Yawning Bread. September 2006

Tell the people that others are singing our praises




The full-page feature was headlined, "Singapore, through foreign eyes". (Straits Times, 16 September 2006)

Its standfirst said, "A record number of 23,695 delegates are registered to attend the eight-day International Monetary Fund-World Bank meetings here. What are their perceptions of Singapore?"

This being the Straits Times, you can expect the report to tell us that the delegates and journalists accompanying them are suitably impressed by Singapore despite a handful of activists complaining about Singapore's strict rules. 

And so the article opens:

In between reporting on breakfast talks and plenary sessions attended by international finance bigwigs, British journalist Philip Thornton will also be checking out cars.

To be precise, he will be studying how the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system affects road traffic here.

The economics correspondent for the London newspaper, The Independent, is here to cover the International Monetary Fund-World Bank meetings.

But a colleague back home from the motoring section gave him another assignment, 'to write about the road toll system in Singapore', he tells Insight with a laugh.

It's a story London is interested in. In 2003, the city adopted the Singapore-style charging system for cars entering the city centre. Now, it is debating whether to expand the pay-to-drive area, says Mr Thornton.

The efficient transport infrastructure here is one of among many shining attributes about Singapore that foreigners often cite when asked to share their perceptions of the Lion City.

It has been no different for those attending the IMF-World Bank meetings, like Mr Thornton.

But then, the more than 23,000 people expected here for the meetings are no ordinary tourists. His report, for example, will appear in a reputable newspaper with reach.

-- Straits Times, 16 Sept 2006,
'Singapore, through foreign eyes'

The ordinary reader of the Straits Times is thus led to expect that Thornton will be reporting glowingly about one aspect of Singapore's famed efficiency, which even London saw fit to learn from. Serious, objective reporters like him, writing for the Independent -- a "reputable newspaper with reach" -- will give the world a true picture of Singapore. Not like some other journalists with a Western liberal (sneer) agenda, perhaps?

Well, let's see what exactly Philip Thornton filed.

16 September 2006
The Independent

Singapore police bar World Bank poverty protesters

By Philip Thornton in Singapore

The World Bank is accused of colluding with an "authoritarian" regime after scores of poverty campaigners were detained, interrogated or deported by police as they tried to get the financial institution's annual meetings.

Leaders of bodies such as Action Aid condemned the bank's decision to continue the meetings despite what they called a "blatant violation" of their rights.

The Singapore authorities have deported an activist who had been accredited by the Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which is also holding its meetings in the Asian city-state.

Action Aid International named her as Maria Clare Soares, the Brazilian representative, of ActionAid Americas. So far, 28 members of campaign bodies have been barred from entering Singapore.

Iara Pietrocovsky, an academic and a representative of the Brazilian Networking of Integration of Peoples, was let in the country after being detained for several hours.

She said "We were interrogated about our intentions and if we intended to participate in any protests. The policemen were polite but didn't explain why we were detained."

Sandra Krawitz, a media officer at ActionAid USA, said she had a catalogue of incidents where accredited activists had been detained and repeatedly interrogated. "It is just mind-boggling that we should be treated this way," she said. "People are being treated as common thugs. That's not acceptable." She accused Paul Wolfowitz, the president of the World Bank, of "paying lip service" to freedom of speech. "He does have the power to say enough is enough and stop the meetings and to say something more loudly and make sure people are treated as professionals," she said. "The World Bank, Singapore and the International Monetary Fund need to apologise. We need Singapore to come its senses and open their arms to people who are trying to serve the poorest people in the world."

Another activist, Roberto Bissio, of Social Watch, used a meeting between campaign groups of Wolfowitz to accuse the president of giving in to the Singapore government. He said five people had been deported and others had been barred. "People who have been accreditation, their accreditation has been withdrawn," he said.

"Under these conditions, how can we talk about good governance when the basic rules of the host country are being so blatantly violated. The integrity of these meetings is in question. How many NGOs have to be deported? What does it take?"

Mr Wolfowitz said he shared their concerns and said he had raised his concerns at meetings with the President and Prime Minister of Singapore. "Enormous damage has been done and a lot of damage to Singapore is self-inflicted," he said. "They could have been a showcase to the world of development and I do ask whether it has to be so authoritarian."

Mr Bissio pressed him to postpone the meetings in protests but Mr Wolfowitz said "I don't think that's feasible otherwise I would consider it."

Between 30 and 40 activists, who said they were members of the Global Campaign for Action Against Poverty, walked out of the meeting in protest.

As you can see, Thornton's story was about Singapore's critics. "[S]cores of poverty campaigners were detained, interrogated or deported by police," he wrote. No doubt, he will be filing other stories as well during his stay here, but there is no drowning out the tales of gross authoritarianism.

Does it really do any good for the Straits Times to keep telling Singaporeans how great we are and how others are constantly praising us, when they most certainly are not? We're all going to suffer from mass delusion, courtesy of our national daily.

* * * * *


The same Straits Times article used the word "efficiency" 4 times and "efficient" 3 times, in all cases to describe Singapore. But what exactly is meant by "efficiency"?

It's a ratio of output to input that indicates how effective a process is. If one woman works takes 11 hours to sew 17 shirts, while another takes 9 hours to sew the same number of (same) shirts, then the second woman is more efficient than the first.

If a company can generate $2 million annual profits from $1 million of invested capital, while another can only generate $150,000 of profits from the same amount of capital, then the first company is more efficient in its use of capital.

I don't know how much we've spent on wooing the World Bank and the IMF to hold their annual meetings here, nor how much has been spent for fleets of limousines, the banquets, the tarting up of the city and the heavy (but in these times, necessary) security presence, but it must certainly be considerable.

The fence around the convention centre.

And what have we got in return? Lots of bad press about how authoritarian, unreasonable and paranoid this place is, simply because we cannot allow Singaporeans to protest against the government, thus foreigners cannot protest against the World Bank and IMF either. Getting so much negativity in return for a massive investment of time, trouble and funds, is not exactly my idea of efficiency. Hosting this summit must rank as one of the most inefficient things we've done.


Armed police everywhere.
Roads empty.

Ministers the world over generally dislike dissent. When people reach such levels of power, there is a tendency to think they are right and everybody else is wrong. The antidote to such hubris is for other layers of society to be independent-minded and outspoken. The civil service must speak courageously to ministers, if privately. Backbenchers must take ministers to task, publicly. Civil society and the media must be free and ready to question "prevailing wisdom" and kneejerk assumptions. There is a benefit from being liberal towards dissent.

Singapore, alas, has been too successful at suppressing all these other layers of society. So when ministers rushed headlong into virtually declaring martial law for the World Bank summit, nobody was there to tell them it was a foolish path to take. And so we pay the price: tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars to buy a public relations disaster.

Our government likes to boast that their methods engender efficiency. Here is an example of where it most certainly does not.

Yawning Bread 


Razor wire atop fence.




  1. Recommended reading: An impending crisis to our Singapore reputation from offending the international CSOs? on the Singapore Angle blog, by Soon Sze Meng