Foreign firms need permit to get involved in Speakers' Corner events

SINGAPORE — Four months after it warned foreign organisations against interfering in domestic issues, especially those of a political or controversial nature, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Friday (Oct 21) reiterated that foreign firms have to get a permit if they want to get involved with events at the Speakers’ Corner.

The reminder came as it announced that Singaporean entities, such as companies, are exempted from applying for a permit, and spelt out what constitutes such entities.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said: “Our principle has always been the same — underlying it, politics in Singapore is for Singaporeans and controversial, social, political issues are to be discussed and dealt with by Singaporeans. Foreigners cannot play a role in that.”

He added: “Likewise, Speaker’s Corner is for Singaporeans to articulate views, particularly when it comes to social and political issues. Foreigners can take part in events with permit but we will have to look at the kind of events. What we have been observing is that foreign participation in socio-political issues, controversial issues, relating to Singapore was increasing. So we needed to make that clear.” 

Under amended rules that will take effect from next month, Singapore entities — such as local companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) — can organise, sponsor, publicly promote, or organise its members to take part in activities at Speakers’ Corner, without a permit. However, the exemption does not apply to their foreign counterparts.

A “Singapore entity” is defined as one that is incorporated or registered here, and controlled by a majority of Singapore citizens, said the MHA. If the entity is a company, for example, the majority of its directors must be Singapore citizens, and it must be majority-owned by citizens or one or more Singapore entities. The MHA said the changes “reinforce the key principle that the Speakers’ Corner was set up primarily for Singaporeans”.

The conditions applicable to public speaking at Speakers’ Corner will be extended to include speaking through remote means, such as through tele-conferencing and pre-recorded messages. Rules for exempted indoor assemblies under the Public Order (Exempted Assemblies and Processions) Order 2009 will be amended to align with the new Speakers’ Corner rules. 

The MHA’s latest announcements follow its statement in June, made a few days after the annual Pink Dot gathering at Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park. Pink Dot, which supports the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community here, has grown in scale since beginning eight years ago and drawn more corporate sponsorship. It had 18 sponsors this year including Google, Facebook and Bloomberg, up from nine the year before.

Bloomberg Singapore also released a video in support of Pink Dot, featuring its founder Michael Bloomberg and staff members from around the world, including those who were LGBT.

But the event’s greater visibility drew vocal opposition of some Christians and Muslims, who called on supporters to wear white on the same day as the Pink Dot gathering to promote traditional family values.

Mr Shanmugam said it is unlikely that foreigners would get a permit for events that are controversial or about socio-political issues, but the Government is unlikely to say no to foreign sponsorship of events such as for those with disabilities. “I think we will probably, generally, try and be accommodating, unless it is really something that has the potential to really rile up opinion on both sides,” he said.

When approached, Pink Dot spokesperson Paerin Choa said the group respects and understands the MHA’s position. However, it is disappointed by its latest clarifications. Pink Dot has always been a local movement dedicated to bringing LGBT Singaporeans closer to their families and to Singapore society, and it does not consider the aspiration to be controversial or political, he said. The group remains committed to organising Pink Dot and staying within legal boundaries, said Mr Choa, who called for support from more Singaporeans and local companies that share its vision, “in light of the new rules”.

Political observer and law don Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University said the new rules reaffirm the longstanding principle of not having foreign parties interfere in domestic issues, especially controversial ones. But he said: “I won’t be surprised if people perceive this to be an attempt to restrict civil society activism, to close civil society space.” He noted that the new rules will not stop corporations from promoting policies of diversity and inclusion within their offices here. 

The new rules were only a matter of time, in the context of Singapore’s “increasingly externalised security concerns” relating not only to terrorism, but also to maintaining social cohesion and unity while engaging with the global economy, said Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “I think the government recognises that if it wants to move forward on gay rights, it cannot be done in the American or European way (of legislation after sheer lobbying),” he said. “The idea of a Singapore identity is important – they don’t want foreign sponsors to try and foment change through other means… It does not mean no one can say anything in favour of or against gay rights, people can still (speak up) but on the basis of being a Singaporean entity.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VALERIE KOH AND KELLY NG

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