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“I think we better leave this place now before pictures of us appear in the Straits Times tomorrow,” the man in his 40s told the rest of the group of about ten bystanders in Tamil as he quickly made his exit down the escalator leading to the Clarke Quay MRT station.
He was obviously referring to a photographer from the newspaper who was inching his way closer to the group with his zoom lens trained on them.
The group was engaged in an animated conversation at the Speakers’ Corner, expecting to hear a talk on the use of Tamil in public signs.
The event that was publicized through SMS messages was to have started at 6.00 pm yesterday. But the police stopped it at the last minute when they refused to give a licence to the organizer under the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act.
Despite the cancellation, close to fifty people at different times turned up hoping to see and hear firsthand what was happening there.
Except for a couple of local reporters, one from the Straits Times and the other from MediaCorp, and an equal number of activists, none dared to step on the grass field. Most were seen seated in small groups on the benches dotting the footpath of the Park, engaged in the common topic of the status of the Tamil language in Singapore.
The Tamil language issue was chosen for airing by a real estate agent and his ten friends after the government said it was relaxing rules at the speakers’ corner from the 1st of this month.
The organizer was peeved by the exclusion of Tamil on the signages at Changi Airport and directional signboards all over the island.
As part of the relaxation, the government said the National Parks Board (NParks) and not the police will handle all applications from people to speak or demonstrate at the Speakers’ Corner.
Since his permit was not approved, the organizer was not around at the park yesterday.
A group of five youths who said they were students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) came not knowing that the cancellation of the event was already reported in the papers.
One of them, after reading the newspaper report commented: “Why ban it? Language is nothing to do with race or religion, the taboo subjects that cannot be raised at Speakers’ Corner.”
“So it is not NParks that approves and it’s still the police. What a joke!” another student quipped.
Sitting on one of the benches with three of his friends in another corner of the park, a man in his 60s was speaking passionately about the issue.
He said: “I kept contacting the leading personalities in the Tamil language and literary circles since this morning for their stand on the issue. They kept pushing me from one to the other. None was prepared to have an opinion on the issue,”the man said in disgust.
“Even the Indian leaders in the PAP are afraid to raise this issue,” added his friend.
In the meanwhile, those who have read about the cancellation and others who had not seen it strolled into the Park only to be told of the denial of permit by the few who remained there.
At about 9.00 pm, a man in his 50s with his family, including two teenage children, walked in but soon left disappointed. The Speakers’ Corner managed yet again to retain serenity and quiet.