Singapore Politics - Insights from the Inside

Monday, September 25, 2006 

IMF/World Bank – A Pseudo-Government’s Perspective

The 61st IMF/World Bank meeting has just concluded couple of days ago, in our little island. While there are much breakthrough on the IMF/World Bank policies and voting rights, I guess most Singaporeans can’t be bothered by it. Perhaps the issues that interest most is the CSO – Civil Society Organization matters and what is the government’s take on these CSOs’ protests. This is just a pseudo-government’s perspective on what was possibly the sentiment on the government. Of course, don’t take this as gospel as I am only trying to second-guess the government!

Just a little background for the “uninitiated”. The IMF/World Bank meeting held in Singapore from the 11 – 20 September 2006, was the largest turnout for an overseas-held meeting. A total 23,000 delegates and 300 finance Ministers from all over the world came to this much-maligned (or deservingly named, depending on which angle you see) authoritarian state called Singapore. Policy-wise, there have been major breakthroughs with the voting reforms in the IMF and policy against corrupted third-world countries. But away from the meetings, the issue that dominated some foreign press was the Singapore’s treatment to the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs).

For the second time in the meetings' history (the first was Dubai 2003), outdoor demonstrations are outlawed due to Singapore laws banning outdoor protests and marches. Numerous appeals to the authorities to approve such protest were rejected as the government cited security reasons including potential terrorist threat. The authorities are also denying entries of accredited civil society representatives whom the police regards as "troublemakers", despite the IMF/World Bank appeals to the government to allow them to attend the meetings. Registered civil service organisations (CSO) may hold indoor demonstrations on the ground floor of Suntec Singapore outside Starbucks Coffee, within a 14 by 8 metre space boundary, but CSOs are disappointed with the arrangement. The CSO protests were supposed to start on 11 September, but the police has pushed the date to 13 September.

On 11 September, when civic activists began arriving in Singapore, 27 activists were denied entry and had to leave the country. The police explained that these people were involved in violent demonstrations, including breaking into the World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C.. These individuals claimed that they had permission from the IMF and World Bank, but the police had stated that it is the local government's decision whether or not to allow them to enter the city state. Later, the World Bank and IMF accused the Singapore government of failing to allow the protestors into the country, with Paul Wolfowitz calling it a “going-back on an explicit agreement”, saying that Singapore had signed an open-access agreement or the Memorandum of Understanding in 2003. The World Bank added that it is a “breach” of their agreement and they worked with them and also valued their role even when they disagree on their views. They were cleared by their home governments beforehand and the World Bank believed that all of them should not be excluded from the annual meetings. The organising committee told the press, they were looking into the matter at that point of time. Later condemning the restrictions as "authoritarian". At that time, the Singapore police tried to contact the individuals via the World Bank or the embassies in Singapore, to prevent them from making a wasted trip to the country.

On 15 September 2006, the Singapore government announced that they will allow 22 out of the 27 banned activists into the country after reviewing the list of activists whose entry was subject to an interview if they entered the city-state. The organising committee said it reviewed the input provided by the IMF and the World Bank earlier that morning. On an another occasion, two Filipino activists were deported back to their country on 13 September as they were not accredited by the IMF/World Bank, and could post a security and public order threat. It was after interviews and full consideration of the circumstances. 14 September, an Indian national was denied entry into the country, and has been deported by the police.

If there were ever going to be protest in Singapore, how could ever do without Dr Chee Soon Juan and gang. The self-styled “martyr for his own voice” did his protest at Hong Lim Park with more foreign press than supportors. Many apologies, but I just can’t resist any opportunities to deliver punts at him. Just a note, have you ever visited Dr Chee’s blog? The strongest advocate for freedom doesn’t even allow comments on his blogs! So much for freedom of expression. Sorry, I really have to stop this bad habit of poking fun at him, but in my defensive, I am exercising my health need for freedom of speech! =P

The Pseudo-Govt’s Perspective
So the question, really, is the Singapore government even bothered about the protest about the protest? And what is the government’s opinion in this whole saga? Well, for the true answer, you might have to ask PM Lee or members of the Cabinet. But, pseudo-government’s guess is this.

For once, the government managed to turn the public opinion in favour of them with the help of media. Why do I say that? Firstly, this is the first time in recent history that protest was an non-event in IMF/World Bank. Hardly any solid (or liquid, for that matter) object was thrown at delegates. Naturely and diplomatically, the delegates have to say that the CSOs have the right to protest and their opinions are much appreciated. Deep down, they are extremely happy that there wasn’t any trouble and flying objects thrown at them. Put your shoes into a highly-paid CEO of an international bank being invited to attend an overseas that often resulted in a traumatic experience of fearing from your own safety and protests outside your meeting area. You fear walking in the streets being haressed or scorned and for much the 10 days. Effectively, you are stuck between the hotel and the meeting area. This is the feeling of my CEO on the past IMF/World Bank meetings, and probably the same feeling for most of the delegates.

