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Opinion

IMF: Singapore welcomes the right sort of people

Delegates are warmly welcomed while protesters' placards are policed.

By Tom Crispin

Welcome!  Security for the IMF/World Bank meetings in Singapore is certainly tight. Far from the steel and barbed wire barricades set up around the War Memorial Park and Suntec city, Euromoney was surprised to note that even its correspondent's modest hotel, an unlikely residence for delegates since it is more than a mile from Suntec City, got an armed guard on the Monday before the meetings were due to start. It is rumoured that the meetings will cost the city state S$130 million (US$82.6 million), so Sinapore is going all out to recoup some of the cost of playing host by charming the delegates and making sure they are secure. It's hoped that the financiers will part with about S$200 million once all the bills are paid.

Indeed, if you are a delegate, the welcome is warm from the airport on. According to the Straits Times, Changi airport has eight new rolls of eight-metre-long red carpets; a poster of "grinning" Singaporeans (part of the "four million smiles" promotion); two escorts per delegate to smooth the tedium of luggage and documentation on arrival; and even four-tonne armoured BMWs among the fleet of 545 limousines laid on.

And once delegates have cleared the airport, they can expect extras to entice them to do business locally; some 400 local stores are offering special deals at the flash of a delegate card, while Singapore Air and Lufthansa are supposed to be upping luggage allowances by 10kg. Indeed there are welcome flags on the streets and special welcome ads on the TV. Even the Straits Times is publishing a series of special sections exhorting the locals to be friendly and puffing the garden state as a place to live and work, while simultaneously rubbishing the idea that Singapore is dull. An article on nightclubs with the title "Party town - Yes Singapore does have a happening night scene, and more is in store for clubbers" only lets itself down when it asked what hotspots such as London, New York and Amsterdam have that Singapore doesn't. With marvellous diplomacy, the marketing manager of Singapore's best-known club, Zouk, replied that it's "refreshing" that people here are just drinking and dancing and having a good time. Even international DJs think so, she added, before giving the game away by saying that clubs here aren't as seedy as those in countries where drugs are an issue.

...and not so welcome.  If, on the other hand, you are a protestor, you'll get something less than four million smiles on arrival. No virtual concierges to help you find out the latest stock prices or book a restaurant table. Indeed, protestors on the Indonesian island of Batam (about an hour's boat ride from Singapore) have felt the pressure. The Bankok Post reported that local police had bowed to Singporean pressure and banned a gathering of 1,000 NGO representatives intent on holding protests and an alternative forum there after 20 activists were refused entry to Singapore. Perhaps unrelated to the gathering of financiers, but a signal for those intent on making their views on multilaterals known, is a report that three animal rights activists were deported a week before the conference started for planning to stage a nude demonstration against KFC's alleged abuse of chickens. In fact, the tightness of security has embarrassed the IMF and World Bank, which have apparently said that reports of terrorist threats here "could not be corroborated" and even asked the Singapore authorities to allow activist demonstrations. So now "civil society organizations" are to be allowed their moment of glory. On one condition. In an "any colour, so long as it's black" moment, a government minister told reporters: "All we ask is that whoever wants to make his or her views known to the world does so within what we prescribe as the proper way of doing things."

But we aren’t likely to see the sorts of mass protests witnessed in Washington last year. Police have set aside a modest, indoor 50 square metre area by the main entrance to Suntec City on Raffles Boulevard for 500 protestors to harangue delegates as they enter. Only the truly suspicious would see provocation in placing this wooden-barricaded pen next to a Starbucks. But even if they are provoked, the protestors are unlikely to do much harm – police are to confiscate any wooden and metal poles used for holding up placards and replace them with cardboard tubes. Perhaps the police also have some sticky-back plastic to complete the humiliation of activists in true Blue Peter style.

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