Wolf in speakers’ corner for once

Agence France Presse
20 Sep 06

A public row between Singapore and two of the world’s most powerful financial institutions intensified yesterday over the city state’s strict clampdown on activists at the IMF and World Bank meeting.

Singapore, which has refused to relax its tough rules on public protests for the events, backed down partially late Friday, agreeing to admit 22 activists who had been denied entry despite being accredited by the institutions.

But non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who decided to protest on the Indonesian island of Batam because of the strict Singapore controls, rejected the offer, while the World Bank urged authorities to go further.

“We continue to urge the government of Singapore to facilitate entry into the country of all persons accredited to our meetings without delay at the point of entry,” the Bank said in a statement.

World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz has been particularly critical of Singapore’s reluctance to admit the activists, whose input the Bank and IMF say is important for improving the institutions’ work.

Wolfowitz, himself facing criticism from pressure groups over his tough anti-corruption drive, has complained that “enormous damage has been done” to the reputation of Singapore over the row.

The city-state, which prides itself on its image as an efficiently-run regional commercial hub, has put in place tight security for the meetings, where top world finance chiefs also gathered on the sidelines Saturday.

The city-state’s decision to admit 22 of the 27 blacklisted activists failed to mollify non-governmental organisations who said they would continue to boycott the Singapore meetings.

“This gesture is, quite simply, too little too late. Expensive travel plans have already been undone, and many civil society organisations are unable to fly to Singapore on a moment’s notice,” said Romilly Greenhill, of the relief agency ActionAid International.
Apparently buoyed by news of Singapore’s reversal of the bans, the activists said they were planning other action to ensure that the barring of accredited NGO members will not be repeated.

Friday’s backdown 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.

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.

Instead, it has allowed them to protest inside the convention centre in a roped-off area smaller than a basketball court, where they must abide by numerous regulations.
Protesters can shout but cannot use bullhorns or other sound amplifiers to disrupt proceedings. Police will provide free plastic placards on which protesters can write slogans.

Before protesting, activists must scan themselves in by passing their accreditation cards over a laser scanner.

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.

Police blocked a Singapore opposition politician from holding a march through the city to protest restrictions on freedom of speech on Saturday.

Democratic Party secretary general Chee Soon Juan gave a speech at Speakers’ Corner, a government-designated area for free speech, but plain-clothes police blocked him from taking his protest to the streets.

“As citizens we have rights. Only slaves don’t have rights. Only slaves are afraid of the government,” Chee cried out.

On the Indonesian island of Batam 500 activists gathered in a dormitory normally used by Muslim pilgrims headed for the haj, continuing their battle from afar.

Bello, one of the five who remains on the blacklist, said the NGOs discussed taking legal action against Singapore, possibly with the UN human rights commission.

“The Singapore government should not underestimate the capacity of global civil society to express its outrage at this point and it should not underestimate our capacity to translate this into economic terms,” he said.

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