Saturday, July 29, 2006

IMF-World Bank Meeting and Civil Society Activities

The Singapore Police say the lobby area on Level One of the convention centre has been designated for civil society organisations to express their views.

Those intending to get their voices heard will first have to be registered and accredited with the IMF and World Bank.

The above excerpt from Channel News Asia.

Some might find the above news distasteful. Admittedly, this appears to sanitise the loud and chaotic nature of demonstrations, leaving the "civil society activities" somewhat neutered, almost docile, and surely artifical. Yet, I find myself in support of this move.

My reasoning is simple. A question - what is the primary motivator of demonstrations? Arguably, it is to bring about change to certain percieved inadequacies. How, then, do demonstrations help advance these changes? Two possible ways: indirectly by raising public awareness, or directly by engaging those who are in a position to enact change.

Singapore's handling of the IMF/WB meeting cuts off the first route, but also facilitates the second. By excising the most disruptive elements of protests, it is likely that [IMF/WB] people would be more receptive to reasonable voices.

Of course, my approval of Singapore's move stems from my severe disapproval of prolonged and unneccessary conflict. Often I think that protests are among the least effective ways to advance any cause. Surely, there must be clearer and more direct ways to effect change. This, however, is only my opinion. Now back to the topic.

What is my conclusion, then? There can be no doubt that Singapore's proposal seems artifical. But perhaps a better word to use is clinical - a word which reminds us of the chlorine in the air, but also of the amazingly efficient, if sometimes unemotional, style that Singapore is known to be.

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Jackson Tan said...

I agree with you that destructive and violent demonstrations are negative to the cause of the protests. If protestors start torching cars and smashing windows, their credibility and reputation in the eyes of the officials and the public will take severe beatings. For example, I find myself less sympathetic to the cause of violent protests.

However, take a tiny step back, behind that thin line of peaceful protests, then it becomes a powerful tool of speaking out. A demonstration is a loud way of making oneself heard. It is one of the most prominent method of displaying displeasure with certain policies and actions. By standing together, and especially showing sheer numbers, it sends very powerful messages to its intended audience. It is, in my opinion, the ultimate peaceful tool of the people.

Of course, the line between peaceful and violent demonstrations can easily be crossed, and it is difficult for the authorities to prevent that, which explains the Singapore government's intentions of banning protests in the first place. It is worth noting, however, that most peaceful demonstrations that turn violent are triggered by troublemakers. For example, during the Prophet Muhammad incident, one peaceful group protested in front of the Danish embassy in some Arab country, but troublemakers seized this chance to advance violence and caused the situation to turn sour despite the original groups attempt at preventing so.

Nonetheless, I cannot justify the ban of protests by simply stating that they may turn violent. I feel it is a powerful force of the people, and it should be given to the people so that they can use it when the need arises. This is perhaps another reason why the government bans it: in case the people use it against them. However, unlike Chee Soon Juan, I think this has to be implemented step-by-step.

Back to the situation currently, I think Suntec level 1 is simply too small for all the demonstrators to protest there. Plus, with different groups of different interests, the message will end up garbled. Plus, what is wrong with doing it outdoors, unless there are doubts that the police cannot contain any violence that breaks out.

The Negative Man said...

**This comment is regarding demonstrations and protests. There is another comment regarding Singapore's handling of the IMF/WB meeting. I split the two comments up for clarity's sake.**

I find it hard to believe that any sort of demonstration, peaceful or otherwise, could possibly be constructive. Admittedly, a demonstration of sufficent size will, as you said, send powerful messages. The question is, what sort of message is this?

My suspicion is that it is one of intimidation, not engagement. Demonstrations, including peaceful ones, utilise size and spectacle to push their point, but unfortunately these same factors create an aura of standoffish hostility and contribute to increased polarization between the two sides. Consequently, demonstrations rarely result in constructive engagement.

Instead of protests, What is needed is a place and an opportunity for people to express their views in a reasoned manner. One possibility is a special waiting room filled with booths for the various civil society groups. During intermissions and waiting periods IMF/WB personnel could mingle and spend time in such a room. The advantage of this is that both parties would engage each other on a personal level, and spend more time developing a deeper understanding of each other's views. Vastly more constructive, in my view.

The Negative Man said...

**This comment is regarding Singapore's handling of the IMF/WB meeting. There is another comment regarding demonstrations and protests. I split the two comments up for clarity's sake.**

Is Suntec level 1 too small for all the demonstrators? Yes it is, if the demonstrators would resort to their conventional means of using numbers to advance their message. Certainly it would diminish their message, unless they have creative means to make it more salient.

Then, would the message(s) be garbled because of the many groups gathered there? I'm not sure whether this would be true. After all, by law of conservation of protest groups, the number of protest groups remains the same throughout (approximately). Of course, the groups might orginally be more spread out (say one in tower 1, one in level 2 etc), and hence be more distinct. Depends on the difference in density of protest groups.

Having it outdoors. Possibly it might be difficult to control. The difference lies in the demarcation of zones. Within an indoor area, it is easy to demarcate areas. Outdoors, it is by far more difficult to set up such zones. There is potentially unlimited area for the protest to grow and roam, whereas indoors it would be easier to limit and control. (In any case I doubt the protesters stand any chance against the police - have you seen the new anti-riot vehicles? The ones with the built-in barricades? Scary machines...)

On a less serious note, I wonder if Singapore has considered the business of demonstrator-tourism.

Jackson Tan said...

I'm not saying that these civil groups should use demonstrations every single time they have a problem. As I've said, demonstration is a way of "saying something very loud". It is something like a last resort, when all other means of expressing discontent are ineffective.

Of course if a proper meeting/discussion can effectively solve the problem, then demonstrations are unnecessary, but what if the authorities are not willing to listen to them, or just pretending that they care when they don't? What if there is no discussion/meeting in the first place? It is in such situations that demonstrations are necessary.

And to be frank, I think the IMF and World Bank has probably taken into consideration the protestor's cause. No discussion or meeting, personal or public, will "enlighten" them. It is only when the protestor strength becames overwhelming that the relevant authorities will get the message.

There is no need, in my opinion, to demarcate zones for demonstration... at least in an ideal democratic Singapore. But since it is far from it, perhaps some general demarcation should do... something like CBD area. Disrupt traffic? Well, I suppose there's no free lunch... if we want the IMF and World Bank meetings to boost our reputation, we must give something back, and that's certainly not bottles of Newater.