speakers’ Corner attracted journalists from different parts of the world to cover the event.30 At least 15 foreign news agencies, including London’s Financial Times and The New York Times, reported on the first free-speech platform in Singapore.31
By end-September 2000, however, the crowds had diminished and the speakers were primarily regulars who repeatedly spoke on the same topics.32 Some five months later in January 2001, Speakers’ Corner saw little activity with 12 registrations recorded at the Kreta Ayer NPP during the month.33
Speakers’ Corner continued to be largely quiet in the following years until the relaxation of rules in 2008, which allowed demonstrations without police permits to be held in the area.34
On 1 September 2008, Singapore saw its first legal public outdoor demonstration at Speakers’ Corner. It was held by a non-profit organisation, Hearers of Cries, to raise awareness on the plight of abused maids in Singapore.35 The park saw an increase in activities thereafter, and a number of events have attracted large crowds of hundreds or more.36 These include rallies held in 2008 for misled investors of failed investment products structured by investment bank Lehman Brothers;37 a gathering of animal lovers on 29 August 2011 to urge Resorts World Sentosa to release the wild dolphins it had caught for its Marine Life Park;38 as well as a series of protests in 2013 against the population white paper released that year projecting a Singapore population of 6.9 million in 2030.39
Since 2009, Pink Dot – Singapore’s first outdoor lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) event – has been held annually at Speakers’ Corner. Organised by LGBT interest group Pink Dot Sg, attendance for the concert-cum-picnic event increased from about 2,500 people in 2009 to 26,000 in 2014. Each year, participants of the event dress in pink to show their support for the organiser’s cause, which is to promote an inclusive society with the freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation.40
On 9 May 2010, Speakers’ Corner had one of its largest gatherings when some 2,500 people visited the area to sign a petition against a possible move to reduce the weightage of mother tongue in the Primary School Leaving Examination.41 In 2014, a series of protests against aspects of the Central Provident Fund, Singapore’s compulsory savings plan, were held, with the first protest on 7 June attracting a crowd of over 2,000 people.42
1. Yap Chuin Wei, “Speakers’ Corner to Open on Sept 1,” Straits Times, 11 August 2000, 3; Jaleha Rashim, “The Green That Ended Yew Hock Govt,” Straits Times, 26 April 2000, 59 (From NewspaperSG); Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, vol. 72 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 25 April 2000, cols. 20–23. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
2. M. Nirmala, “Rules Eased, Restrictions Remain,” Straits Times, 28 August 2004, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Parliament of Singapore, Organisation of Outdoor Events By Political Parties, vol. 85 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 16 September 2008, cols. 214 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN); Derrick A. Paulo and Esther Ang, “A More Open Field,” Today, 26 August 2008, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Imelda Saad, “31 Registered for Speakers’ Corner Last Month,” Today, 2 October 2008, 3; Chua Lee Hoong, “A New Buzz at Hong Lim,” Straits Times, 1 November 2008, 2 Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “Police Issue Public Advisory to “Keep the Peace” at Pink Dot Event,” Straits Times, 27 June 2014. (From NewspaperSG)
5. William Safire, “Essay; The Dictator Speaks,” New York Times, 15 February 1999; Chua Lee Hoong, “A Speakers’ Corner at Bras Basah Park?” Straits Times, 18 March 2000, 56. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Chua, “Speakers’ Corner at Bras Basah Park?”
7. Cherian George and Zulkifli Baharudin, “The Case for Free-Speech Venues,” Straits Times, 20 January 1999, 40; Grant W. Pereira, “Have a Speakers’ Corner,” Straits Times, 6 January 1999, 33; “Chee Gives Talk Without Permit,” Straits Times, 30 December 1998, 19; Tan Hsueh Yun, “Chee Goes Ahead with Second Public Talk,” Straits Times, 6 January 1999, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, 21.
9. Yap, “Speakers’ Corner to Open”; Rashim, “Green That Ended Yew Hock Govt.”
10. Rashim, “Green That Ended Yew Hock Govt”; Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, 20–23.
11. “In the Beginning...,” Straits Times, 31 August 2000, 42 (From NewspaperSG); Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, 21–22.
12. Leong Chin and Sharon Vasoo, “Of Hokkien Songs and Personal Tales,” Straits Times, 2 September 2000, 62 (From NewspaperSG); Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, 21, 24; Toh Yong Chuan, “Rise and Rise of Speakers’ Corner,” Straits Times, 26 July 2014, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Yap, “Speakers’ Corner to Open”; Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, 21–22.
14. Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, 23.
15. “Rebirth of Hong Lim,” Straits Times, 31 August 2000, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Yap, “Speakers’ Corner to Open”; “Language,” Ministry of Communications and Information, accessed 25 April 2013; “Terms and Conditions of Approval for Events and Activities Carried Out at Speakers’ Corner, Hong Lim Park,” National Parks Board, n.d.
17. Parliament of Singapore, Speakers’ Corner, 23–24; National Parks Board, “Terms and Conditions of Approval.”
18. Nirmala, “Rules Eased, Restrictions Remain.”
19. Lee Hsien Loong, “National Day Rally,” speech, NUS-UCC, 17 August 2008, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 2008081704); Parliament of Singapore, Organisation of Outdoor Events, col. 214; Paulo and Ang, “More Open Field.”
20. Jeremy Au Yong, “Outdoor Protests Okay, But only at Speakers’ Corner,” Straits Times, 19 August 2008, 4; Jeremy Au Yong, “One Person Signs Up for 1st Day of Freer Speakers’ Corner,” Straits Times, 1 September 2008, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Toh, “Rise and Rise of Speakers’ Corner”; National Parks Board, “Terms and Conditions of Approval.”
22. Paulo and Ang, “More Open Field.”
23. National Parks Board, “Terms and Conditions of Approval.”
24. Paulo and Ang, “More Open Field”; National Parks Board, “Terms and Conditions of Approval.”
25. Paulo and Ang, “More Open Field.”
26. “Singapore Round-Up,” My Paper, 16 March 2011, A2 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Public Entertainments and Meetings (Speakers’ Corner) (Exemption) (Revocation) (No. 2) Order 2011, Sp.S 469/2011, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 19 August 2011, 2125 (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS); Public Entertainments and Meetings (Speakers’ Corner) (Exemption) (No. 2) Order 2011, Sp.S 493/2011, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 26 August 2011, 2161–3. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
27. Jeremy Au Yong, “Permits Needed at Speakers’ Corner during Polls,” Straits Times, 15 March 2011, 17 (From NewspaperSG); “Singapore Round-Up.”
28. Leong and Vasoo, “Of Hokkien Songs and Personal Tales”; Yap, “Speakers’ Corner to Open.”
29. Leong and Vasoo, “Of Hokkien Songs and Personal Tales.”
30. Sharon Vasoo, “Speakers’ Corner Makes Headlines Worldwide,” Straits Times, 25 September 2000, 46; Sharon Vasoo, “Speakers’ Corner, Three Weeks Later,” Straits Times, 25 September 2000, 3. ((From NewspaperSG)
31. Vasoo, “Headlines Worldwide.”
32. Vasoo, “Three Weeks Later.”
33. Mahesha Thenabadu, “The Silent Corner,” Today, 6 February 2001, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Toh, “Rise and Rise of Speakers’ Corner.”
35. Saad, “31 Registered for Speakers’ Corner”; Toh, “Rise and Rise of Speakers’ Corner.”
36. Saad, “31 Registered for Speakers’ Corner”; Chua, “New Buzz at Hong Lim”; Salleh, “Police Issue Public Advisory.”
37. Mavis Toh, “Over 500 Investors at Protest Rally,” Straits Times, 12 October 2008, 1; Jamie Ee Wen Wei, “Fourth Rally Draws 500-Strong Crowd,” Straits Times, 2 November 2008, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Standing Up for Dolphins,” Straits Times, 29 August 2011, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Rachel Chang, “Third Population White Paper Protest Draws Smaller Crowd,” Straits Times, 6 October 2013, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
40. Nur Dianah Suhaimi, “1,000 Turn Up in Pink at Event,” Straits Times, 17 May 2009, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Salleh, “Police Issue Public Advisory”; Aw Cheng Wei, “Police Issue Public Advisory to “Keep the Peace at Pink Dot Event,” Straits Times, 27 June 2014, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Aw Cheng Wei, “Big Turnout at Pink Dot Gathering,” Straits Times, 29 June 2014, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Clarissa Oon, “Expect More MTL-Type Debates,” Straits Times, 17 May 2010, 2; Clarissa Oon and Leow Si Wan, “No Change to PSLE Mother Tongue Weightage,” Straits Times, 12 May 2010, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “CPF Protest Draws Crowd,” Straits Times, 8 June 2014, 21; Clarissa Yong, “Hundreds Attend CPF Protest,” Straits Times, 13 July 2014, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as of 22 September 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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