Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Guest piece on Speaker's Corner CCTV cameras

This was published on earlier today. They asked if I was willing to write something on this, and I obliged. It was an easy decision -- the absurdity of the situation lends itself to criticism.

“It was quite ridiculous” – Ex NMP Siew Kum Hong Speaks About Speaker’s Corner CCTV Cameras

Posted at 9:44 am under Uncategorized

I came to know about the installation of CCTV cameras at Speaker’s Corner on Facebook, when I saw it in my newsfeed. My immediate thought was: “what the…!

Singapore has always struggled with an image problem, in that it is seen as a very tightly controlled society, by both Singaporeans and foreigners. When Speaker’s Corner was first launched in 2000, that was seen as a step forward (albeit a baby step) in terms of expanding the space for public discourse in Singapore. And the Prime Minister’s announcement last year that the regulations governing Speaker’s Corner would be relaxed was also welcomed by most as another baby step forward.

So the installation of CCTV cameras would seem to be a significant step backwards. The practical effect is that they may well deter people from speaking or demonstrating at Speaker’s Corner, or to even show up to attend events, for fear of being captured and somehow “marked”.

It does not help that the explanations proffered by the police to date have been unconvincing, to say the least. In response to queries from TODAY and The Online Citizen, the police stated that “CCTVs are used to complement Police presence on the ground and to project a greater sense of security. … As part of an on-going initiative to enhance security in the neighbourhoods, Police have been extending CCTV coverage to other parts of the island. Hong Lim Park is one such area. These CCTVs do not record audio inputs and are installed for safety and security.

This response begs further questions, all unanswered. Why was Speaker’s Corner selected for the CCTV installation? And why now? After all, it is usually quiet, if not deserted. Have there been any incidents of crime to warrant a “projection” of a greater sense of security? Does not the police post adjacent to Speaker’s Corner already project a strong sense of security? In what way is that inadequate?

When TODAY asked me to comment on this development, I told them that frankly, it was “quite ridiculous”. And I stand by that. We hold Speaker’s Corner up as a sign of how Singapore has opened up, to show that there is room for free speech and a place for demonstrations and protests in Singapore. The Prime Minister even said last year, “So I think there is no need for the police to get involved. … The overall thrust of these changes is to liberalise our society, to widen the space for expression and participation. We encourage more citizens to engage in debate, to participate in building our shared future and we will progressively open up our system even more. …

And then we go and install surveillance cameras. How do you reconcile that most striking symbol of a police state, with the goal of free speech and liberalisation?

My own suspicion is that the cameras were installed in advance of the upcoming APEC meeting in Singapore. During the IMF-World Bank meeting in Singapore in 2006, there was a public protest at Speaker’s Corner, as well as an attempt to march to the venue of the meeting. The film Speakers Cornered captured the events of that day. I can only surmise that the CCTV cameras are in anticipation of similar incidents. But at what cost to Singapore?

Siew Kum Hong is a former Nominated Member of Parliament (2007-2009), and currently an aspiring civil society activist. While in Parliament, he spoke on a number of issues including ministerial salaries and civil liberties, and he also submitted to Parliament a citizens’ petition bearing over 2000 signatures calling for the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code in October 2007. He was also involved in the recent events at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).


Chee Wai Lee said...

The claim of "projecting a greater sense of security" carries no water when some poor guy can get beat up on an MRT train with CCTVs monitoring every car.

It amazes me that this guy was then unable to find restitution when he seeks it either from SMRT nor the Singapore police.

So, if the Singapore police can catch criminals using just CCTV footage, why did they tell the poor man nothing could be done? Were they not able or not willing?

xNSman said...

An excellent comment SHK. How can Singaporeans truly trust this government if they keep taking backward steps in the development of a civil society. Swiss Quality of Living bah...

Mark said...

Interesting..Sounds like a subject to add to my growing list of "uniquely Singaporean" complaints

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