World Bank finds refuge in nanny state

Marwaan Macan-Markar
31 Aug 06

It was inevitable: Singapore had to bare the police state soul that lurks behind its modern steel-and-glass buildings and elegant shopping emporia. And who better to have as partner in crime than the World Bank.

The occasion was the announcement by a senior police official in the affluent city-state that street protests and demonstrations, during the mid-September meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), have been banned.

Reports over the weekend in the Singapore press, all of them government mouthpieces, had police chief Soh Wai Wah saying that the country’s laws could not be changed for this major international event, which runs from Sep.12-20. Police permits are needed for any group of over four people to hold an outdoor demonstration and even then, as evident last year, the protestors risk being set upon by the anti-riot police.

Some 16,000 delegates from 184 countries will see how authoritarianism and capitalism have become perfect bedfellows in South-east Asia’s richest country. Representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) accredited to engage with the meeting’s officials ”will only be permitted to express their views inside the convention centre, in a special area,” reports the government-owned ‘Straits Times’. ”Even then, they must stick to police rules, which include bans on wooden or metal poles to hold up placards.”

The police official justified this ban on outdoor protests — now a regular feature at the annual meetings of the Bank and the IMF — by invoking the fear of terrorism. ”The threat of a terrorist incident is a real one, and requires Singapore to take all necessary and effective measures to safeguard the meeting,” the police chief was quoted in the ‘Times’.

In response to this development — which NGO activists say will be a blow to the Bank, given the strident measures it has taken to push its message of transparency, openness, accountability and democracy — is an attempt by the Bank’s pointsman in Singapore to feign surprise.

”The World Bank learned only on Wednesday of the proposed arrangement for civil society,” says Peter Stephens, the Bank’s representative, in a three-paragraph statement. ”We have not had an opportunity to discuss them in any detail with the Government of Singapore, nor to consider the implications of such arrangements.”

They are excuses being dismissed as fake than fact by NGOs that IPS spoke with. ”The Bank had to offer a pro-forma excuse and that is what it we have got,” says Jenina Joy Chavez, senior associate at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based regional think tank. ”It is shameful, this attempt to look surprised. This consideration should have been a big one when the Bank chose Singapore as a venue given its record.”

Stephens’ comments, moreover, go against the grain of a letter he wrote to select NGOs based in Asia around May about the Bank working with the Singapore government for many months to ”ensure that diverse civil society voices are very much heard before, during and after the annual meetings.”

”We are trying to enable a process that is open and led by civil society, and for the issues and means of addressing them to arise spontaneously, not through a formal process that we lead or try to manage,” that letter added. ”My understanding is that (the Singapore government does) draw the line at violence and disruption, consistent with their laws, but that is clearly an extreme case.”

What is more, the Bank’s Singapore office has been exposed to a diet of uncompromising policies by the administration of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong towards any sign of dissent. In January, home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng warned that protestors during the September meeting could face severe punishment, including caning and imprisonment.

In May, Wong was quoted in Singapore’s ‘Today’ newspaper as having said, ”Those who breach our laws must be dealt with firmly”. In June, the Singapore press provided other measures that the country’s police were conceiving to crackdown on any signs of dissent in public — the installation of nearly 158 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras to monitor activity at 67 traffic intersections and at the meeting’s venue.

Besides such warnings related to the international event, the government has also hounded its opponents during the parliamentary elections in May, including banning all speeches by the leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, and going after bloggers and critics of the Lee administration in cyberspace.

”If the Bank wants to retain some level of credibility after what it has said about democracy and openness, it should speak up and protest the move by the Singapore government to suppress dissenting voices,” Lidy Nacpil, international coordinator of Jubilee South, a global network campaigning to relieve the world’s poor countries of international debt, told IPS. ”To remain silent or offer some rhetoric makes it a partner of Singapore’s undemocratic policies.”

The annual meetings of the Bank and the IMF usually draw large gatherings of financial representatives of governments and the policies of these two international financial institutions (IFI) are discussed as also global initiatives. These range from poverty reduction to international finance. Every three years, these meetings are held outside Washington. Previous venues have included Prague, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Berlin, Manila, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro.

Protests held outside the conference venue have helped NGOs and activists from the developing and developed world give voice to concerns that matter to the world’s poor that the two institutions may ignore or not give a serious hearing to. They have also helped frame the debates between the powerful within the conference halls and the powerless on the streets.

”If there are no demonstrations, how will the World Bank and the IMF hear what the people have to say about their policies?” asks Nacpil. ”The consultations and the meetings they hold are not sufficient, because the victims of their policies are rarely given space.”

For the moment, Stephens, the Bank’s Singapore representative, is seeking refuge in such words: ”We will be having further talks with the government of Singapore and board of directors of the World Bank on this matter in the weeks ahead.”

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