IMF-WB meetings a PR nightmare for Singapore

Roberto Coloma
Agence France-Presse
20 Sep 06

Singapore’s moment in the spotlight as host of the IMF and World Bank meetings has turned into a public-relations nightmare for a city-state that had invested so much in the prestigious gathering.

Critics denounced Singapore as a “police state” out of step with the international community after it blacklisted 27 foreign activists accredited by the International Monetary Fund and the Bank.

After intense pressure from the two institutions, Singapore agreed to admit 22 of them but the damage had been done and the last-minute gesture failed to appease non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Singapore was hoping to exploit the week-long meetings attended by finance ministers, central bank governors and other members of the global financial elite to market itself as a vibrant tourism and investment haven.

Instead, Singapore’s grimmer reputation as a rich but politically regimented society that suppresses dissent, hangs criminals and canes social troublemakers may have been reinforced by its handling of the NGO issue.

“How do you expect to become a financial centre, a global hub … and yet be so repressive?” said Chee Soon Juan, an opposition politician prevented by police from staging a tiny protest march last Saturday to the conference venue.

A senior marketing executive with a leading European company told AFP that Singapore is “not really used to these kinds of international standards when it comes to freedom of expression.”

“Their standard is that it’s their way or the highway,” he said.

The IMF-World Bank conference, expected to draw 16,000 people, is the biggest international conference ever held in Singapore and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last month that “our reputation is on the line” during the gathering.

It launched a “Four Million Smiles” campaign, asking the population to contribute cheery digital photos which were stitched together into murals and newspaper advertisements welcoming all visitors.

But as delegates and a few NGO representatives began trickling in, a different face emerged.

Singapore, invoking the danger of “terrorism”, began stopping and deporting a number of activists, triggering indignation in the highest ranks of the IMF and World Bank.
It also stood firm on a longstanding ban on outdoor demonstrations, saying no exceptions would be made for foreigners. Police set aside a section for indoor protests in the conference venue.

Anti-globalisation activists decided to meet instead in the nearby Indonesian island of Batam, an hour away by ferry and part of a special industrial zone funded by Singaporean capital.

This former British colony’s attempt to ban foreign activists and quash protests came as no surprise.

It has been ruled by the conservative People’s Action Party since 1959. Local media are closely regulated and opposition politicians and foreign publications have been hit by costly defamation suits for criticising Singaporean leaders.

Ironically, it took World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, a prominent American right-wing figure, to force Singapore to relax its hard-line stance, saying the host country had caused “enormous damage” to its own reputation.

Wolfowitz, the former Pentagon number two, publicly criticised the local organisers for allegedly reneging on an earlier commitment to let in activists accredited by both groups, and asked Singapore leaders to scrap the blacklist.

But the IMF and World Bank also came under withering criticism for deciding to hold their meetings in Singapore in the first place.

“The two institutions must be held accountable for their roles in the shocking events of the past two weeks,” said activist group Focus on the Global South, accusing the organizations of hypocrisy.

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