An end to rituals of control

By Chandran Nair

This opinion by Chandran Nair appeared in the South China Morning Post on Monday, 2 October 2006

Those watching the recent World Bank-International Monetary Fund meeting would have recognised a familiar ritual -- only this time with the Singaporean government in the spotlight. It initially blocked entry to accredited representatives of non-governmental organisations. Then it relented, but not before the damage was done, both to the government and the banks.

At play in this ritual were control of dissent and the retention of power. Another part of the ritual is the anger exressed -- almost exclusively from western civil-society organisations. Where is the considered expression from the developing world? Worst of all is the game of blaming each other for what happened: that achieves nothing when there are real needs to attend to.

The IMF and the World Bank were blamed for the initial bans because they chose to meet in Singapore. NGOs have condemned the city for its “appalling record on free speech and public assembly”. World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz scolded the Singapore government on a “bad” decision to bar invited activists -- suggesting the blame rested squarely with local authorities.

At first, Singapore was unrepentant. On its list of “troublemakers” were the South Korean farmers’ groups that stole the headlines at the World Trade Organisation conference in Hong Kong, in December.

The general perception from sensationalised media reports from Hong Kong was of South Korean farmers running amok, engaging in running, pitched battles with police. But, in fact, the protests were disciplined and focused, and the police were praised for response. Many protest groups won the public’s heart, and generally each side learnt from -- and respected -- the other. While not perfect, Hong Kong was a good example of civil society working as it should.

Civil society must look beyond the motives behind the initial decision to lock out some activists. Something greater is at stake for the activists: their responsibility to the people whose interests they are representing. This responsibility must be shouldered willingly: boycotts are not the answer, just as sanctions do not resolve diplomatic disputes.

Meanwhile, Asian civil society must make its own voice heard. At present it is being drowned somewhat by the more established and established agencies, which typically reflect western sentiments and concerns.

So, what is to be done to break the ritual of control? Who will make the first change?

For Singapore’s part, authorities there should understand that the time to fear civil society has passed. The authorities are entitled to take any position they feel is genuinely necessary to safeguard life and property. But jumping at shadows does not become a nation of intelligent, forward-looking people. The eventual lifting of the ban on most activists was good for Singapore.

Globalisation has shifted the goalposts for everyone. It needs civil society to be an integral part of how decisions get made – to be partners in every sense, not just as adornments at conferences and meetings. The IMF and World Bank's posture may suggest a new attitude, but are they really listening and taking civil society’s advice?

A true partnership would dispense with the need for screening and accreditation of participants. Each party would stop seeing the other as contrarian. Some NGOs have more to offer than do businesspeople and bureaucrats. They should be given official capacities in, say, a necessary restructuring of the framework for such meetings. Then transparency and accountability would be challenges for NGOs, too. And that would break the ritual.