How about a KL Speakers’ Corner modelled after Hyde Park’s?

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Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Benedict Lopez came away form a recent visit to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park hoping that a similar space would be allocated for free speech in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite having lived in Stockholm for four and a half years and travelling widely all over the five Nordic countries, the Baltic States and other countries in Europe, I must admit that London is the only city in Europe I always enjoy visiting.

Besides the ease of moving around and the absence of any language barrier, I relish my sojourns in this city of 8.7m people like the loads of other tourists from all over the world.

Recently, I once again stopped over in London on my way back from Denmark. I may sound biased but I am never bored visiting the British capital for a variety of reasons.

For me, London has a magnetic pull because of its theatres, bookshops, and pubs. I relish savouring fish and chips at Garfunkel’s, listening to the melodious choir at Westminster Cathedral during Sunday service, and visiting the famed Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon.

In 1872, the British parliament enacted legislation designating an area in Hyde Park for public speaking on Sunday mornings and afternoons – a space which became universally known as Speakers’ Corner. For those familiar with London, Hyde Park is located adjacent to Bayswater and Marble Arch.

Aspiring speakers can get on a box and speak at Speakers’ Corner, but whether anyone will listen to them is an entirely different matter. Speakers tend to be vocal on a variety of subjects touching on local and international issues of concern. A police presence is visible to ensure no trouble occurs.

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Some speakers attract big crowds while others draw only a trickle. Nevertheless, it is entertaining and at times hilarious listening to them. Crowds usually gather at Speakers’ Corner to listen to the hodgepodge of speakers vociferously putting forward their views on a variety of issues.

Renowned as the home of free speech, Speakers’ Corner has attracted many eminent personalities from Britain and all over the world. George Orwell described Speakers’ Corner as “one of the minor wonders of the world”. Prominent Labour Party left-winger Tony Benn, a defender of free speech, frequently spoke there throughout his political career.

Now and again abuses are hurled at the speakers but no one gets hyper-sensitive about any issue – nor is there any untoward incident, even if the topic touches on race and religion. In fact, the sharp responses from the speakers invariably silence the raucous segments of the crowd and win applause from others present.

Visitors from all over the world also enjoy the repartee, and even the British take it in jest when any criticism is hurled at the them, at times even applauding the speakers. It is indeed an admirable trait of British democracy and speaks volumes for the open-mindedness of the people. I guess this is what makes Speakers’ Corner unique.

I visited Speakers’ Corner on a mild autumn’s afternoon on a Sunday in September. Once again, I was not disappointed by the speakers who blended humour with substance and entertained their audience – a real treat for all the onlookers.

Speakers and critics engaged in banter after the former alighted from their stands.

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Repartee and banter at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Such is the magnanimity of the speakers and visitors – all of them were there just to enjoy themselves on a Sunday.

The Malaysian government should take a leaf out of London’s book and designate a special area either in Dataran Merdeka or Lake Gardens for a similar Speaker’s Corner. Granting a platform for citizens to voice their views will encourage intellectual discourse among the public.

The public can use this place to talk about politics, the economy, education, health and other matters of concern such as the ever-increasing cost of living.

Permitting such public debates will go some way in denoting that Malaysia is evolving into a mature democracy and subscribing to the tenets of free speech. Issues of race and religion, however, should be prohibited due to their sensitivities – until laws are in place to prohibit hate speech.

A Speakers’ Corner in Kuala Lumpur might even be beneficial to the government: such a venue would help it to obtain feedback and gauge the pulse of the people on the ground on critical issues. After all, with the advent of the internet, social media and WhatsApp, any form of censorship of the people’s views is no longer rational.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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