Singapore’s climbdown on activists too late, says NGOs

Agenece France-Presse
16 Sep 06

Singapore acted too late in finally agreeing to admit 22 activists whose accreditation for World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings it had opposed, non-governmental organizations say.

The city-state’s partial climbdown late Friday followed stinging criticism from the World Bank in a controversy which activists say reinforces the city-state’s image as a restrictive society, despite its economic success.

Singapore had said there were security concerns about 27 of the hundreds of activists accredited by the Bank and Fund as part of a long-standing dialogue between the financial institutions and their critics.

But it partially reversed its stand after Bank president Paul Wolfowitz said the issue had damaged the reputation of the city-state, which prides itself on its image as an efficiently-run regional commercial hub.

Singapore said 22 of the 27 activists would now be allowed entry.

The Bank welcomed Singapore’s move but said it wants all 27 admitted “without delay” in line with a memorandum of understanding with the Singapore government.

“This gesture is, quite simply, too little too late. Expensive travel plans have already been undone, and many civil society organizations are unable to fly to Singapore on a moment’s notice,” said Romilly Greenhill, of the relief agency ActionAid International.

Lidy Nacpil, of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Jubilee South, agreed.

“Also, why only 22 of the 27?” she said on the Indonesian island of Batam, near Singapore, where more than 160 NGOs on Friday declared a boycott of the meetings in Singapore to protest the clampdown on free speech and banning of activists.

Wolfowitz said at a meeting with NGOs in Singapore on Friday that “enormous damage has been done … A lot of that damage has been to Singapore and it’s self-inflicted.”

A few hours later, Singapore announced its climbdown.

“Singapore apparently has realised that their image has been tarnished, to say the least,” Nacpil said.

It was a rare reversal by the city-state which generally stands firm in the face of criticisms. Last year Singapore hanged an Australian drug trafficker despite a high-level diplomatic campaign to save the man’s life.

The city-state’s hard line against the NGOs “has underlined how cut off Singapore is from a world where free speech, free association and democratic choice are established norms of political association,” said Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, another NGO.

Singapore is “out of step with the times,” Bello said.

Political stability has been the bedrock of the economic success of the city-state, which grew from a Third World country to become one of Asia’s wealthiest nations.

Critics say this came at a price, in the form of restrictions on freedom of speech and political activity.

Sinapan Samydorai, president of local human rights group Think Centre, said the controversy over the activists “just strengthened that view that it’s a very closed society when it comes to political rights.”

He said Singapore should have been “more mature” and allowed the foreign protesters to make their point against the financial institutions.

Despite appeals from the Bank that accredited protesters be allowed to hold outdoor demonstrations, Singapore has refused to waive a long-standing ban on public protests.

Police have said tough security measures were necessary because the country is a high-profile “terrorist” target.

But NGOs said the measures — enforced by 10,000 security personnel — were directed toward local activists, not outsiders.

Bello said Singapore “fears the effect that civil society organisations criticising and debating the IMF and World Bank might have on the citizens of Singapore.”

A local opposition politician, Chee Soon Juan, was set to break the ban on outdoor protests Saturday.

He said the international community has begun to see the nature of Singapore’s system.

“How do you expect to become a financial centre, a global hub… and yet be so repressive?” he said.

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