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.
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 charge.
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 a “demonstration.”