World Bank wants ban on outdoor protests waived

Linus Chua
22 Aug 06

The World Bank says Singapore should allow outdoor protests at its joint meetings with the International Monetary Fund next month, after the city said it would only permit demonstrations at a designated, indoor area.

“The bank’s preference is that civil society groups should be able to peacefully express their views outside of the conference facility in a way that doesn’t cause disruption,” World Bank Singapore representative Peter Stephens said in an interview. “We have our preference and Singapore has its laws, so we’re trying to find an area that’s acceptable to all.”

Singapore forbids the public assembly of more than four people without police permits and is unused to the mass rallies associated with global trade and finance summits. At the 2005 World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong, police used tear gas to quell crowds and arrested more than 1,000 people, while 600 were injured during IMF meetings in Prague in 2000 after cobblestones were pulled from the streets and flung at police.

“We have made maximum effort to facilitate the involvement of civil society organizations, within the framework of our laws,” the Singapore government’s committee organizing the meetings said in an e-mailed response to questions.

“We are unable to waive the current rules which prohibit outdoor demonstrations and processions, so as not to compromise the high level of security that will be in place during the conference,” it said.

Terror Risk

Singapore police last month said groups accredited by the World Bank and IMF would be allowed to hold demonstrations in a designated area of the downtown convention center hosting the Sept. 12-20 meetings. All other protests will need police permission.

“Being held indoors means the number of people would be restricted,” said Ruki Fernando, a spokesman for the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, a Bangkok-based human rights group. “There can’t be activities such as cultural dances, street theater, which require big spaces.”

Under Singapore law, permission must be sought for public assemblies and speeches. The government says the rules help maintain harmony in the city, where 36 people were killed in 1964 race riots between the Chinese and Malay communities.

Still, the government said it may work with the IMF and World Bank on protests during the meetings, expected to be attended by European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet and more than 16,000 other officials.

“The World Bank has suggested some alternatives for consideration and we will examine the practicality of these,” according to the statement from the S2006 Organising Committee. “Any alternative with a realistic prospect of being adopted must be within the framework of our laws and must not compromise security, which remains our foremost priority.”

Unions, NGOs

The meetings have already attracted significant interest from lobby groups. As of Aug. 17, about 200 representatives of “civil society organizations,” or CSOs, had been accredited to participate in the meetings, and a further 200 had submitted applications, the World Bank said in an Aug. 18 e-mail.

That would represent a record in terms of participation by CSOs, which include non-governmental organizations, community and religious groups, and labor unions.

“We’re still in discussions with the authorities regarding logistical issues,” William Murray, the IMF’s spokesman in Washington, said in an earlier e-mailed response to questions about Singapore’s decision on outdoor protests.


For Singapore, the meetings are an opportunity to showcase the city as a financial center and base for doing business in Asia. Singapore is ranked second, after Hong Kong, in terms of economic freedom by the Heritage Foundation, and was named the best place in the world for Asians to live in a survey released in April by human resource consultancy ECA International.

Still, the city also has a reputation for being rule-bound and punitive, meting out penalties for misdemeanors ranging from spitting to littering. Amnesty International says the government curbs freedom of expression and in a 2005 report on human rights in the city, the U.S. Department of State cited “restriction of freedom of assembly and freedom of association” as a problem.

“It is a good opportunity for the Singapore government to show the international community that Singapore is in line with international laws in this aspect, not just in their infrastructure and economy,” Fernando said.

Both the IMF and World Bank said Singapore’s law on public assembly wasn’t a factor in choosing the city-state as a venue for the meetings, which will be held at Suntec Singapore International Convention & Exhibition Centre.

The indoor protests will be restricted to part of the lobby area, the police said last month.