SINGAPORE - In less than two months, the Speakers' Corner at Hong Lim Park will celebrate its 14th anniversary.
In the last year or so, thousands of Singaporeans turned up there to protest against the Population White Paper and the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has also made its presence felt through its annual Pink Dot mass picnic at Hong Lim Park. The picnic last month drew a reported 26,000-strong crowd.
The park's current popularity stands in stark contrast to its early years, when it languished in obscurity. Indeed, there was no shortage of cynics and critics when the Speakers' Corner was first set up on Sept 1, 2000.
One of its strongest opponents was then Non-Constituency MP J.B. Jeyaretnam. He tabled an adjournment motion in Parliament in May 2000 on the planned opening and said the move does not open up freedom of expression in Singapore. It was "just a pretence".
A year later, in May 2001, he even asserted in the House that the setting up of Speakers' Corner was a trap. He was referring to a police investigation which resulted in two activists being warned for holding an assembly at Hong Lim Park without a permit.
"You will not get me there any more," the late Mr Jeyaretnam famously said.
There was a surge of initial excitement on the free speech zone in 2000 but it soon died.
The relaxation of rules in 2004 to allow performances and exhibitions to be held at the park also did little to perk up the fledgling effort to establish a free-speech venue.
While more activities could be held at the park without permits, protests continue to be barred.
The biggest shot in the arm was the Sept 1, 2008, move to allow demonstrations at Hong Lim Park without the organisers having to apply for police permission, as long as they are Singaporeans and they stay clear of race, language and religious issues.
Since then, protests can be held round the clock at the park, and a previous prohibition of loudhailers was lifted to allow their use from 9am to 10.30pm.
The changes came eight years after the free speech zone was first set up and Hong Lim Park remains the only outdoor venue where citizens can hold protests without permits. They can also do so indoors without asking for permission.
The changes were part of a broader slate of cautious moves towards political liberalisation that came about two years after the May 2006 General Election in which the People's Action Party (PAP) saw its vote share reduced, and it was read as a sign of the electorate clamouring for more political space.
The first protest at Hong Lim Park, after rules were relaxed, was an unmemorable affair by a non-profit group which hit out at employers who abused maids. The ones that followed were equally lacklustre. That was until February last year.
Public unhappiness over the Government's Population White Paper, which set out a planning parameter of up to 6.9 million people here by the year 2030, drew thousands to protest at Hong Lim Park, bringing it to life.
A more recent example was the public unhappiness over the CPF system, leading to protests in June and earlier this month.
The popularity of Hong Lim Park soared as hot button issues emerged. That is a key factor in explaining the park's surging popularity as a protest venue.
Even Mr Jeyaretnam's son Kenneth, chief of the opposition Reform Party, is now a regular face at Hong Lim, speaking up against the CPF system and turning up at the Pink Dot event last month.
But its rising popularity may pose a conundrum for the Government. It has contributed to pressure for further liberalisation, from several fronts.
For example, there have been calls for more Speakers' Corners to be set up.
In 2005, Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang tried to persuade the Government to set up a Youth Speakers' Corner at the youth park in Orchard Road. The suggestion was immediately shot down by then Minister for Community Development, Youth, and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan.
In 2012, a national committee which reviewed the arts and culture policies even called for a No-censorship Zone, akin to a Speakers' Corner for the Arts.
Apart from having more Speakers' Corners, there could be pressures on public order laws to be further relaxed, or even existing prohibition on topics of race, language or religion, or on the participation of foreigners at Speakers' Corner, to be reviewed.
But those expecting further relaxation of existing rules will have to be prepared for disappointment.
I do not see the Government yielding on potentially divisive topics such as race, language and religion.
And while foreigners, including permanent residents, can clamour for more space for political expression, it is unrealistic for them to expect the same latitude given to Singaporeans.
This was made very clear in May 2012 when the police rejected an application by Malaysians to stage a peaceful sit-in at Hong Lim Park to support a rally in Malaysia by electoral reform advocacy group Bersih.
Also, while credit must be given to the Government for gradual liberalisation, it has also stressed that public order laws will have to evolve in tandem with societal changes. That means things will move along at a slow and steady pace, rather than in big steps.
But even so, the attention on Hong Lim Park gives Singapore an opportunity to shape its own political culture, especially in how Singaporeans can disagree with and protest against government policies without being disagreeable.
There are three ways on how this might be done.
First, the time is ripe for political parties and civic groups to draw up a code of conduct on public protests or demonstrations.
For example, the code can make it clear that protests can be done in a civil manner, without having to incite hatred or anger through acts like effigy burning or poster defacement.
Second, I hope to see a broader range of issues being raised at Hong Lim Park.
Violence against women, human trafficking, low wages of workers, the wealth gap, these are some worthwhile issues which have not been given enough airing at the park.
Third, the recent protests have taken a distinctive anti-government tone, drawing the usual slate of speakers who repeatedly slammed and attacked policies.
While such views have a place, so too are the moderate or mainstream voices that are largely absent at Hong Lim.
There is a little known online movement called Stand Up For Our Singapore where volunteers go around spreading messages on graciousness and kindness.
It held a picnic at Hong Lim on May Day last year and went around spreading messages of appreciation to bus drivers during Christmas 2012.
They were ridiculed online, with a blogger writing: "This event's so positive, you've to attend at least two Hong Lim Park protests to be an angry Singaporean again."
While they may be scoffed at for being positive, without these voices, the echoes that ring from Hong Lim will not represent the range of views in Singapore society, and the park will just remain a place for those frustrated to vent their anger.
That is not what the park was intended to be, and I hope that is not what it becomes known for.
This article was first published on July 26, 2014.
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