Use of public space in Singapore and Paris
“Life without speech and without action ... has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.”
In May 1968, after several weeks of discussions due to the economic crisis and the cultural, social and political context, students took down Nanterre, and then La Sorbonne. Thousands of people walked the streets and workers started strikes, which lead the French president De Gaulle to leave office, dissolve the assembly and organize early elections, which were won by his party, despite what people thought. This movement became emblematic for France, but especially for Paris, a city where protest are part of the day to day life, an old tradition that may took its origin with the French Revolution of 1789. The street, political use of the public space, are for the Parisians a way to show their happiness, discontent or fears. The use of public space doesn’t belong only to left parties, last year more than a million of people walked from Denfert-Rochereau to Invalides, from Porte Maillot to Arc de Triomphe in three manifestation against gay marriage, a movement leaded by conservatives. In fact, the boulevards of Paris are full of citizens protesting every week meanwhile 10,578 km away, Singapore’s Speaker’s Corner- the only public space free for public speeches- remains empty week after week, the grass perfectly green, cut and hydrated. By the different public spaces and use of it, we can tell from afar that the politics of Singapore and Paris are different. Both countries claim to be a democracy, but when it comes to let the people talk and express their own ideas, their laws and shape of the public space differs.
Speeches and manifestation are essential to people. Hannah Arendt, who worked on the notion of public space, wrote: “Life without speech and without action ... has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.”. By controlling what people say, and where and how they can express themselves, you shape a deep part of the society. Both Paris and Singapore ́s politicians understood this problematic. Paris has a longer history than Singapore, and the city is a result of different influences. The island tried to redefine itself, creating a simulacrum of a town. Everything is planned, URA and HDB have a free power, and the same party retains all the authorities since the British leaved.
With around 3500 public protests a year Paris has become famous for it, the strikes they are often linked with and for its freedom of expression. Media are not under any censorship and neither is the Internet. Singapore is poor in allowing for protest, and the public demonstrations are illegal outside of the boundaries of the speaker corners. To understand the two systems it is important to define protest and manifestation. In Paris protests, strikes, talks and demonstrations are not easy to separate by looking at the use of space. In all cases, people walk from point A to point B, singing, screaming slogans and holding banners. Sometimes they block the space, like when the farmers blocked the entrances of Paris with their tractors in November 2013. Thus, this event showed how easy it is to disturb the Parisian circulation. In Singapore the main difference is between legal and illegal, Speaker Corner and outside. Some people break laws once in a while; in March 15 of 2008 19 people including Singapore Democratic Party secretary Chee Son Juan held a demonstration at Parliament House in the context of the “Tak Boleh Tahan” (which means in Malay “I can’t take it anymore”), a campaign launched by the party to protest against the raise of living costs in Singapore. The police warned, the protestors stayed, the police arrested, the protestors were sued. They defended themselves using the Singaporean constitution and their right to “enjoy the guarantees of freedom of assembly and expression”. But this right seems to be applied only in the small area of Hong Lim Park.
To hold a manifestation in both cities you need a registration. But while in Singapore it can be done online, in Paris you need to go to the Police. In Singapore the right is nominative, in Paris it is mostly under an association’s name. In both cities you need to give a purpose of the gathering. In Paris, cars or motorcycles can also be registered, and a path has to be chosen, then the Police approve it or not, and if people gather without approval they can be arrested. The latter case is unusual since only a few manifestations are forbidden, when it involves either far right-wing ideas or manifestations that will probably create violent unrest (regarding the Israeli-Palestine conflict for example). The police avoids accepting the manifestations that seems to be cause of conflict, between religions or ethnicity. A certain ideology can be seen behind, and the need of keeping the idea of the Nation is strong. People can be against the laws of the government, but they should not fight against each other. Memories of the Commune de Paris are still alive. Therefore we can argue that even in Paris, the purpose of the manifestation is controlled.
It is interesting to see the process to follow to use the public space, while it is supposed to be a place for everyone to be free to speak. Paris has a certain culture of talk, like most of the European countries, a culture of the Agora still present today. Singapore is lacking on this point, and looking around the South East Region is rarely affected by manifestations and strikes.
People occupying the street, blocking a district of a city, and organizing their lives in a new space, are often attacked by the authority. Could this happen in Paris? Probably. Could this happen in Singapore? I don’t think so. The definition of public space is then a new problematic. Hanging around Singapore you notice that people don’t meet as much as Parisian in benches, but tend to meet in air-conditioned spaces, like for example malls, that are not public spaces. Reflections of Hannah Arendt about the subject could be modernized, since in Singapore public space tends to disappear.
In Paris and Singapore, holding people in a specific space is important. It is a way to control them if needed for security reasons. The way to shape the space is a clue. When Haussmann designed Paris, he created “percées” (opening) by drawing “boulevard”, linking police stations, freeing the view and large enough to allow for the use of tanks. His works where actually followed by the Commune of Paris, a city revolution, and people had then to build barricades to occupy the space. In Singapore the Speaker Corner was created in 2000, and it is located near two police stations. The outdoor space in itself is in open-air, and no shade is provided, while the climate does not allow standing up in the shining sun for hours. There are not many shops to buy water around either. Since 2009 the government installed CCTV cameras around. Speaker ́s Corner became therefore one of the most surveilled places in town. The space is not only shaped through urban planning, but also technology. It evokes the Panopticon and shows how easy it is to control a population through modern processes. When people walk around these two cities, the question of politics and their implication in the design of the city is not easy to notice.
Singapore and Paris were shaped in different ways, and the place between workplace and home, the “thirdplace” as Ray Oldenburg called it, is a key to understand the two political systems. From a big picture of the city, with interventions possible in Paris thanks to the boulevards, or the big gatherings hard to conceive in Singapore due to the labyrinth of its roads, to details with place occupied or Speaker ́s Corners, we can conclude that the political system reflects into the urban shape of both cities. One place for manifestations in Singapore as opposed to the whole city of Paris, one park versus streets, one boundary versus organic boundaries. Two cities that choose to give to the people a very distinct way of public expression.
Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973).
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Foucault, Michel. Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison (Paris : Gallimard, 1975).
(Paper produced during the class "Paris Singapore" at NUS)