BERTHA HENSON: I have been doing some research on the Speaker’s Corner for an article I have been commissioned to write, right from the time it was first mooted by, yes, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It was PM Goh Chok Tong of the kinder, gentler nation mantra who actually balked at it at first before deciding that it was “safe’’ to go ahead without the social fabric getting torn up or burnt down. Those with long enough memories will recall what a joke the Speakers’ Corner was then. No microphones, no loudhailers, topics to be given in advance ecetera and definitely no protests or demonstrations of any sort. Oh, and you sign up with the police, not the NParks if you want to use the space. That was way back in the late 1990s when even indoor events needed a public entertainment licence. People wondered at that time if raising your hand would constitute a “demonstration’’.
Then the rules started getting relaxed to allow for performances and you can actually have a stage and a microphone. Then more and more people started using the space. Why not? It’s nice and big. And free of charge. Whether you want to stage a vigil or carnival or do an election-style rally or rant, Hong Lim Park is a great venue, with MRT stations so close by. No need to book weeks in advance. You wonder then why it is such “hot’’ property with people vying to hold events there. I suppose we have to thank the father of Hong Lim Park, Gilbert Goh, for turning the park back to the landmark place it used to be. Every other week, there seems to be a political event of some sort.
It’s a confined space, yes, and those who have wanted to stage marches from or to Hong Lim Park have been told no. So Ms Han Hui Hui wanted to do a march ON the park grounds, like some kind of parade. Interesting. A better idea than asking people to bring posters lambasting politicians or setting effigies on fire or spitting on portraits of people you don’t like.
I love being at Hong Lim Park to watch the range of people, including clueless tourists, who attend various events. This was a place for people to “let off steam’’, for those who feel disenfranchised or marginalised to say their piece, for non-mainstream groups to feel at home together. Of course, plenty of mainstream groups use it too, like the YMCA today. I think of those days when individuals would bring their own crates to stand on to speak to a sparse crowd (if you can even call it a crowd) and I think about how far we have come. Of course, it is never far enough for some people. We watch the demonstrators in foreign countries on TV and we think about how exciting it looks. We wonder why not do it here as well, or we ask ourselves – can we?
Truth to tell, a lot of the stuff of the political kind is pretty defamatory. But no one seems to have sued anyone for anything – yet. I guess there is a consensus even among the thin-skinned that this is the place for you to rant if you can’t be rational. Do you realise it’s actually safer to rant at the park than rant online? It is like exercising parliamentary privilege! And plenty of rants we’ve heard. I have heard reason too, by speakers are more concerned with laying out the facts, than working up the crowd. For some of the more outrageous “facts’’, I try to check on them when I get home, just to see if they were put in the right context. Again, sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s amazing what adding a few more words or subtracting a few more words can do to a “fact’’.
Even if everything said there is fiction, I think it is good to know how people are perceiving things. It is “feedback’’ and an opportunity for the powers-that-be to correct misperceptions and dispel rumours in other ways – even if they do not want to engage speakers directly. Hong Lim Park might not be the “pulse’’ of the people, but there are beats that should be heard, countered or responded to.
As for the “thousands’’ who turn up for some of the bigger events, I wonder if they should be counted as “supporters’’. I can bet anything that a big proportion of people are there just to watch if there would be fireworks. They are “spectators’’, not “supporters’’. Of course, there will be supporters who carry placards or are fervent believers of the cause. I wish I was there today, as a spectator to see the fireworks.
So what was the problem today….let’s see…
It’s about NParks letting two events go on at more or less the same time. They were quick enough to say no to the Lawrence Khong group which wanted the same date as Pink Dot, so why were they tardy here?
I guess it’s because Pink Dot would have occupied the whole space and whatever the Khong camp says, it is clear as daylight to anyone that the event was meant to compete head-on. But Return My CPF versus a YMCA concert? In any case, NParks claims that multiple events on the park is pretty normal. I guess it will have to re-write its manual after today.
And what was all that fuss about the YMCA being a People’s Action Party front? So what if it is? So what if a Mayor graced the event or the Prime Minister? Ms Han says she had been advised to cancel or postpone the event by “grassroots’’ people and the police. It seems to me that they were right (!) to advise her to do so. What a farce! No one will remember what was said at the event – but they will remember adults heckling special needs children and marching around the concert stage! I think their CPF should remain locked up forever!
I thought the authorities were superbly patient with Ms Han and her attempts to hold them to account with her repeated questions for names, designations and sections of the law. She sounded like a broken – and a very high-pitched – record. I really don’t see what the fuss is about moving the event to a more secluded space so as not to distract people who want to be at either event. Sure, everyone has “rights’’, but to insist on “rights’’ when there is a solution or compromise is not exercising those rights responsibly or graciously or respectfully.
I hope nothing drastic happens to the park because of Ms Han’s antics. Like registration being handed back to the police and having to sit down and not move around (that is, no march, no placards) when an event is taking place. We have won the space by respecting the law and respecting the views of others. It took time, it was hard earned. I dread to think that some hardliners will want the OB markers drawn tighter because adults do not know how to behave respectfully towards the authorities, fellow citizens – and even children.
It’s just a matter of respecting others, the way we want to be respected too.
This commentary was written by Bertha Henson.
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