Monday, May 18, 2009

From Chee Soon Juan to Speakers' Corner to Pink Dot

Saturday saw arguably the biggest turnout of any event in Speakers' Corner. Crowd estimates of the Pink Dot, the first public gathering of people in support of the LGBT community in Singapore, range from 500 to 2500. The Straits Times has a more accurate estimate of 1000.

Despite claims by the organisers that the event was not a protest, it was undeniably a rare display of defiance against a de-facto ban of all public displays of homosexuality in the city-state. Just last week, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng warned the gay community "not to assert themselves stridently as gay groups do in the West."

Spotted among the crowd was Dr Chee Soon Juan of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. Probably unknown to the event organisers and to most Singaporeans, the birth of Speakers Corner as a Government-sanctioned free speech and assembly zone resulted out of two small acts of civil disobedience carried out in 1999, both involving Chee.

An evolution of Gay Space and Freedom of Assembly in Singapore

Feb 1999 : Dr Chee Soon Juan was jailed twice for giving two speeches at Raffles Place without a licence. For both convictions he was fined a total of $3,900 but chose instead to serve two prison terms of seven and 12 days respectively. Chee's colleague, Wong Hong Toy, was also imprisoned for 12 days after refusing to pay a fine for adjusting the microphone and the volume of the speaker. Amnesty International named both men prisoners of conscience.

Link : A Chronology of Authoritarian Rule in Singapore

Feb 1999 : Following the convictions, Lee Kuan Yew was quoted in the New York Times that "if everybody just turns up at a busy junction at lunchtime and makes a speech and runs around ... there would be pandemonium. We are not that kind of society." The interviewer William Safire then asked Lee if Singapore would set up a place like London's old Hyde Park Corner. To which Lee replied, "We'll probably do it."

Link : The dictator speaks. A chat with Lee Kuan Yew

1st Sept 2000 : Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park opens. Speakers are required to register with the police station and all loundspeakers are prohibited.

Feb 2001 : Police called up two activists from the Open Singapore Centre and Think Centre for questioning in connection with an "Abolish ISA!" event at Speakers' Corner in December 2000. In a strongly worded release, the Singapore Police Force pointed out that "it is one thing to have a group of people gather to hear a person or persons speak; but quite another when people come together for a specific cause, and in the process, they chant slogans, display placards and show gesticulations, such as clenching of fists. Police treat such actions as indicative of a demonstration or of disorderly behaviour."

Oct 2002 : Chee Soon Juan was charged under Public Entertainment and Meetings Act for holding an unauthorized "People Against Poverty" rally on Labour Day outside the Istana. Chee was fined $4500 and his colleague Gandhi Ambalam was fined $3000. Chee chose to serve a 5-week prison sentence rather than pay the fine. Amnesty International issued a scathing attack on the Singapore Government, saying that the detentions "typify a pattern of unreasonable restriction on public gatherings and on the free expression of opinion".

Watch video Singapore Rebel

Dec 2002 : Police rejected an application by JB Jeyaretnam to hold an anti-GST march on the grounds of maintaining "law and order", despite JBJ's assurance that "no one will be carrying any sticks or shouting anything, except perhaps the slogan 'Say No to GST'."

Feb 2003 : On the weekend of 17 February 2003, while six million people all over the world were out on the streets in anti-war demonstrations, Singapore police arrested six Singaporeans who had turned up or were en-route to the US Embassy, and which prompted Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng to decree that "the government does not authorise protests and demonstrations of any nature."

Apr 2003 : The police denied Chee Soon Juan his application to hold a march for May Day. Chee has applied for the march to take place starting at the Ministry of Manpower and ending in front of Parliament House where a rally will take place.

Sept 2003 : Think Centre's application for a proposed display of dolls to mark Children's Day at Raffles Place and Stamford Road was rejected by the police on grounds of "law and order considerations".

2004 : Public exhibitions and performances were added to the list of exempted activities at the Speakers' Corner.

Link : Speakers' Corner, Singapore from Wikipedia

Dec 2004 : Police rejected an application by a Hong Kong based gay portal to hold a Christmas party as "the event is likely to be organised as a gay party which is contrary to public interest."

Mar 2005 : Police rejected an application by a local gay Christian support group to hold a concert because the Media Development Authority said that the show would "promote a homosexual lifestyle."

Mar 2005 : Police rejected an application by JB Jeyaretnam for a march to protest the Government's decision to allow casinos to be built, saying it would have disrupted civil order.

Jun 2005 : Police rejected an application by to hold One Nation, an annual gay and lesbian party that has been held annually on the eve of National Day since 2001. The police cited that the event would be 'contrary to public interest.'

Aug 2005 : Riot police, in full battle gear, were sent in to break-up a peaceful protest by four activists who were protesting against the non-transparent nature of charity organisation NKF, and government institutions such as the CPF, GIC and HDB. About 40 police officers were deployed. They confiscated the protesters' T-shirts and placards.

Watch video Riot police vs four silent protesters in Singapore

Jan 2006 : The police warned a group of schoolgirls that the wearing of T-shirts en masse might be misconstrued by some as an offence under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public & Order & Nuisance) (Assemblies & Processions) Rules. The students had planned to help raise money for charity by selling white elephant T-shirts at the Buangkok MRT station's inauguration ceremony.

Sept 2006 : During the IMF-World Bank meetings, Chee Soon Juan and a handful of activists attempted to stage a march from Speakers' Corner to Parliament House to protest the lack of democracy in Singapore. A three-day stand-off ensued between the activists and the police in Hong Lim Park. The activists are currently undergoing trial for the alleged offence.

Watch Speakers Cornered

15 Mar 2008 : About 20 protesters, including Chee Soon Juan, protested against the rising costs of living outside Parliament house. After leaving the vicinity, plain clothes police surrounded the protesters outside a shopping mall and arrested them after a tense 15-minute standoff that drew crowds of curious onlookers and tourists. The protesters are currently undergoing trial.

Watch videos here, here, here and here

1st Sept 2008 : Rules governing the Speakers' Corner is revamped to allow demonstrations and use of self-powered audio amplification equipment. Organisers need no longer register at the police station, but instead inform NParks of the event.

Link : The first fruits of civil disobedience

11 Oct 2008 : More than 1,000 people, who lost hard-earned savings investing in structured products like Lehman Minibonds and DBS High Notes, turned up at the Speakers' Corner to listen to former CEO of NTUC Income, Mr Tan Kin Lian. Follow-up rallies were held over subsequent weekends, but numbers considerably dwindled.

13 Apr 2009 : Parliament passes the Public Order Act (POA) , which criminalises any unauthorised cause-related protest of one person or any procession of two people which are held outside of the gazetted Speakers' Corner. The Act also enhances police power to deal with a prohibited event by stopping, searching or turning away any actual or possible participants. Failure to comply could result in arrest without a warrant, a fine or imprisonment.

16 May 2009 : Speakers' Corner hosted Singapore's first public gay rally.
BBC Report


alfian said...

As always, Martyn, thanks so much for placing the event within a historical context. : )

Singaporeas like to say that we have a short history. But I think the truth is we have short memories.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it surprising that Singaporeans who freely use Speakers' Corner for their LEGAL activities now are reluctant to give credits to CSJ who has paid dearly and repeatedly for his lonely acts almost 10 years ago?