The quietest conference

Nehemia Shtrasler
Haaretz News on-line
20 Sep 06

In the large vestibule of the conference hall holding the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group Conference, just before the exit, the Singaporean authorities have set up a space for demonstrations. Eight square meters are fenced with ropes, and alongside a small sign reads: “This is a space for demonstrations. No bags, sound amplification devices, food, drinks, metal objects, wooden objects or flammable objects are allowed.” In fact, nothing which the authorities do not approve of is allowed into the demonstration space. Those who wish to demonstrate must procure prior authorization from the police chief and bring it with them to the demonstration.

But a demonstration did take place: One European social activist took several books and pamphlets and a cellular phone and piled them on the floor in the center of the small demonstration space. This is a demonstration in Singapore. Conference attendees pass by the display without breaking their stride. Yet even the authorization for this “demonstration” was not easily obtained. It was a result of long negotiations between the conference’s management and the management of the International Monetary Fund, which wanted no “disturbance of the peace.”

Thus this year, for the first time in many years, there have been no demonstrations or disturbances of the peace at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group Conference. No McDonald’s branch has been burned, and there have been no police confrontations. The Singaporean authorities announced that anyone caught damaging property or spraying graffiti would be punished according to Singapore law, by flogging. It worked. Still, two more protests were held, both of minute proportions.

The first demonstration was held by a few social activists in the congress hall. The ten demonstrators stood in the large vestibule with cloth gags on their mouths, with two words written on them: “No Voice.” The second demonstration was held by Singapore’s opposition leader, the head of the Democratic Party, who tried marching in protest toward the congress hall with six of his comrades, despite the legal prohibition on such a march. He was not arrested; he was simply surrounded by the police, who blocked the tiny march and forced its participants to retreat.

What sort of regime are we talking about? A dictatorship? A democracy? Apparently the most appropriate name would be a Big Brother regime: It does not favor freedom of speech or press, because it simply does not favor criticism. And in this way, the same party has stayed in power for the last 40 years, with an absolute parliamentary majority.

Economically, Singapore is a great success. It has a free market economy, but also government involvement. Growth is high, unemployment is nearly nonexistent, and the same goes for inflation. The per capita gross domestic product, an indication of the standard of living, in this country of 3.4 million residents is $28,000 – 50 percent higher than Israel’s, and ten times higher on average than those of the countries surrounding Singapore, from Malaysia to China. So perhaps democracy is not a necessary prerequisite for growth?

In any case, you will not see sad or depressed people in the streets. Singaporeans seem happy with their lot in life. They constantly smile, and are very warm and nice. Houses are pleasant to look at, streets are clean, shopping malls are luxurious and the crime rate is very low. Corruption is also nearly nonexistent. Capital and government do not mix in Singapore.

As early as kindergarten, Singaporean kids are taken on a tour of a jail and shown the penal device that was also used in the Middle Ages – a version sort of the stocks, into which the condemned man’s head and arms are inserted while his back is being flogged. A child who sees this device gets the message. He will not break the law.

Therefore, everyone who heard that I was going to Singapore smiled and said that I should take care not to chew gum or cross the street when the light is red. Everyone remembers the young American Michael Fay, who was sentenced to flogging in Singapore over a decade ago for spraying graffiti on a wall in the city. But “if it’s good for the republic, it’s good for us,” say the Singaporeans – and carry on smiling.

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