“S’pore Govt afraid of democracy”

Agence France-Presse
10 Sep 06

Singapore’s uncompromising clampdown on free speech has tarnished efforts to showcase itself as a modern Asian financial center during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (IMF-WB) meetings, activists say.

The city-state is going all-out to exploit the presence of the global financial elite to highlight its claim to being a “First World” economy.

But a ban on protests and the blacklisting of “undesirable” foreign activists has soured the atmosphere ahead of the Sept. 19 to 20 meetings and related events starting this week.

World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz told the BBC over the weekend that Singapore made a “bad” decision when it blocked activists invited to the event as part of an established dialogue process.

“I hope Singapore’s authorities will change their minds and allow the people in that we have accredited, as originally agreed,” he said.

“We may not always agree with what they (the activists) have to say, but it is very important to have that discussion,” Wolfowitz was quoted as saying.

Lidy Nacpil, international director of Jubilee South, a non-government group campaigning for greater debt relief for poor countries, said “what this shows is that the Singapore government is afraid of democracy.”

“Our activities are not even directed at the Singapore government but at the IMF and World Bank,” she told Agence France-Presse by telephone from Manila.

Both lending institutions have for years engaged “civil society” groups critical of their policies in a frank dialogue.

But Singapore, citing security reasons including fear of terrorist attacks, has refused to waive a longstanding ban on outdoor protests despite an appeal from the World Bank.

Police have also banned a number of overseas activists from entering the country during the meetings. Local press reports said about 20 names are believed to be on the blacklist.

With demonstrations forbidden here, foreign activists decided to hold protests and an anti-globalization conference in the nearby Indonesian island of Batam, which is 45 minutes away by ferry from Singapore.

Critics say Singapore has merely reinforced its image as an authoritarian state despite its phenomenal economic progress.

Nacpil blamed the IMF-WB for picking Singapore to host the meetings despite knowing its track record as far as protests are concerned.

Sameer Dossani, executive director of the activist 50 Years is Enough Network, said: “If the Bank is interested in accountability and preventing corruption, why are they holding their meetings in a police state that has openly said it plans to cane protestors?”

While a recent World Bank survey ranked Singapore as the easiest place to do business, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) gave it dismal marks for press freedom.

Singapore placed 140th out of 167 countries in RSF’s 2005 World Press Freedom Index, ranking below countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Russia, Sudan and Yemen.

Yet it is also Singapore’s reputation as an oasis of political and economic stability in often volatile Southeast Asia that has made it a key destination for foreign investment.

A low crime rate, a clean environment and an efficient and reputedly incorruptible bureaucracy have also won worldwide admiration.

“By now, people know what the image of Singapore is, and they realize we are who we are,” said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“We’re one of the most disciplined societies in the world because the environment we live in is special,” he was quoted as saying in the local newspaper Today.

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