The favourable public reaction to Penang’s Speakers’ Square is to be expected as it contrasts with the constant moves by the federal government to restrict and prohibit freedom of speech and assembly, observes Toh Kin Woon.
On 9 May, a group of people gathered around a spot next to the elevated dais at Penang’s famous Esplanade to listen to short speeches made by a few activists. This spot is part of the large open space that Penangites have gathered for decades for political rallies when they were allowed, ceremonies, exercise or just leisurely walks. Since early May this year, however, the spot has acquired an elevated status. It has now become Penang’s and the country’s first speaker’s corner (outside a university campus).
Launched a few days earlier by the Right Honourable Chief Minister, Tuan Lim Guan Eng, speaker’s corner or Speaker’s Square, as it is officially called, is offered by the state government as a space for the public to air their views, grievances, ideas, and complaints on a variety of issues.
The objective, which to me is a noble one, is to enhance freedom of speech. It provides an additional avenue for articulation and expression by members of the public. Needless to say, this move by the Chief Minister and the State Government has been well received and supported by the public.
This is to be expected, as it contrasts with the constant moves by the federal government to restrict and prohibit freedom of speech and assembly, such as disallowing peaceful picketing, demonstrations, protests and airing of documentaries highlighting the plight of the poor and marginalised. TV producers who are politically balanced have been denied the space to air their productions on the grounds that their contents are not pro-Barisan Nasional.
Speakers who speak at Penang’s Speaker’s Square are still bound by the restrictive and prohibitive laws of the nation, such as the Sedition Act, the Police Act and the Internal Security Act. These are, however, laws of the Federal Government – and not that of the state government – that greatly restricts the space for the free articulation and expression of views. But at least, the state government has done well to provide the physical space that is reminiscent of London’s Hyde Park for people to gather and speak.
Of course, we know that this is still not enough. To expand the space further, we must all unite to struggle for the complete abolition of all the restrictive laws of the federal government.
The movement for greater democracy must continue its onward march.
Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon is an Aliran member
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