Letter from Singapore: Citizens Are Trapped in a Corner over Free Speech

Article excerpt

Tight-lipped Singapore is planning a forum for public speech, which has split opinion on whether this heralds greater tolerance or trumpets more loudly what regulations remain.

The Speakers' Corner, inspired by its namesake in London's Hyde Park but requiring speakers to be licensed, is intended to bring citizens out of Internet chat rooms, editorial pages and private venues to air views before the nation of four million.

But Singaporeans, in online discussions on the location and purpose of the proposed corner, are sceptical about just how free expression would be and who would dare test the limits.

'Will the government tape my speech secretly and use it in their favour?' one Internet post said.

'Can I speak as and when I like, or do I have to apply to do so? There are just too many questions.'

Singapore has strict censorship laws and rigorously enforces libel and slander statutes. Opposition leaders have been hit with huge damages for libelling members of the ruling People's Action Party; the actions have crippled them and served as a deterrent to others.

Singapore's Internal Security Act permits detention without trial for renewable two-year periods, which authorities say protects against racial and religious extremism, international terrorism, espionage and subversion.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, head of PAP, only recently accepted the plan mooted by the city state's founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

Ong Keng Yong, press secretary to Goh, said economic recovery and a desire for greater public involvement had influenced the timing of the prime minister's decision.

'The prime minister was comfortable with developments as a gradual evolution,' Ong said.

'The PM's consistent thinking has been: 'If our society is ready to discuss in a mature, non-agitated way, it's a positive development'.'

Political scientist Lee Lai To said other factors, including use of the Internet and the immediacy of information had also been catalysts.

'They have to move with the times,' he said.

But Lee and others cautioned against reading the move as a change in the political tide or system.

'The government will not have liberal democracy in Singapore. …