Why the need to be secretive?

OCT 5 — If a government that is voted into power in a democracy is supposed to be entrusted to represent the collective interests, hopes and aspirations of the citizenry, then the people have every right to know how public policies and laws are crafted and taxpayers’ money spent by the government would really benefit them.

The government, which often professes to rule in the name of the citizenry in its attempt to claim political legitimacy, must therefore be transparent and made accountable. This fact may be too obvious to many of us, but some ruling politicians do need constant reminding.

That is why a suspicion that certain ruling politicians or government officials have stolen money from the state coffers through various means should arouse the interest, concern and condemnation of the people. 

It doesn’t matter whether a corruption involves a few hundred ringgit or billions of taxpayers’ money; it should trigger deep worry and alarm among us – and the culprits must be brought to justice.

But the right to know is not only for the purpose of the rakyat to detect corruption in the government. It is also to monitor whether priorities in the government administration have gone topsy-turvy.

It is in this context that the right to know, freedom of information and freedom of expression become salient and should be appreciated – and even fought for (as freedoms are normally not given to us ordinary mortals on a silver platter). They are triplets, inseparable, and vital to the survival of democracy.

Indeed, the people have the right to know what’s going on in the government and in their society and, in turn, speak out if and when they know that the government has gone astray from its electoral mandate and oft sweet promises.

For example, given a limited national budget, would it make sense to pour RM650 million into the Tugu Negara project as opposed to allocating huge sums of money for building or repairing schools that would benefit a lot more people and future generations?

People would also like to know, for instance, how deforestation and consequent socio-economic and cultural dislocation of the Orang Asli in Kelantan have taken place, and has there been a violation of certain laws because of this incident.

Or, you would want to get some information from a local government about a new housing estate so as to make sure that a gigantic high-rise would not emerge one day in front of the landed property that you intend to buy.

Contrary to popular belief or assertion, the government in power is not given a carte blanche after it is elected by the people. In other words, it is not just answerable to the people during general election; it should consult the people from time to time on matters of public interest and importance.

To exercise this right to know effectively, however, the people – and this includes journalists and researchers – also require freedom of information especially from the public sector. As intimated above, they need to gain access to certain official records and documents in order to get a deeper understanding of a particular issue or before making important decisions that would affect their daily lives.

Unfortunately, there are already several impediments placed in the way of gaining information from the public sector. For instance, the obnoxious Official Secrets Act (OSA). Its wide and vague definition of what constitutes “official secrets” has resulted in many official documents that are of public interest and significance being kept away from the public domain and scrutiny.

The fact that those who are found to have violated the OSA would face a mandatory prison sentence of at least one year is enough to frighten individuals who want to leak vital information of public importance.

As it is, early this year Attorney-General (AG) Mohamed Apandi Ali was reportedly mulling amending "laws to increase the punishment for those who leak state secrets and journalists who report them.” He even hinted at the fact that certain countries, like China, took this offence so seriously that it even carries the death penalty.

The existence of many whistleblowers suggests a society whose government is inclined to be secretive. Unsurprisingly, the Whistleblowers Act of 2010 in Malaysia is not strong enough to protect whistleblowers so that whoever does leak “state secrets” will be doing it at high personal risk.

And what appears to be the height of outrageous state secrecy was when the Air Pollutant Index (API) was placed under the OSA in the late 1990s at a time when large parts of Malaysia suffered immensely from the so-called haze. The ban was lifted in August 2005 only after the government eventually realised that the public needed to be informed of the hazy situation!

As implied in the 1MDB case, whose spectre haunts us till this day, there were those who were nonetheless eager and daring enough to reveal intermittently important “state secrets” for supposedly national interest, which presumably prompted the AG to mull the above thought regarding severe punishment.

Spin doctors are another mechanism of the state tasked to divert the attention of the general public away from the issue at hand, and also frustrate the efforts of those who seek truth. One of the tried and trite justifications employed for maintaining such state secrecy are the Jewish or Chinese bogeymen.

Public perception that the federal government is not keen to be sufficiently transparent is reflected and reinforced by the absence of the Freedom of Information (FOI) law that protects and promotes the citizens’ right to know. This stands in stark contrast with what the states of Selangor and Penang have done, i.e. to institute a FOI enactment – although there is still room for improvement.

Additionally, the International Right to Know Day that falls on September 27 every year does not gain traction with the federal government for reasons already implied above. In Penang, however, this auspicious day was celebrated in the form of a public forum on freedom of information that was organised by Penang Institute, the state think-tank, in conjunction with the “Right to Know Week.”

To reiterate, citizens have the right to know and have access to government documents and information of public importance. There is no place in a thriving democracy for official documents to be classified “official secrets” in a cavalier fashion.

It is no secret that democracy thrives on transparent governance.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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