20 Oct 2006

Postcard From … Singapore

Sameer Dossani October 19, 2006

Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco
Foreign Policy In Focus www.fpif.org

It's 2 a.m. on a Saturday night. I'm in a Singapore police station. No, this story doesn't involve alcohol. Fortunately neither the death penalty nor caning are likely.

The story begins earlier on September 16, when I arrived in Singapore, the site of the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF, from neighboring Batam, Indonesia. My companions and I were organizers of the International People's Forum vs. the IMF and World Bank (IPF), which wasn't feasible in Singapore. In January the Singapore government threatened to cane protesters and in the days before the events they made public an official blacklist of 27 people who would not be allowed entry to Singapore.

Their justification: they had already prepared a protest space at the venue, namely an enclosed area roughly the size of a large prison cell. Some friends who were not on the official blacklist were turned away at the airport, indicating that the unofficial blacklist must be much longer.

Naturally, activists, researchers, and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) representatives expressed their outrage to the Singapore authorities, IMF and World Bank staff, and to their own governments in Europe, North America, Asia, and elsewhere. To the displeasure and discomfort of the IMF and World Bank, we launched a boycott of the official meetings, and this boycott was joined by nearly all NGOs who work on policy issues. For the first time in living memory, the Singapore government backed down. They “un-blacklisted” 22 of the 27 individuals on the official list.

In response, the “un-banned” and the “still-banned” issued a statement renewing our pledge to boycott the official events and stating that the moves of the Singapore government were a case of “too little, too late.” To read the statement, two of the “un-banned”—Joy Chavez from Focus on the Global South (Thailand) and Antonio Tricarico from Campaign to Reform the World Bank (Italy)—were to go to Singapore where a press conference and public event on the IMF was already scheduled to take place.

I was among those chosen to escort these activists, as we had no reason to believe that the Singapore government would uphold its end of the bargain. Though Antonio and Joy were taken aside at the border, they were permitted to pass after being given a sheet of paper advising them to (please) abide by Singapore law.

At midnight the Singapore police call. Turns out our event MAY be illegal. Great.

After a meeting and some discussions with an ad-hoc Singapore legal team, we determine that the meeting/press conference we are planning the following morning is indeed legal. (It may not have been had it been taking place on the ground floor or had there been see-through windows in the conference room.) Armed with this information, we contact the police again who assure him that, yes, the conference could be legal, but that it may need a license. We need to just stop by the police station for some questions and filling out some forms.

Three of us arrive at about one a.m. to negotiate with the police.

When the officers who called us here come down to greet us and escort us to the room where we'll be “interviewed,” they are exceedingly polite. Half an hour later, they explain that the only reason for all the questions is to determine whether or not we need a license. We do indeed need a license, they say, and after half an hour spent filling out forms we are free to walk out the door. At 2 a.m.

Aside from the lost sleep, the only cost for the license was $20. Free speech may not be free in Singapore, but it is cheap.

Sameer Dossani is Director of 50 Years Is Enough: U.S Network for Global Economic Justice in Washington, DC and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).


Anonymous said...

so is this good or bad?

the authorities showed skill; whether their objective of keeping everything clamped down is a good idea, can be debated

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

the reason PAP is so successful is its enemies underestimate it; they keep thinking "they cant possibly do that; it would be bad publicity", and then get a surprise; learn this

Anonymous said...

PM criticizes foreign press "agenda"

Agence France Presse
October 19, 2006

FOREIGN journalists had an "agenda" to make Singapore open up during recent World Bank-IMF meetings in the city-state, local newspapers quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as saying.

He was commenting on extensive reporting by foreign press of Singapore's reluctance to admit 27 activists accredited by the World bank and International Monetary Fund for a formal dialogue during the institutions' September meetings.

Singapore initially said it had security concerns about the 27, but then agreed to admit 22 of them after World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz said his hosts had caused "enormous damage" to their own reputation.

"The foreign media had another agenda -- they wanted Singapore to open up, to conform to their standards, their norms," the Today newspaper quoted Lee as saying.

"Whatever line we drew, they wanted to push us, to go a little bit further. But we had to decide where the line was, and stick to it."

Lee was speaking at an event to thank volunteers who helped out at the IMF-World Bank gathering.

Singapore's approach to free speech also came under attack during the international meetings from local pro-democracy activist Chee Soon Juan.

Chee -- who was protesting against poverty and restrictions on free speech -- engaged in a three-day standoff with police who stopped him from marching to the conference venue.

Despite appeals from the World Bank, Singapore refused to waive its long-standing restrictions on outdoor protests during the meetings.

Police defended their strict security measures, saying Singapore was a high-profile terrorist target.

"The IMF-World Bank wanted us to be a bit more open, and we tried our best to accommodate. But in the end, we were responsible for the safety of the delegates and we could not shirk the responsibility of whom to let in," Lee was quoted as saying.

Singapore prides itself on its image as an efficiently-run, regional commercial hub that is one of Asia's wealthiest nations.

But Wolfowitz, in his remarks during the IMF-World Bank meetings, suggested the way Singapore handled the activist issue was worthy of a less-developed authoritarian state.

Lee, in a speech to editors earlier this month, said that in Asia, "the countries which have been most successful at improving the lives of their people do not always have the most aggressive media ... Each country will have to evolve its own model of the media that works for it."

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in May placed Singapore 140th out of 167 countries in its World Press Freedom Index for 2005, due to the "complete absence" of independent media in the city-state.

Singapore ranked below Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Russia, Sudan and Yemen.
there is no doubt foreign press has different ideas from PAP's about how things should be; the question is whether a mutually beneficial compromise between IMF, press and SG was found

xanon said...

freedom of speech is cheap at $20. the question is, do you get to speak at all.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is free in Singapore! You need to pay to speak your mind in Singapore even if it is legal......Uniquely Singapore!