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Singaporeans Hone Soapbox Skills

September 2, 2000

SINGAPORE (AP) _ A handful of Singaporeans spouted views on social and political issues at the opening of ``Speakers’ Corner,″ the first forum for speaking publicly without a license in the tightly controlled city-state.

Dozens of people gathered in Hong Lim Park on Friday to listen to around 20 orators who had signed up to speak on topics ranging from foreign workers to caring for the elderly.

Listeners were mainly supportive of the forum, an unusual experience for Singaporeans used to a short leash when it comes to freedom of expression.

``It’s a good idea. It’s step one towards getting people to express themselves more,″ said Rosalind Mowe, a cookbook editor who said she came to the park ``out of curiosity.″

For years, residents of Singapore wanting to speak out in public have had to wait for authorities to issue special licenses. At Speakers’ Corner, there is no need for a license.

But the venue, loosely based on its historic, anything-goes namesake in London’s Hyde Park, has its limits.

Orators must show identification and register with police before speaking, and topics that may incite racial or religious hostilities are not allowed.

A board pinned at one end of the park reminds would-be speakers that anyone who flouts the rules may be suspended from registration for 30 days or charged in court.

The rules include a ban on musical instruments, banners and ``amplification devices″ such as microphones, said police spokesman Phillip Mah.

Still, police are taking ``a very minimalist, hands-off approach,″ he said.

There was no obvious police presence at the park. One elderly speaker drew a crowd with his strongly anti-government views.

``Everyone should fight against the (governing) People’s Action Party,″ Tan Soo Phuan said.

Some free-speech advocates have praised the idea of Speakers’ Corner as a breakthrough, while others have scoffed at it because of its restrictions.

James Gomez, Singaporean author of the book ``Self-Censorship: Singapore’s Shame,″ told The Associated Press on Friday that the corner was a first step toward greater public debate in the city-state.

He cautioned, however, that it would take ``a long time″ for Singaporeans to overcome their fear of speaking in public.

Gomez, who got up to speak at the park, circulated pamphlets about a new local publication aimed at supporting free speech. He was also trying to draw up a petition calling for a reversal of the ban on microphones at Speakers’ Corner so that orators can be better heard.

Speakers asked the government to solve a variety of problems.

Quek Hai Yong, a 67-year old taxi driver, came to ask that the government reduce medical costs and provide more homes for the elderly.

But Quek, who had prepared a written statement, still took care to praise Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong as ``humble, firm and kind,″ and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for having made Singapore wealthy and successful.