Sunday, 23 October 2016

Foreign entities need permits at Speakers' Corner

MHA reiterates existing rules and clearly sets out what foreign entities are; Singapore entities will not need permits
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2016

The authorities have made it clear that foreign entities will have to apply for a permit to take part in Speakers' Corner events, such as the Pink Dot rally, starting Nov 1.

And the likelihood of it being approved appears dim, if the issue is deemed controversial.

Said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam last night: "In general, if it relates to controversial social or political issues, which really are a matter for Singaporeans, then it is unlikely the foreigners will get a permit."

The Ministry of Home Affairs yesterday reiterated existing rules that require foreign companies and non-governmental organisations to get a permit to sponsor, promote or get its employees to participate in events at the Speakers' Corner.

What is new is that it has now categorically set out what constitute foreign entities. They include locally incorporated or registered arms of multinational companies (MNCs) unless they are also controlled by a majority of Singaporeans. The rule is also extended to foreign entities that want to speak via tele- conferencing or pre-recorded messages at the Speakers' Corner.

But rules for local entities have been liberalised. Singapore companies and NGOs no longer need permits to hold Speakers' Corner events, or indoor assemblies. Now, only Singaporeans have this privilege.



Said Mr Shanmugam: "Speakers' Corner is for Singaporeans to articulate views, particularly when it comes to sociopolitical issues... So we needed to make that clear."

He added: "We are neutral in terms of what people can discuss and cannot, or which side people take, or which side of the argument people are supporting or against. What we are saying and where we are drawing the line is Singaporeans versus non-Singaporeans."

He said that the Government has noticed an increase in foreign participation in controversial issues.

As for which are the sociopolitical issues where foreign participation will not be permitted, he said it will be those where "Singaporeans are sharply divided in their opinions".

So, for instance, foreigners wanting to participate in the Purple Parade, which champions the cause of the disabled, will be more likely to get the green light, he said. The Pink Dot, which supports the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, less so.

The difference between the two: their potential to rile up opinions.

On the matter of unwed mothers, Mr Shanmugam said: "I think we really have to look at it issue by issue."

In June, the Government said it is reviewing regulations for the Speakers' Corner after the Pink Dot rally, which had at least 13 MNC sponsors.

Pink Dot said it is "disappointed" by the new rules. It hopes to "call on more Singaporeans and local companies, who share in our desire and vision for a more diverse and inclusive Singapore, to step forward to support us in Pink Dot 2017".

Google, which in 2011 was the first MNC to throw its support behind Pink Dot, said it intends to apply for a permit.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said the restrictions are not targeting LGBT issues. "Pink Dot is probably impacted the most. But the rules seek to avoid Singapore being an iconic and desired venue for proxy cultural wars even as we deal with similar issues."

Mr Damien Chng, director of anti-death penalty group We Believe In Second Chances, said Singaporeans should be allowed to hear foreign views at Speakers' Corner events since these can be accessed online.





HOW SPEAKERS' CORNER RULES HAVE CHANGED

2000

The Speakers' Corner is created at Hong Lim Park for Singaporeans to air their views.

Only speeches are allowed. The speaker also must be a Singaporean, register before speaking and not cause racial or religious enmity.

2004

Rules are relaxed to allow performances and exhibitions - not just speeches.

2008

Outdoor demonstrations - banned in Singapore since the racial riots of the 1960s - are allowed at the Speakers' Corner. Management of the space is also passed from the police to the National Parks Board, a statutory board under the National Development Ministry.

2011

Those who want to hold an event at the Speakers' Corner during election periods must apply for a permit, even if the event is not related to the polls.

2016

The Ministry of Home Affairs reiterates that foreign entities have to apply for a permit if they want to sponsor, promote or get their employees and members to participate in Speakers' Corner events. Conversely, Singapore entities will now be exempted from the requirement.











What foreign entities are; what constitutes interference
The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2016

Q What are foreign entities?

A Companies that are not incorporated or registered in Singapore, and which are not controlled by a majority of Singapore citizens.

For a company to be considered Singaporean, it must be incorporated under the Companies Act here, the majority of its directors must be Singaporean, and majority ownership must be held by Singaporeans or one or more Singapore entities.


Q What constitutes interference?

A According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), this refers to sponsoring, publicly promoting the Speakers' Corner event or organising its members or employees to participate in the event.


Q Which are the issues that this restriction applies to?

A The MHA said foreign entities should not interfere in domestic issues, especially when they are political or controversial. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said it will apply to topics that can "rile up opinion".


Q Does the rule apply to other events outside the Speakers' Corner?

A The Straits Times understands that it applies to events such as conferences and talks.


Q What are the penalties if a foreign entity contravenes this rule?

A Under the Public Order (Unrestricted Area) Order 2016, participants face a fine not exceeding $3,000 for a first-time offender, and up to $5,000 for a repeat offender. Penalties for organisers go up to $10,000 and/or six months' jail.





