My Singapore Story

Mr. Sta. Ana is the coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, September 18, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

On 14 September 2006, I boarded the morning flight of Singapore Airlines to the Lion City.  It was a trip that didn’t excite me.

I was on my way to attend the annual meeting of the World Bank and the IMF, upon the invitation of the two institutions.  I am part of the civil society preparatory committee that the Bank and IMF formed to encourage and facilitate civil society participation in the annual meeting.  The Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung also invited me to be one of the panelists in a seminar about the IMF’s future.

But on the eve of my departure, many disturbing developments made me apprehensive about my trip.  The Singapore government banned the entry of some accredited organizations and individuals.  Two Filipinos on the way to Batam via Singapore were deported because they intended to join the protest activities on Batam island.

We and other organizations had to cancel the seminars that should have been part of the annual meeting.  Our organization, Action for Economic Reforms, canceled the seminar on regional integration because several speakers, organizers, and participants belong to organizations that the Singapore government blacklisted.

But I still had to make the trip, for it would have been improper of me to abandon the preparatory committee.

As I arrived in Singapore and descended from the escalator to proceed to the immigration counter, a giant banner hanging on a big wall greeted me and other travelers:  “Four million smiles welcome you.”

Yeah, Singapore Airlines is famous for its smiling stewardesses.  Would the immigration officials be likewise smiling?

I have passed through Singapore immigration many times, and I admire the efficiency of the immigration officers.  This time, the process slowed down and came to a halt.  The immigration officer asked me:  “Are you attending the IMF?”  “Yes,” was my immediate and obvious answer.  A few seconds lapsed; he checked the computer monitor and then voided the passport stamp.

Now the game begins, and I am ready for it, I told myself.

The immigration officer sent me to a holding area. I asked another immigration officer why they were holding me.  Her response:  “routine check.”  Routine would take more than four and a half hours. In blunt terms. I was detained for more than four and a half hours.

Anyway, she offered me candies. Candies for lunch? They were applying the Sta. Claus approach.  I was then escorted to a van and moved to an unspecified office.  It turned out to be a spacious office within the airport that serves as the Singapore police’s command control.

The Singapore police have a synonym for interrogation: interview.  So I was interviewed.  The interview included scanning my thumb marks.  I wasn’t allowed either to make or receive phone calls.

Two police officers asked me a lot of harmless questions such as:  Am I traveling to Singapore with someone? Do I join protest actions?  (I said: Frankly, I don’t like Gloria, but I have been lazy joining demonstrations.)  Which organizations am I affiliated with?  When was the last time I met the World Bank? Will I be going to Batam?  (My response:  How can I go to Batam when you are holding me? Besides, my friend said, Bintan is a better place to visit for relaxation.)

The police officers who interviewed me were courteous and friendly.  They even offered me lunch, consisting of samosa, butter cake and beverage.

I had a frank exchange of views with Tey, a 34-year old warren officer (the equivalent of a lieutenant). Tey, who seemed exhausted with the interview, said: “Singapore is tough.”  I asked him:  “Didn’t you get the Philippine National Police as consultant, that guy named Querol,  for riot control?” Tey said Singapore consulted different countries to learn from their lessons, good and bad. So, I said, you learned the bad lessons from the Philippines.

Tey and the other police officer, Kho, a young, chubby, gleeful woman, would explain why Singapore has to be tough; that Singapore is a small country with no natural resources.  It cannot afford trouble and chaos.  I don’t get the logic, but that’s their line.

Tey said that the police had to deter any action that may cause trouble.  He used a figure of speech: prevent a kettle from getting too hot; if it gets too hot, one could no longer touch it without getting hurt.  I countered: Well there’s another approach, use gloves.

I witnessed first hand how well-trained and how professional the Singaporean police are. I told Tey:  “Perhaps, your hidden reason in interviewing me is to show me first hand how well the Singapore police treat activists, in sharp contrast to the barumbado and balusubas treatment that activists get from GMA’s police.”

But I told Tey that the Singapore police are still weak, for the simple reason that they lack experience in handling crowds, riots, or demonstrations.  That’s enough reason for Singapore to allow public demonstrations: strengthen the police force by going through the experience of dealing with demonstrators. As the economists would say, learn by doing.  Or as the generals would say, learn warfare through warfare.

In the middle of the interview, I told Tey and Kho that I wished they would deport me. That would make my friends like Walden Bello very happy.

I requested the police officers to book me for the next available flight to Manila. I said I didn’t want to fight too many battles.  And I prefer fighting Gloria to Wolfowitz though I am not sure who between the two is the greater evil.

Besides, I had been away too long, and I was missing my wife.

After the long interview, I was asked to wait.  My guess was that the police were going to release me though I desired that I would still be deported so I could become the instant hero of the anti-globalization activists. Hehe.

Eventually, the Singapore police released me. The superior officer of Tey and Kho, I call him Captain Manny, offered his profuse apology several times.  His apology was more credible than GMA’s “I am sorry.”

The routine check took too long because, according to Manny, my name did not appear on the accreditation list of the World Bank and the IMF.

To make up for the routine check and interview, the Singapore authorities granted me a stay of 30 days; normally nationals of ASEAN countries are given a maximum stay of two weeks.

I arrived in Singapore at around 12 noon.  It was just before 5 pm that Tey and Kho turned me over to two World Bank staffers, including the ever-reliable Nor Gonzales of the World Bank’s Manila office. Everyone, including the police, was relieved.

Later, Nor would tell me that the Singapore police and officials gave her and the World Bank a run-around as they tried to locate me. She also said that several international NGOs issued a statement protesting my detention and saying that the IMF pressured the Singapore government for my release.

Nor also said that some senior Bank officials wanted to have coffee with me.  Great, because I wished to convey a piece of advice (actually, an idea from my friend Buencamino) that they could in turn transmit to Wolfowitz:  If Wolfowitz wants a conference site that is secure but without the foul-ups that happened in Singapore, he should approach North Korea. That Wolfowitz loves democracy should not be a problem.

Singapore is a democracy, and Korea is likewise a democracy; it is in fact the epitome of what is known as the people’s democratic republic.

I capped the night dining at a cheap Singaporean diner.  I noticed that the small eatery had a dessert called Bo Bo Cha Cha.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, Bobo Chaha.  Voila, we have a new slogan for one of the big battles in the Philippines.  That made me smile, adding to Singapore’s four million smiles.

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