The taxi driver agreed to take me to Hong Lim Park, but he was
none too happy when I told him I wished to visit the park's big
new attraction: Speaker's Corner.
Modeled after London's famous free-speech gathering place in Hyde
Park, Singapore's version, which opened last September, is an attempt
by the government to encourage free expression while keeping a clear
sense of boundaries. Famously authoritarian, Singapore's paternalistic
government realizes that its citizens need to be more outspoken
to succeed in the global economy, where outspokenness and rule-breaking
often fuel innovation.
My driver is skeptical. If he were to speak his mind in the park,
he says, "the police
would come to arrest me, call me communist." If the government "wants
free speech," he adds, "they shouldn't put a police station next to
Speaker's Corner." Indeed, people must register at the police station
before they speak.
Talk is cheap at Speaker's
Many Singaporeans, like this taxi driver, don't think freer speech
is possible here. And foreign human rights activists have dismissed
Speaker's Corner as a sham. But interestingly, Singapore's leading
dissenters see it as a new way to mount legal protests in a country
where the government must essentially approve all public meetings,
and critics are routinely silenced by the threat of jail without
To outsiders, Singapore is an Orwellian place, the epitome of state
control in the age of cyberspace. But according to James Gomez,
the citizenry knows all too well how to police itself. Gomez, 36,
argues that the country's repressive government gets too much credit
for stifling individuality and criticism. He insists that Singaporeans
are to blame as well for their timidity, and that by shedding self-imposed
limits they can find a new voice for fruitful political debate.
Gomez's book Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame has won
a cult following in the country on the strength of its sober criticism
of the national character and its restrained criticism of the ruling
People's Action Party (PAP), which has dominated the government
since the country's founding in 1965. While concluding that the
PAP has created a "censorial political culture" that discourages
open debate, he pins much blame for the political sterility of Singapore
on its own citizens.
Gomez prefers pushing sound liberal principles rather than scoring
political points against an entrenched government. But even this
conceptual approach to dissent is risky. Late last year, Gomez began
organizing visits to Speaker's Corner. He and a half-dozen others,
and sometimes more, would hold forth in the park, one after another.
He even had the boldness to describe in a flier publicizing one
such gathering of like-minded thinkers, held on December 10, as