Pink Dot just 'catalyst' for Speakers' Corner reminder
Observers say Govt aims to bar foreign influence; activists still unconvinced
By Kok Xing Hui, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2016

It started in 2009 with just 2,500 supporters and no sponsors.

Its first sponsor, Google, came on board in 2011. This June, the Pink Dot lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rally had 18 sponsors - most of whom were foreign companies.

Then two weeks ago came a reminder from the authorities: Foreign companies need a permit to sponsor, promote, or get their employees to attend Speakers' Corner events.

This clarification drew mixed reactions. Political observers said it was a pre-emptive move to prevent foreign money from influencing ideology here, but some activists felt it stifled civil society.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said Pink Dot was "the trigger and catalyst" for this reminder from the authorities, but the move was meant to quell foreign influences - not LGBT issues.

He said the danger is in foreign companies backing contentious issues, using money to bring prominence to a Speakers' Corner event, and fanning the flames. For example, talking about government policies or suggesting euthanasia in an ageing society.

"The stakeholders should be Singaporeans because if tensions escalate and there is instability, the foreign companies can just up and go," he said.

National University of Singapore political scientist Bilveer Singh agreed: "Today it is Pink Dot, tomorrow it could well be anything outsiders may want to be involved in."

He said the political corridor here will open up and Singapore does not want money to determine the agenda. "These outsiders (foreigners), no matter how magnanimous they may appear - we do not want their values, norms, mores and whatever interest and agenda that may harm us."

But activist for migrant worker rights Jolovan Wham believes there is no danger in foreign influence because given today's technology "we are influenced by foreign ideas and cultures all the time".

"The Government is worried about the expansion of our civil and political space," he added.

Mr Leow Yangfa, executive director of LGBT counselling group Oogachaga, saw the reminder as a clampdown on LGBT groups and is worried that companies may become reluctant to support groups such as his.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, however, has maintained that it is neutral about the causes Singaporeans choose to support.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said two weeks ago: "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."

Meanwhile, from tomorrow Singaporean entities will be able to organise events at Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park without a permit after the Government relaxed its rules. There is trust that local companies will be mindful of which topics to back since they have local shareholders and society to account to, said Associate Professor Tan.

What is interesting to note, said observers, is how the authorities will handle local non-governmental organisations with foreign affiliation, should they choose to take up political causes.

Associate Professor Singh said: "Clearly these are like multinational corporations, financially driven and assisted by their external headquarters. The challenge is - will they be 'controlled' by Singaporeans?"

Habitat for Humanity, for example, is an American Christian organisation which builds homes for the poor. Its Singapore arm started in 2004 and is governed by a board of local directors.

Its national director, Mr Yong Teck Meng, said the foreign link is "moral in nature, not legal". While the organisation is faith-based, Mr Yong said it does not push its faith.

"They have no control over us," he said.






Keeping domestic issues for locals
Editorial, The Straits Times, 1 Nov 2016

The decision to situate Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park was in recognition of its strong local character going back to 1876, a place for storytelling, recreation, Chinese opera and domestic politics. Similar names notwithstanding, the intention was never to emulate London's Speakers' Corner, which its ardent supporters call the "most famous location for free speech in the world". The preference here is for only Singaporeans to use Hong Lim Park for public speeches or demonstrations without official sanction.

Most would agree that domestic issues, especially controversial socio-political issues, should be a matter for Singaporeans alone to debate among themselves. Lately, the Home Affairs Ministry has made it clear that foreign firms will need a permit to sponsor, publicly promote or get their staff to participate in events at the Speakers' Corner. There is scope for foreign entities to use the Corner but there are limits, given that sensitivities of race and religion need to be handled with care in multiracial Singapore. There are, for example, regulations against the palpable exploitation of religious matters at the Corner and elsewhere too. Complications are caused when other issues touch on religion. Pink Dot, the annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rally, is a case in point. It has attracted support from multinational companies such as Google, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Visa and General Electric. But it also has drawn the countervailing presence of the Wear White campaign, which opposes homosexuality.

Such contests could become more intense when foreign groups intervene in the evolving direction of Singapore society through support for their preferred causes. In the amorphous sphere of social activism, a free-for-all climate would make the Corner an anonymous terrain on which foreign economic entities use their material strength to influence social outcomes. Similar concerns are also the reason for other laws like the Political Donations Act, which prevents foreigners from interfering in Singapore's domestic politics by funding candidates and political associations. It's common elsewhere to check the hand of foreign players in domestic politics.

While Singapore remains open to economic inputs and people from across the globe, it cannot afford to lose sight of what it takes to remain a cohesive society. A practical way of averting possible tensions is to leave the shaping of social and political outcomes to Singaporeans, and them alone. Local companies or non-governmental organisations will no longer need permits to hold events at the Speakers' Corner. But it is proper for foreign entities to declare their presence if they wish to take a stand. The Corner has become part of a larger ecology of public expression that is essentially local. There are good reasons to keep it that way.




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