Singapore relents over ban on activists

September 16, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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John Burton
Financial Times
16 Sep 06

Singapore bowed to international pressure on Friday and agreed to allow 22 of 27 banned activists to attend the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund/World Bank, after Paul Wolfowitz, World Bank president, said the bar on their entry was “unacceptable”.

The move was meant to deflect mounting controversy that had threatened to become a public relations disaster for Singapore as it hosted its biggest-ever conference. But its refusal to admit five activists could keep the issue alive.

Mr Wolfowitz said Singapore had suffered “enormous damage” to its reputation – which was “self-inflicted” – by refusing to honour an agreement to allow the activists to attend the meeting.

“This could have been an opportunity to showcase to the world [Singapore’s] development process,” he said, though he added: “I would argue whether it has to be as authoritarian as it has been.”

Singapore’s concession represents a rare policy reversal for a government that takes pride in refusing to back down on its decisions. Singapore’s initial decision to bar the 27 activists was “a violation of the understanding that we had drawn up” with the government, said Mr Wolfowitz. “I’ve read the language and it seems very clear to me.”

The city-state had promised to faciliate the entry of invited participants to the meeting. But it said this week that its decision to prevent some activists from coming also fulfilled its obligation under the agreement to protect the personal security of delegates.

Singapore alleged that those blacklisted posed a security threat. “While we cannot disclose specific details about the individuals, we can affirm that the decision was carefully considered,” it said. However, Rodrigo Rato, the IMF managing director, said the activists invited were well known to the organisations, which had no doubts they would act responsibly. He warned that Singapore “would be making a mistake” if it did not reverse its decision.

Singapore’s actions have provoked anger among non-governmental organisations, which have questioned the IMF/World Bank’s commitment to encourage their participation. More than 160 non-governmental organisations, many of which had been invited, called for a boycott of the meeting.

More than 20 activists who attended a dialogue session with the IMF and World Bank heads walked out in protest, demanding that a harder line be taken with the Singaporean authorities.

“This has serious implications for future meetings of international organisations. If the Singapore decision is allowed to stand, it means other governments can ban invited delegates,” said Roberto Bissio, co-ordinator of the NGO network Social Watch. Singapore said it would consider admitting the remaining five activists, but would make a decision only once they arrived in the country.

Chee Soon Juan, a Singapore opposition leader who is planning a protest march today, said the authorities wanted to crack down on the foreign activists because “they don’t want local groups to pick up bad habits that would encourage Singaporeans to protest”.