Soapbox Speakers


Singapore seems an unlikely place for a Speakers’ Corner, yet at the turn of the millennium Singapore sprouted one.

The Island of Singapore was purchased by the British in 1824 from the Sultan of Johore and remained a Crown Colony until 1942 when Japanese general Yamashita took the city. After the war Singapore won her independence in 1957 from the British..

The city is now one of the world’s richest city states. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of the Peoples Action Party announced in April 2000 that his government was willing to liberalise the restriction on free speech.  A Speakers’ Corner was established at Hong Lim Park on the 1st of September that same year. Any would-be speaker had to register at a nearby police station and no one was to be allowed to speak on religion or stir up racial hatred. Questions and responses from the audience would be permitted.

The Home Minister Wong Kan Seng said that the authorities would not respond to allegations made by any speaker. He said “Let them  literally have a field day. The ruling party (Peoples Action Party) could not keep the best educated people in Asia from discussing their own affairs and to do so would look absurd”.

One local joke summed up the situation: ‘When an Argentinean, an African and a Singaporean are asked “What do you think of mutton for dinner? the Argentinean asked  “What’s mutton?”
An African asked; “What’s dinner?” The Singaporean asked; “What’s think?”’

It was thought a brave experiment because the general belief was that the government was terrified that the fragile structure of Singapore, with its multicultural society, would fall apart.

Hong Lim Park is 600 square metres, about the size of a football field, and was chosen to be Speaker’s Corner because of its historical significance and its closeness to old Chinatown. It was in this park that Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015), the founder of modern Singapore, held rallies  demanding independence. A beautifully crafted wooden sign now proclaims the Speakers’ Corner. One great advantage the park has is that many people pass through the park, and stop to join in the debates.

Following  the launch, many speakers braved the hot burning sun and the ever watchful police force.

One group of speakers called themselves “The Think Centre”. They believed that some kind of amplification was needed in the park, but the authorities rejected the use of microphones. Even successful stockbroker and former Colombo Plan Scholar, Tan Kim Chuang, mounted the soapbox (a tiny crate) and spoke with a booming sing-song voice. He criticised the laws against harbouring illegal immigrants and ranted against the injustice of jail sentences meted out to citizens who willingly or unwittingly rented space to illegal migrants. Tan Kim would show up regularly on Fridays and on the weekends.

Another speaker, Rio Antonio, in his 70’s and retired, broke down in tears when it was his turn to speak about the problems of paying his medical bills.

Another soapboxer, Lee Boh Ang, passionately explained his theory that our solar system is on the move. He also called for a “cultural democracy” in Singapore. Lee Boh Ang  looks like an ageing hippie with long grey hair and stubble.

Amateur orator Prem Singh, with his rapid fire delivery proclaimed his determination to keep the Speakers’ Corner going. He said,“We should never let this corner die”. In a Singaporean apartment block he tells riveting stories about the subject. He believes the city of Singapore  haven’t yet reached critical mass!

On Fridays and on weekend evenings an audience, mostly elderly, would gather at the entrance of the park ready for the entertainment.  The audience would sit on benches and smoke cigarettes while arguing over the previous day’s speeches. When a speaker finally got started the audience would cheer with relief. Most of the listeners didn’t seem to care if a speaker was boring, so long as there was a speaker. They soon gathered around a speaker like small  knot. The small crowds were spell- bound.

Recently  Senior Minister Gon Chok Tong, who was Prime Minister when Speakers’ Corner was set up, expressed the view that its use had declined because there were now other avenues for people to express themselves, such as the Internet (including the Government’s online feedback portal Reach), newspapers, and radio and television channels. Also, people might feel that the venue is not always the best place “to meaningfully and constructively press their views on issues”. He saw Speakers’ Corner as “playing the same role as envisaged – mostly dormant but good to have”

For more information web search ‘Hong Lim Park Speakers Corner’.

Steve Maxwell.

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