Singapore prefers foreign protesters over its own

Fayen Wong
18 March 2005

A decision to allow foreign activists to stage rare political protests in Singapore next year is stoking controversy and angering an opposition party whose requests to demonstrate have been denied for years.

The party criticised the government on Friday for agreeing to let foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) hold peaceful demonstrations at the 2006 annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The opposition, a meagre force in a country where the ruling People’s Action Party has governed since independence in 1965 and currently holds all but two seats in parliament, has had its requests for political rallies rejected by police in the past.

“History has shown that Singaporeans who have gathered peacefully to protest have been severely warned or punished by the government,” said Charles Tan, president of Young Singapore Democrats, a youth wing of the Singapore Democratic Party.

The decision to allow foreign NGOs to hold demonstrations, announced this month, is “sheer double standard”, Tan said.

Singapore is to host 16,000 delegates and visitors for the annual IMF and World Bank meetings in September 2006, when world financial leaders gather to discuss global trade and other economic issues.

Similar gatherings in other host cities in recent years attracted large groups of protesters.

The organisers of next year’s event, Singapore’s central bank, have said that some 300 authorised foreign NGOs may be allowed to hold peaceful protests.

The government would strictly enforce its zero-tolerance policy towards public protests, organisers said. But protesters affiliated with NGOs participating in the meetings might be allowed to demonstrate if they went through the proper channels.

“Our domestic law is not at odds with this. If they are properly registered and subject to certain conditions, we will allow the demonstrations to take place,” said Goh Chye Boon, co-chairman of the planning committee.

Public protests are rare in Singapore, where 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 ($615).

Police routinely deny applications for street demonstrations and 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.

The IMF/World Bank gathering will be the biggest international conference yet held in Singapore, which will spend up to US$80 million. Other cities that have hosted the event include London, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Those attending next year include 3,500 delegates from 184 countries and 5,000 executives. ($1=1.624 Singapore Dollar) (Additional reporting by Jacqueline Wong)

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