The executive director of APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation grouping) has insisted that there will be room for free speech at this year’s annual summit in Singapore despite the government signaling that it will toughen its protest laws ahead of the meeting.
At a lunch organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore, I asked Michael Tay, the genial Singaporean diplomat who is executive director of APEC, about the approach to managing protests at the November meeting.
He explained that while security would be paramount because of the presence of world leaders like Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, “there will be room for people to speak”. He suggested that there may be authorised protest areas, as there were for the controversial IMF/World Bank meeting in 2006.
Singapore was criticised by the IMF and World Bank at the time for banning a number of activists from entering the country and clamping down on protests. The Singapore government already has tight restrictions on public protests, which it insists are vital to prevent public disorder and damage to property.
The home affairs minister suggested last week that these laws will be strengthened ahead of the APEC summit, in a move criticised by human rights activists such as lawyer Robert Amsterdam (who represents Singapore’s oft-imprisoned opposition leader Chee Soon Juan).
Meanwhile, Tay refused to comment on the other issue of vital importance to the APEC meeting – the choice of costume to be worn by all the world leaders in the inevitably-ridiculous but traditional photo-call at the summit’s end. As this bizzare photo shows, leaders usually wear the national dress of the host nation (last year it was ponchos in Peru) but as a young nation, Singapore has no obvious choice of clothing. Suggestions on a postcard to the APEC Secretariat, please.