The IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings ("S2006" in local lingo) were supposed to be Singapore’s opportunity to showcase its progressiveness and efficiency to the financial leaders of the world. Unfortunately the current dispute over the participation of accredited civil society organisations (CSOs) threatens to diminish much of the hard work that the government and people of Singapore have put in to make this mega event a success.
The problems first surfaced when the police announced on 28 July that all outdoor protests would be banned and that registered CSOs will be designated just a small area in the Suntec Convention Centre atrium to make their voices heard — sans loudhailers. This was a huge slap in the face for CSOs who are used to large scale street marches complete with large banners, microphones and, sometimes, burning effigies.
World Bank officials registered their dissatisfaction with this decision, claiming that they were only recently informed about it and were not properly consulted beforehand.
Then came the bombshell: The police revealed that 28 activists, many of whom were accredited by the World Bank to attend the meetings, would be denied entry. (This number mysteriously decreased to 27 in later news reports.) The authorities had probably done background checks on these activists and assessed that they were likely to attempt to lead their organisations in street protest while in Singapore.
The World Bank and IMF have been feeling the heat from CSOs, many of whom have accused the institutions of deliberately choosing Singapore as a venue because they knew protesters would not have the opportunity to demonstrate against what they believe are injustices against people in developing countries. The Inter Press News Agency, which is closely aligned with several CSOs, published an article on 31 July titled "World Bank Finds Refuge in Nanny State". On 12 September, a leading anti-globalisation group, Jubilee South, alleged that Singapore police had visited Batam’s local police and "asked them not to allow" the International People’s Forum, an anti-IMF gathering, to be held there. After initial announcements by the Batam police that the gathering would be banned, the police there finally relented and the meeting was finally cleared to take place.
Responding to the pressure from CSOs, World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, and his managing director have both publicly accused the Singapore government of breaching the Memorandum of Understanding signed three years ago where it was agreed that all accredited CSO representatives would be allowed to attend the meetings. Even the European Union (EU) has weighed in the issue. The Finnish EU Presidency issued a statement urging the Government to "reconsider its decision" to impose the entry ban and that "open and constructive dialogue between civil society and the World Bank institutions is very important for the development of World Bank policies". The EU emphasised that the activists had been accredited by the World Bank and should have the right to participate.
The police cited security concerns, specifically the threat of terrorism against the delegates, as their reason for banning outdoor protests and blacklisting these individuals, whom they labelled as "troublemakers". The World Bank has pointed out that there was "insufficient clarity" and a lack of a "coherent explanation" by the Singapore authorities regarding these concerns. This is unsurprising, since nobody, I suspect, actually believes that these 27 activists are going to commit acts of terror against the S2006 delegates.
Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong revealed the political considerations behind the protest ban when he recently told Bloomberg TV that "we have very strict rules for our own locals, and we can’t have two standards because otherwise, we’ll be in deep political trouble with our own citizens". However, judging from the massive influx of foreign talent into Singapore, it’s hard to believe that the Government is overly concerned about Singaporeans’ unhappiness over favourable treatment of foreigners. The "political trouble" SM Goh referred to was probably the paranoia within government circles that if foreign activists were allowed to protest at S2006, it would open up a can of worms — with a precedent already set, local opposition figures and activists would then demand equal rights to mount outdoor protest in the future and the Government would then have its hands full trying to "fix" them.
Singapore Democratic Party Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan had earlier this week written a letter to Paul Wolfowitz alleging that "the ‘security’ reasons given for the ban are but a smokescreen". He has decided to take this opportunity to lead a protest march today in defiance of the ban and repeated warnings from the police that "anyone participating in it would be committing and offence". Dr Chee’s intent is clear: He wants to police to arrest him in full view of the 23,000 delegates to make himself look like a "martyr" and in the process embarrass the Government. This is one wish that the police will surely grant to Dr Chee, regardless of what the S2006 delegates think. The result, unfortunately, will be further damage to Singapore’s already poor reputation for lack of free speech. (The World Bank’s recently released "Governance Indicators" have scored Singapore in the 90s out of a scale of 100 for all indicators except "voices and accountability", which Singapore scored a pitiful 33.)
All these happenings are unfortunate given the $100 million and thousands of man-hours that the government has poured into organising S2006, including the expensive "Four Million Smiles" campaign and the over-the-top "flowers on Orchard Road" to impress the delegates. It is therefore a small consolation that the Government has backed down slightly by deciding to grant twenty-two of the 27 activists entry. This announcement came on the eve of the day in which most of the bigwigs, including Britain’s finance minister and likely future prime minister Gordon Brown, are arriving in town. But the damage had already been done. 164 CSOs had already announced a boycott of all S2006 events and the international wires and press, including the respectable Financial Times, has had their field day mocking Singapore’s draconian measures. Bad PR like this only denigrates Singapore’s otherwise stellar reputation overseas for good governance.
I hope that the Government would realise that its hard-line stance against legitimate civil society voices does no good for Singapore’s international reputation, nor does allowing those voices to be heard compromise our internal security.
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