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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 06:06 GMT 07:06 UK
Singapore welcome raises doubts
By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Singapore

Designated protest space at Suntec City Convention centre in Singapore, 13 September 2006
Protests will be allowed in designated, indoor areas
Sometimes the adverts can be as revealing as the front pages.

This week some of Singapore's newspapers have been teeming with new recruitment ads put in by the city's many escort agencies.

They're all busily hunting for what they describe as "young, outgoing girls... in their twenties".

The apparent hiring frenzy has been triggered by the arrival of some 24,000 visitors - all coming to town this week with just one thing on their minds... the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The front page headline in this morning's Straits Times boasts that this is the biggest turnout ever.

The delegates do have some serious business to discuss here - in particular, plans to restructure the IMF's voting system to give countries like China and Mexico more clout.

But for Singapore - a tiny, humid and tightly-controlled city state - the real issue is how well it looks after its guests.

Citizens are being urged to smile. To make sure the delegates respond in kind, they're being offered discounts on botox injections and other beauty treatments.

An article in the New Paper urges visitors to venture out of their convention centre and discover the city's secrets, declaring that there is much more to this place than "rules, laws and squeaky clean streets".

Campaigners barred

But it is Singapore's laws which are in danger of overshadowing this week's meeting.

It is illegal here for more than four people to demonstrate together outside. So what to do with the many thousands of international activists who usually congregate at such events?

We work with these representatives of civil societies, and we value their role - even when we disagree with what they say
World Bank

Singapore has made it very clear that its rules will not be bent - 10,000 police will make sure of that.

A number of campaigners have already been barred from entering the country.

Those who have been allowed in are being carefully chaperoned. They will be allowed to protest, but only in designated indoor areas. They are also being provided with special, soft placards to wave.

Thursday's Straits Times carries a small article - tucked deep inside the newspaper - which some might argue belongs nearer the front page.

The World Bank has come to its critics' defence, accusing Singapore of breaching a formal agreement by barring 28 activists from the country.

In a statement, it says: "We work with these representatives of civil societies, and we value their role - even when we disagree with what they say."

More criticism has come from one of Singapore's tiny opposition parties. In an open letter, the Democratic Party has accused the authorities of stifling dissent, behaving like despots.

What is more, the party has thrown down a direct challenge, vowing to go ahead with a big outdoor protest this Saturday, and inviting all the visiting delegates to come along and see what happens.

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