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Friday, 1 September, 2000, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Singaporeans take to soapbox
Speaker
Some 25 people registered to use Speaker's Corner on the first day
Singapore has launched its own version of London's famous Speaker's Corner, where members of the public can give speeches without being subject to the country's strict censorship laws.


It symbolizes the lifting of a psychological veil

James Gomez, political scientist
Officials say the aim of the site in the city's Hong Lim Park, close to the central business district, is to encourage greater public debate conducted in "a mature, non-agitated way".

However, certain restrictions apply:

  • Only Singaporean nationals are allowed to speak.

  • Speeches have to be in one of the four official languages.

  • They must not be religious in nature or cause racial hostility.

  • And banners, musical instruments or "amplification devices" such as microphones are not permitted.

Speakers must also register at a nearby police station and their speeches may be recorded by the authorities.

'Hands-off'

Press
The audience was almost outnumbered by journalists
Police say they will patrol the area twice a day although they emphasised they would be taking "a very minimalist, hands-off approach" towards speakers.

The initial speakers to take to the soapbox on Friday drew a small crowd of curious onlookers, some of whom added their comment to the debate.

The main bugbear however seemed to be the lack of shelter from the heat provided at the site.

Critics of the corner say the number of restrictions is likely to discourage many Singaporeans from using the corners.

Staying silent

Under Singapore's Internal Security Act, which remains in force, the authorities have the power to detain anyone without trial for renewable periods of up to years.

Speaker
Officials say they want to encourage "mature" debate
One opinion poll published two weeks ago found an overwhelming 93% of Singaporeans would prefer to remain silent than openly criticise the government.

Nonetheless, officials say 25 speakers had registered to use the corner on its opening day, with one man requesting a slot for a consecutive 20-day period.

James Gomez, executive director of the independent Think Centre and one of the first speakers on Friday, praised the opening of the corner saying it symbolised the lifting of "a psychological veil" in Singaporean society.

Another, 67-year-old taxi driver Quek Hai Yong, used the stage to call on the government to reduce medical costs and provide more homes for old people.

His criticism was somewhat tempered however when he went on to praise Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong as "humble, firm and kind," and congratulate his predecessor, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, for having made Singapore wealthy and successful.

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