31 Mar 2005

Singapore rejects bid for casino protest march

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Thu Mar 31, 2005 03:33 AM ET

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore police have rejected a political activist's bid to demonstrate against a proposed casino, saying it would have disrupted civil order.
J.B Jeyaretnam, a feisty 80-year-old former opposition leader, had applied to march at city hall on April 17, a day before the government is to announce whether it will go ahead with a controversial plan to build Singapore's first casino.

"The government is worried about big numbers turning up for the protest," Jeyaretnam told a news conference on Thursday. "Even if it was just 10,000 to 20,000 people, it would be embarrassing for the government."

Jeyaretnam, a lawyer and the first opposition politician to break the ruling People's Action Party's parliamentary monopoly when he won a seat in 1981, was forced out of politics in Singapore when he was declared bankrupt.

In November, he lost a legal battle to discharge a bankruptcy ruling barring him from standing in the next general election due by 2007 following three libel suits, including one brought by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.

The government's proposal for a resort-style casino has divided public opinion but is widely expected to be approved. Religious groups and social workers warn that it would fuel crime and social ills in one of Asia's safest cities.

Jeyaretnam said his failure to obtain a permit to march shows that, despite the government's vows to open up and loosen social controls, political freedom remains elusive.

"They have been calling on Singaporeans to come on, stand up and talk, but here is the opportunity presented to them and they turned it down flat," said Jeyaretnam. "What I want to drive home is that there has been no change at all."

Police routinely deny applications for street demonstrations in Singapore. Opposition politicians are only allowed to make public speeches in designated places during election campaigning or at an outdoor "Speakers' Corner" in a city park fashioned after London's Hyde Park -- right next to a police station.

Public protests are rare in Singapore. Public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit. A person convicted of unlawful assembly can be fined up to S$1,000 ($605).

The U.S. State Department, in its February annual report, sharply criticised Singapore for using libel suits to intimidate the opposition, saying the threat inhibits opposition politics and has led to a culture of self-censorship in the media.

The government says a high degree of control over public debate and the media is needed to maintain law and order.

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