Singapore’s legendary zeal for public order will be on full display this week when it hosts a summit involving US President Barack Obama and 20 other leaders. Even one-man protests are banned.
Protest laws, already among the toughest in Asia, have been further tightened heading into a week of meetings culminating in the November 14-15 summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group.
Singapore, a staunch US ally, considers itself a prime terrorism target but is also on guard against foreign and local activists who have disrupted summit gatherings in other countries.
One of the city-state’s most vocal dissidents, Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, believes the government is using the summit as a pretext to impose permanent restrictions on political gatherings.
“The Public Order Act (POA) which bans even one individual from conducting a protest is targeted more broadly at the growing desire of Singaporeans for more political space, which includes the right to express themselves freely and publicly,” he told AFP.
“But is this what leaders, especially those from democratic countries, really want? Is silencing the people through repressive laws like the POA the way forward for APEC and the world?”
Chee declined to say if his party was planning any protests during the summit, which is also to be attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, among other Pacific-rim leaders.
No one expects gatherings similar to the violent protests that forced the cancellation of a Southeast Asian summit in the Thai resort of Pattaya in April. But Singapore is taking no chances.
“In the current security climate, we have a duty to ensure the safety and security of the delegates as well as the general public,” the APEC Organising Committee told AFP in a written response to queries on the security plans.
“We will do what is necessary to ensure their safety, including having enhanced border checks during the period. Offenders will be dealt with accordingly under our laws regardless of their nationality or cause.”
Police special forces and Nepalese Gurkha units are expected to be at the forefront of security at public buildings and hotels to be used by leaders, ministers and other VIPs attending the summit and a business forum.
The international sect Falungong, which is banned in China, claims two of its members — a Malaysian and an Indonesian — were barred from entering Singapore in late October as part of the pre-summit restrictions.
Local practitioners have also been told to stay away from a park near the summit venue in an apparent attempt to spare President Hu from protests, sect members said.
“All sovereign nations have the prerogative to decide who enters their borders. Singapore is no exception,” the APEC committee said in response to the Falungong allegation.
A Singaporean member of the sect said the summit hosts should lift the restrictions to show other APEC leaders that “Singapore is a democratic country which respects human rights and religious freedom”.
There is no love lost between Singapore and foreign activists.
In 2006, the wealthy state barred 27 campaigners from attending meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, even though they were accredited to meet the official delegates.
After a very public scolding from the World Bank and IMF, Singapore’s government had to back down and allow most of the activists in. But APEC has no such arrangements for dialogue with non-governmental organisations.