Despite whatever have been said about the barring of protest by the CSOs, the strong turnout by the delegates was testimont to the their satisfaction. This will do Singapore lots of good and enhance our reputation as a place to hold conventions and meetings. The criticism from foreign presses and journalists are irrelevant and of little concern. The common mentality of these foreign presses and journalists are that they felt it is their moral obigation to push and expand the boundaries of freedom of speech and write on news that is of interest. While they might be opinion shapers in their own sphere, it is the opinions of the delegates, those with clout to shape economic balance of the world, that matters most during these 10 days. Singapore has demonstrated their ability to curb a traditional protest and guarenteed unprecedented security to these delegates, yet rank highly in conducive investment environment. This must have a lasting impact on these delegates and bankers. To add to the sobering effect, the Thailand military coup happened just 1 day before the end of the meetings. If you are an investor thinking of where to park your millions, Singapore just became the best alternative in Southeast Asia with Thailand shoot themselves in the foot.

For Wolfowitz to “cry wolf” and calling foul on Singapore, isn’t a problem as well. I am sure, with top legal brains like DPM Jayakumar in the Cabinet, we wouldn’t be liability for any contractual breach. Even if we do, the Singapore government would have choice their words carefully to circumvent the clauses. To the public, the blame game by Wolfowitz was made too blantly even for the CSOs to buy into that argument. This has worked in our favour.

So, the foreign opinions that needed to be secured were secured. This leads me to my second point. Locally, the papers have published letters by Singaporeans speaking in support of the government against the remarks by Wolfowitz. For the government not to reply too deeply and reactively (aka Bavani-style), they actually gained more goodwill for themselves. Seemingly, the government has used this incident to good effect to gain support from the local Singaporeans. While Dr Chee tried to use this event to rally support, it didn’t work well. He landed up bunching himself with the Wolfowitz-Singapore-government-bashing gang, that happens to be “target of the month” of Singaporeans.

In summary, it is really a win-win for the Singapore government. They have won local opinions and the delgates’ opinions without bending backwards for it. Let’s just now hope that the Singapore government learnt their lessons on how to effectively manage public opinions rather than being at the receiving end of negative public opinions.

Note: After reading some of the comments, I guess most people would disagree with this article. Very rightly so. That is one reason why I stated the title as pseudo-govt's perspective. This is possibly the opinion of the government, hence, they didn't really bother much about the external noises by the foreign presses. But keep your comments coming in and all opinions are very much welcomed.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006 

Article from BBC: Singapore welcome raises doubts

Came across this article from BBC that I've found quite interesting, given the perspective of an outsider look into Singapore. Since there are also lots of pro-Singapore comments on local papers (why am I not surprised that those are published on local papers... =P), I am still trying to reconcile the true perception. Do let me know your views on this issue and the article. Should we or shouldn't we be so uptight over the "traditional" civil group protest?

Singapore welcome raises doubts
By Andrew Harding BBC News, Singapore

Sometimes the adverts can be as revealing as the front pages.

This week some of Singapore's newspapers have been teeming with new recruitment ads put in by the city's many escort agencies. They're all busily hunting for what they describe as "young, outgoing girls... in their twenties".

The apparent hiring frenzy has been triggered by the arrival of some 24,000 visitors - all coming to town this week with just one thing on their minds... the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The front page headline in this morning's Straits Times boasts that this is the biggest turnout ever. The delegates do have some serious business to discuss here - in particular, plans to restructure the IMF's voting system to give countries like China and Mexico more clout. But for Singapore - a tiny, humid and tightly-controlled city state - the real issue is how well it looks after its guests.

Citizens are being urged to smile. To make sure the delegates respond in kind, they're being offered discounts on botox injections and other beauty treatments. An article in the New Paper urges visitors to venture out of their convention centre and discover the city's secrets, declaring that there is much more to this place than "rules, laws and squeaky clean streets".

Campaigners barred
But it is Singapore's laws which are in danger of overshadowing this week's meeting. It is illegal here for more than four people to demonstrate together outside. So what to do with the many thousands of international activists who usually congregate at such events?

A number of campaigners have already been barred from entering the country. Those who have been allowed in are being carefully chaperoned. They will be allowed to protest, but only in designated indoor areas. They are also being provided with special, soft placards to wave.
Thursday's Straits Times carries a small article - tucked deep inside the newspaper - which some might argue belongs nearer the front page. The World Bank has come to its critics' defence, accusing Singapore of breaching a formal agreement by barring 28 activists from the country. In a statement, it says: "We work with these representatives of civil societies, and we value their role - even when we disagree with what they say."

More criticism has come from one of Singapore's tiny opposition parties. In an open letter, the Democratic Party has accused the authorities of stifling dissent, behaving like despots. What is more, the party has thrown down a direct challenge, vowing to go ahead with a big outdoor protest this Saturday, and inviting all the visiting delegates to come along and see what happens.

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