Wed, Feb 04, 2009
The Straits Times
A spot for Speakers' Corner despite growing blogosphere

By Andre Oei

YES, we can - express ourselves with more freedom, that is.

I'm all for the liberalisation of rules at Hong Lim Park, a milestone in pushing the boundaries of expression here.

Yet it strikes me that this milestone is one of symbolic significance rather than practical impact - its time possibly over before it even began.

After all, from 2001 till August last year, Hong Lim Park seemed to be frequented more often by neighbourhood residents and members of the nearby Telok Ayer Hong Lim Green Community Centre and Kreta Ayer Community Club than Singaporeans wishing to stage a protest.

Unlike the Internet, where debate is lively and ongoing, Hong Lim's brand of forum is static and location-dependent.

Besides, after more than a decade of expressing themselves online, Singaporeans seem more likely to log on when they want to weigh in.

Hong Lim Park is hardly likely to compete with the immediacy of websites where the Net Generation lives, where we do everything from banking to buying and, yes, even bullying.

Let's face it. We are more likely to be mobilised by the viral influence of the blogosphere than Speakers' Corner.

Too used to reaching others instantly without moving from their seats, Singaporeans have already become used to venting their frustrations - socio-political or otherwise - online.

Dissatisfied with service staff who speak only Mandarin? Form a Facebook group. Unhappy with electricity tariffs? Petition online.

On the Internet, the costs of participation are low, and the likelihood of getting attention - some, anyway - high.

Hong Lim Park, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Central Business District, must rely on media publicity, and once the novelty of physical demonstrations fades, so will the media's interest.

Having said that, Speakers' Corner deserves its place.

At its best, it is a reminder of how erroneous the cliche of the impassive Singaporean is.

Citizens did, for example, turn out in droves after the recent Lehman Brothers' Minibonds debacle.

But the question is whether the park itself will go the way of bubble tea - a fad with a limited lifespan.

With the government-appointed council recently releasing a 229-page report on the impact of new media on society, it's safe to say that online discourse, rather than physical events at Hong Lim Park, is a more accurate barometer of what Singapore is buzzing about.

But we need Hong Lim Park, too, if only to represent our progress as a nation, in the same way that Biopolis or Marina Barrage stands for innovation.

Speakers' Corner stands for tolerance, and a place for voices to be heard.

It is a mark, I would like to believe, of a kind of liberalisation and understanding offline which can also flourish online.

The writer, 22, is a graduate student at Harvard University.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on February 02, 2009.

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