August 14, 2006
WHEN the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank meet in Singapore next month there will be no placard-waving protesters clogging the streets, despite earlier promises that there would be space for dissent.
Using the threat of terrorism and concern that protests would disrupt the everyday lives of its diligent citizens, the Government has refused to waive its strict controls on public protests. A gathering of more than four people outdoors without permission is illegal.
The decision, while not surprising, is the latest in a string of restrictive moves by the Government, which has also targeted foreign and local media.
Appeals to Singapore's Government to allow the protests have gone unanswered.
"Frankly, we knew it would be very difficult for civil society to have any form of protest in Singapore," said Jenina Joy Chavez, a senior associate with the think tank Focus on the Global South, based in Manila.
"The bank wanted to bring the meeting back to Asia but it's a tricky situation to find (a country) who would welcome it other than Singapore," she said.
Singapore, a small island republic with a population of 3 million, is South-East Asia's wealthiest nation. The meeting will attract 16,000 delegates from 184 countries to discuss global initiatives ranging from poverty reduction to international finance. Every three years, the meeting is held outside Washington.
"For many groups, it is more symbolic than having any notion of getting redress," Ms Chavez said. "The World Bank and the IMF are largely inaccessible to the people affected by their programs (and) these meetings give them a chance to air their grievances."
Even non-government organisations with accreditation to meet delegates "will only be permitted to express their views inside the convention centre, in a special area", according to the Government-controlled Straits Times. "Even then, they must stick to police rules, which include bans on wooden or metal poles to hold up placards."
The decision on World Bank meeting protests comes as the Government reinforces controls on foreign press.
The Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts issued a statement this month warning the Far Eastern Economic Review, International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, Newsweek and Time magazines to steer clear of domestic politics.
"(It is) a privilege, and not a right, for foreign newspapers to circulate in Singapore," the statement said. "They do so as foreign observers of the local scene and should not interfere in the domestic politics of Singapore."
The statement came after the Review published an article titled Singapore's Martyr, on opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. Mr Chee, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party, was recently sued by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Since the Singapore's Martyr article appeared, the ministry has redefined the status of the monthly Far Eastern Economic Review as a "declared foreign newspaper". From September 11 it must appoint a representative in Singapore to accept service of legal documents in any future legal actions, and to submit a security deposit of $S200,000 ($A165,000). Its circulation will still be capped at 10,000 copies, the statement says.
The Government has lifted the "exempted" status of the four other publications and they will have to meet the same conditions.
For local dissenters, the situation is even more difficult. In a recent incident, a satirical blogger "Mr Brown" whose work appeared in the tabloid Today newspaper was suspended after the Government complained. His column titled "S'poreans are fed, up with progress!" focused on increases in transport and electricity costs.