Postcard From Singapore

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 is 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).