When Hong Lim Park speaks: Who’s listening?

Cretids To Cory Doctorow/Wikimedia commons

By Holly Reeves

Hong Lim Park, a two-acre grassy square near the financial district, is unique in Singapore as a site where large groups, sometimes in their thousands, can peacefully assemble to voice critical opinions. But only with restrictions.

As the only place where protests are allowed in the city-state it has become a focal point for cultural activism. However, its prominence is because it is officially designated as a protest space. Although it was home to election rallies and political speeches in the 1950s and 1960s, it did not assume its protest identity through bottom-up social upheaval like cultural centres such as Tahir Square in Egypt.

And it is this controlled environment that means some people consider the park a joke, but is it also an important focal point for Singaporeans to shed their image of being obedient and apathetic?

Freedom of association?

The White Paper Protests of 2013 (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-02-16/singaporeans-protest-plan-to-increase-population-by-immigration), brought the largest political gathering since independence when the government moved to bring in more foreigners to sustain economic growth.

Organizer Gilbert Goh estimated 4,000 people joined the demonstration singing patriotic songs and holding signs saying, “The large crowd here shows the PAP government that they are not afraid any more, they don’t want to hide behind a moniker on Facebook to show their displeasure.” However the idea was still passed and the infrastructure concerns at the root of the protests haven’t changed.

The biggest annual event for the park is Pink Dot, the chance for the LGBT community to come together to call for liberalisation of the laws on same-sex relationships. Over 28,000 people attend the most-recent all-day event, which has been held every year since 2009.

However, even this action is not entirely free. Over the same weekend, conservative, “pro-family” groups have taken part in a campaign dubbed We.Wear.White, which calls on the public to wear white as a “pro-Government, pro-Singapore message”. At the same time, Pastor Lawrence Khong of the Faith Community Baptist Church also caught on to this trend, and organized a, “family worship” for the same time.

Meanwhile, the police maintain rigorous surveillance of events, including Pink Dot, allowing only Singaporeans and permanent residents to hold pink placards to come together to make the pink dot itself. This year this was particularly strict, with the police zealously checking identity cards to make sure no foreigners took part.

A final nail in the coffin of the reputation of the park was the actions of several activists that disrupted a charity event for special needs children at Hong Lim in 2014. In a protest about pension funds organised without approval from the National Parks Board, Han Hui Hui shouted loudly, chanted slogans, waved flags, blew whistles and beat drums – reportedly upsetting a number of the vulnerable children in attendance.

Fining her for her actions the judge explained, “This is a case where, ironically and regrettably, the accused persons while ostensibly championing the rights of a class of persons, did so by blithely trampling on the rights of another group of persons (http://www.ibtimes.sg/singapore-blogger-han-hui-hui-appeal-against-public-nuisance-conviction-2106).” It’s a timely reminder of the importance of protest, but not at all costs.

Space to think

Several signposts around the park denote what is and what is not permitted and any activity that is seen to be against ‘racial or religious harmony’ is forbidden. Nevertheless, due to its size, centrality, symbolic meaning and historical significance, Hong Lim Park is unique as a public space for diverse voices in Singapore.

But is the space enough? For activists to make a real impact public work must sit along private work, quiet conversations and opportunities to develop new ideas. With that in mind, is outdoor protest truly free protest at all? Instead it’s a gesture whose potential has been watered-down by authoritarian restrictions. Its existence is important; its impact is not.