Five years ago, would anyone have envisioned being able to stage protests, have bands perform for human rights, and conduct pre-election rallies at the Speakers’ Corner? Indeed, ten years ago, would anyone have thought that there would even be a Speakers’ Corner?
And yet today, the Speakers’ Corner has been used by a wide range of individuals and organisations in Singapore. But in case anyone forgets, the venue at Hong Lim Park was not always there.
It was launched on 1 September 2000. Back then, however, the rules governing the venue were quite inane. Even gesticulating with raised hands and chanting slogans were not allowed. They were relaxed in 2008 to allow demonstrations and protests.
To be very sure, this is an unsatisfactory arrangement. Public assembly cannot be restricted to one corner of the country. Such restriction mocks our political rights.
But just as Rome was not built in a day, our advancement towards a democratic society will be marked with stops and starts. What is important for now is that we have secured a venue for political activities.
What is even more significant to note is that the establishment of Speakers’ Corner signals a concession on the part of the Government. We emphasize the word ‘concession’ because the venue was not a gift from the ruling party. It came about because some had challenged (and continue to challenge) the boundaries placed by the autocracy.
Mr Lee Hsien Loong did not wake up one morning and had an epiphany about Singaporeans’ right to free expression whereupon he mooted the idea of Speakers’ Corner. The establishment of the venue came about through persistent challenges to the unjust laws that prohibited even the tiniest expression of dissent.
These challenges came by way of SDP activists waging Nonviolent Action (NVA, or more popularly called civil disobedience) and defying the undemocratic laws put in place by the British colonial government and the PAP.
But this essay is not about triumphalism for nothing has been won yet. We have merely taken that first important step in the long journey towards establishing a free society.
Rather this article is to highlight a rather disturbing matter. From time to time, we read and hear some of our fellow opposition party leaders run us down because of our efforts to push the boundaries and expand political space for Singaporeans.
Some have, directly, tagged us with the label of extremists and promoted themselves as moderates.
Others have been more indirect, stating that even though they disagreed with the unjust laws in this country, they will work within the laws because they are law-abiding. The implication is that the Singapore Democrats are not.
We remind our friends that it was democratic leaders who defied autocratic regimes in apartheid South Africa, colonialist India, and communist Europe through NVA that led to the freeing of millions from oppression and suffering. Conversely, it was the Germans, Italians and Japanese who unquestioningly obeyed their governments during WWII that led to millions being killed.
No citizen is obliged to obey unjust laws, especially those put in place by despotic regimes aimed at prohibiting citizens from exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
The Singapore Democrats are not advocating that all opposition parties practice NVA. What we are saying, however, is that when parties are unwilling to join in the effort, they should not disparage those who do.
Worse, even as they criticise the SDP for what we do, they have no qualms making use of the Speakers’ Corner today to promote themselves and the organisations they represent. This smacks of hypocrisy.
We call on our fellow opposition parties and NGOS to come together to show solidarity in the fight for the political rights of Singaporeans, and acknowledge that NVA/CD is a strategy – an effective strategy – that can be used to open up political space in Singapore.
It was the strategic application of NVA that contributed to the creation of the Speakers’ Corner.
So the next time you use the venue, please don’t decry CD and those who employed it.