The Opinion Collaborative crowd funds for freedom of expression

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Think we are running out of spaces in Singapore for freedom of expression? Try The Agora, a project by The Opinion Collaborative (TOC Ltd) that promises to let the voices of the marginalised be heard.

Situated in the heartlands of Midview City, The Agora was set up as a shared space for people to engage in dialogue, discussion and debates.

But that might just come to pass if the company could not pay for the overheads, which was why TOC Ltd had recently embarked on a crowd-funding project for The Agora.

“Our public spaces are shrinking,” said Mr Tan Tee Seng, a director of TOC Ltd and general manager for The Agora. “Increasingly, we are seeing the State encroach on the already limited public spaces we have. In some cases, we have observed increased police presence.”

Mr Tan was involved in an event at Speakers’ Corner last Sunday, which saw the police move in on participants. The event, called “The Yellow Sit-In”, was organised in solidarity with Bersih 5.0, a movement of Malaysian citizens and activists calling for electoral reform in their country.

However, he pointed out that The Agora was not meant to be a substitute for Speakers’ Corner, in spite of its Greek namesake.

“There will always be a use for Speakers’ Corner, but we realised that activists do not necessarily always want a big open space for a large-scale protest. Sometimes, all they need is a quiet and private place to have a decent conversation and exchange ideas, and The Agora offers just that.”

Since its launch almost two years ago, the small event space has hosted pottery exhibitions, book launches, discussion forums, film screenings and talks.

Among them include book events for graphic novelist Sonny Liew and former Coldstore detainee Dr Poh Soo Kai, “fringe screenings” of the Freedom Film Festival, and events on cause lawyering, the death penalty and Singapore’s elections.

Earlier in July this year, TISG and GLBT Voices of Singapore jointly organised a dialogue session at The Agora to discuss homosexuality and religion in Singapore, which saw a full house turnout.

Events like these, said Mr Tan, was what The Agora was originally set up for. “We need Singapore society to engage in open and involved dialogue on precisely such sensitive matters, not leave it to the authorities to police our public spaces, or take pot-shots from the side-lines.”

“Join the conversation, share your views, understand each other! That’s what we want to achieve for Singapore.”

Currently, The Agora runs on a self-sustaining model, collecting rental from partner civil society groups and book publishers, as well as selling books to event participants.

Function 8 and Maruah had been strong partners and active users of our space, and we are very grateful to have Ethos Books and Epigram Books as commercial partners,” said Mr Tan.

The Agora has also played host to other NGOs like HOME and We Believe In Second Chances. “We are also open for commercial events, and have recently hosted a talk on financial planning. So yes, we are game for anything that is useful to society, no matter how small the audience.”

But with tightening budgets all around and an increasingly lean outlook for donations to NGOs, The Agora is feeling the pinch as a knock-on effect. Mr Tan hopes that the crowd-funder will help defray a small part of its annual running costs and bring in paid marketing help to keep the event space running at maximum capacity.

Hanging over their heads is the demand by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) for TOC Ltd to surrender revenue to an overseas advertiser, but the team was determined not to let that deter the progress of The Agora.

“The case is currently under review by MCI (Ministry of Communication and Information), so there is little that we can really do now,” said Mr Howard Lee, a director of TOC Ltd and the point person speaking to IMDA. “Whatever the outcome of the case, TOC Ltd will handle it. The fund-raiser is for the future, to develop The Agora as the space we can all count on for our voices to be heard.”

Contributions to the fund-raiser can be made to the Pozible crowd-funding page, or directly to TOC Ltd’s accounts.