25 November 2010

Speak Easy

Thanks, President Lincoln, for designating national Thanksgiving Day. In 1863, America stood divided by the Civil War, yet the Honest One created a day of unity. Of course its meaning didn’t keep the Acton house free from family arguments in between mouthfuls of turkey and fixin’s. Now that I have dinners of my own with friends, I actually miss a few raised voices during the feast. In honor of the delicious and loquacious Thanksgiving dinners of my youth, I visited Singapore’s “free speech area,” Speakers’ Corner.

I set out for Speakers’ Corner on a typical Singapore day. It was high noon. The sun was blazing and the air still. Hong Lim Park was just a five minute walk from the subway stop, but by the time I arrived I glistened with sweat as if I’d been running for five miles. The park is steeped in history. It was the epicenter of public gatherings and political speeches during Singapore’s fight for independence from Malaysia during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In 2000 it was chosen as the site for Speakers’ Corner.

The leader of Singapore’s breakaway movement was Lee Kuan Yew. I bet Mr. Lee, the island nation’s founding father, 1st Prime Minister, and current Minister Mentor, staged political rallies and gave countless number of speeches in Hong Lim Park on his way to a remarkable victory of independence. Given its history, it was appropriate to make the park the venue for Speakers’ Corner. It may be the selected spot for free speech, but it comes with an extensive list of rules and regulations.

I expected to find a corner of the park with a podium or designated space. I pictured a fountain and a grassy area shaded by trees with an abundance of colorful flowers. Instead, I saw a police station next to a wooden sign marked “Speaker’s Corner” with a CCTV camera mounted alongside. Trees lined the parameter of the park, but provided no shade for the grassy patch in the center. Singaporeans were required to obtain permission at the police station to use Speakers’ Corner, but now the process is online through the parks department. Other policies involving the free-speaking zone aren’t as straight forward.

The freedom to assemble and freedom of speech is assured in the Constitution of Singapore. However, Parliament has the right to restrict it in order to protect the city-state’s security, to prevent incitement to criminal offense, and to keep public order. It is illegal for 5 or more people to gather without a permit.

I was just one person, so no worries. There I stood beside the Speakers’ Corner sign under a watchful mechanical eye. I wanted to feel the passion of a cause or be moved to inspirational words; however, I’m just a guest in a foreign land. What could I possibly say to Singapore as a tribute to my childhood Thanksgivings in Ohio? All I had in mind was my favorite American anthem, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” In a normal speaking voice, I recited the words of the first stanza to an empty park. I’d like to say that it felt good or that it empowered me, but all it did was make me feel downright creepy. Strolling around the park taking pictures and walking back to the subway I convinced myself that whoever watched me on the CCTV monitor was tailing me.

That night, while drinking a cocktail, I had a big laugh at myself. Throughout the day I had worked my paranoia into a WWII Nazi-occupied scenario where I was sure I’d hear a midnight knock on the door. I saw myself speaking like Peter Lorre in Casablanca imploring, “Save me!” as Major Strasser had me dragged away. With high spirits and ease of mind, I started to outline this entry. I looked through my pictures and gasped when I read Speakers’ Corner Rule 6: The speaker must be a citizen of Singapore.

My goose is cooked. Happy Thanksgiving!

Update: Last Thanksgiving I wrote about my search for a turkey baster in Singapore. My sister, Valerie, came to the rescue! Thanks, Val.

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