Pink Dot, Speakers' Corner and the Death of Singapore's Only Space for Dissent

Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
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The Singapore government is barring foreigners from assembling at Hong Lim Park in support of LGBT rights.

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Hong Lim Park is dead. Long live Hong Lim Park.

When people gather for Pink Dot – the closest thing Singapore has to a gay pride event – on July 1, 2017, they’ll have to celebrate behind a fence, with security at all entrances and exits.

Hong Lim Park wasn’t really that much of a space to begin with. The small public park, also known as Speakers’ Corner, is the only place in Singapore in which people can congregate for speeches, protests, rallies and demonstrations without a permit. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules: this year, foreign entities – such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Barclays, all of whom had sponsored previous Pink Dots – are barred from supporting events at the park without a permit. Amendments were made to the Public Order Act also bar foreigners from assembling at Hong Lim Park. If this law is breached, both the foreigner and the organizers of the event could be arrested and prosecuted. The penalty upon conviction has been stipulated as “a fine not exceeding S$10,000 [US$7,228] or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both.”

The logistics of enforcing such legislation is a massive headache for anyone wanting to organize an event at Hong Lim Park. With the passage of this amendment, the government is essentially requiring organizers to ensure that only Singaporeans and permanent residents enter a public park for the duration of their event – a demand that is as onerous as it is unreasonable.

This was amply demonstrated at Pink Dot’s 2017 launch on May 30, when the organizers announced that, after protracted negotiations with the Singapore police, they were left with no choice but to barricade the entire park. Identification and bag checks would be carried out at seven different entrance and exit points to make sure that only Singaporeans and permanent residents entered Hong Lim Park. As the law places this responsibility on the shoulders of the organizers, Pink Dot also has to bear the considerable cost of erecting the barricades and hiring security staff to conduct the checks. The Singapore police will be present on the day, but are unlikely to take any part in this operation. (If, however, foreigners did get past the barricade somehow to join Pink Dot, the police would of course be able to swoop in and arrest them, as well as the event organizers.)

The farce of an event about love, pride, inclusivity and acceptance being forced erect barricades would be hilarious if it didn’t have outrageous real-world consequences. These new laws are actually keeping families apart: Singaporeans with non-resident spouses or relatives will not be able to attend Pink Dot together. These “foreign” loved ones will have no choice but to stay away even as their local halves don pink outfits to celebrate the “freedom to love.” Many details still remain unclear: what if Singaporeans have young non-Singaporean children? Are the kids meant to stay away in the name of “preventing foreign influence”? What if Singaporean families with elderly relatives or very young children require the help of their migrant domestic workers to attend? What about the crew in charge of setting up the tents and audio equipment – many of whom will presumably not be Singaporean? What would the attitude be towards the members of the foreign press?

The implications also extend far beyond just this pride rally; it affects every civil society event held at Hong Lim Park in the future, most of whom have less material support and resources than Pink Dot. If the only solution acceptable to the police was the erecting of barricades for Pink Dot, will they make similar demands for future events? After all, any event, no matter its size, would run the risk of foreign attendance. This is particularly true of solidarity events, such as the ones that had previously been held in support of Occupy Central in Hong Kong or the Bersih movement in Malaysia – should Singaporeans simply give up on holding such events, or hold them while demanding that the very people we’re trying to stand in solidarity with stay away?

If this is the length to which organizers have to go to protect themselves from prosecution, then the whole concept of Hong Lim Park as a Speakers’ Corner loses its meaning. One might not need to apply for a police permit, but could be forced to spend huge amounts of money, time and energy policing one’s own event, failing which fines or jail time await. Organizing an event will turn from an act of democratic participation to a risk in a city-state where there is already so much fear of politics and dissent.

Disclosure: The author is one of the local sponsors of Pink Dot 2017, and will be speaking at the event on July 1.

Editor: Edward White

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