By Howard Lee
The Parliamentary exchange between Low Thia Khiang from the Worker’s Party and Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong on the public’s right of access to Cabinet records warrants a closer look, principally because it touches on a lot of issues about the state of our nation’s transparency and the accountability of public servants to the people.
Mr Low has called for greater transparency in government records, in particular the release of past Cabinet records for public access at the National Archives. He believes this is a matter that not only concerns transparency and accountability to maintain public trust in the government, but would also help to encourage historical investigation and writing, to foster a strong sense of national identity.
He suggested a “thirty-year rule”, similar to those established in other democracies, where government records are automatically published after 30 years of security.
Mr Wong, who is also Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, responded in the negative. He was reported as saying “such an open policy may not necessarily lead to better outcomes”. He added that information relating to national defence, foreign relations, internal security, and documents bound by confidentiality obligations or personal privacy reasons, are not meant for open access.
Moreover, the government’s aim was not transparency for transparency’s sake, but transparency that leads to good governance. He also noted that other governments have gone somewhat overboard with freedom of information legislation or open access, leading instead to the opaqueness and avoidance of records, as reported by media sources.
To hinder, or facilitate?
Mr Wong’s reluctance to adopt a Freedom of Information Act for Singapore seems rooted in the fallout of the WikiLeaks saga, as much as it seems grounded in the belief that FOI will lead to more work on the part of the public service.
While he might have reason to believe that FOI has caused much grief even among those who champion it, this view is one-sided and does not account for instances where the absence of such an Act actually could cause more problems.
Just two days ago, media in the United Kingdom reported that Prince Charles, next in line to the throne, wrote many letters to UK government officials, some with the potential to influence policy, but these were not publicised as part of the FOI Act that the UK is a strong proponent of.
We do not as yet know what exactly Price Charles wrote that caused such a controversy, or for that matter how the slant of his letters were uncovered. Nevertheless, what is clear is that the UK public’s interest in the issue is fuelled by the relationship between the Monarchy and the UK government, to the effect that his words could have affected national policy.
Now, if we were to transpose that example to Singapore, we would realise that Minister Wong’s claim that FOI encourages “opaqueness and avoidance of records” is presumption at best, and downright inaccurate at worst.
For one, we do not know what bearing Cabinet deliberations have on public policy, unless we are able to see it. If there are parts of Cabinet records that are not open to public scrutiny, might citizens be more inclined to suspect the intent of such records? A more transparent approach, by its very nature, would put away any doubt that everything discussed by the Cabinet is above board and in the interest of citizens.
For another, it seems a tad impossible for Mr Wong to suggest that, just because records are made for publishing, public servants will be less inclined to record conversations in full. What is discussed at such Cabinet sessions that cannot possibly see the light of day? And if there are, should the Cabinet, a public institution beholden to the people, even be discussing them at all?
For transparency, or outcomes?
Which then brings us to another vital question about how the government will be implicated by an FOI Act. Mr Wong claims that “such an open policy may not necessarily lead to better outcomes”. What he actually needs to better define is how “outcomes” would be measured and evaluated.
We need to understand that FOI Acts generally determine a certain time-frame where information is to be held before it can be made public. In 30 or 50 years, if we are still talking about the impact that such deliberations have on the national agenda, then it would be a case of us having either a longer-than-usual timeline for the implementation of policies, or a government that is still trying to resolve today’s problems by peeking at notes from decades ago – hardly a government that can be said to be in touch with the current needs of its people.
For a country that believes progress needs to be attained in leaps and bounds, such an approach to information does seem excessively backwards. One can only hope that such a view does not reflect the outcomes that the government wishes to achieve for the nation.
Perhaps Mr Wong is concerned that declassifying everything would encourage citizens to seek out such records more often than usual, which would then strain government human resources to retrieve such information for them. The outcome here would then be a less efficient public service.
If so, then this view is highly irregular with what FOI stands for. Transparency does not lead to more work. If executed correctly and the right infrastructure put in to allow self-service access, FOI can actually mean a more efficient and responsive government. Instead to wasting time deciding which document can or cannot be made public, a “public by default” system means the government only has to spend time justifying what it does not wish to disclose.
Most importantly, FOI demands that our leaders keep transparency at the top of their minds. The outcome here should not be about how much more work FOI creates, but how it allows a government to be more responsive to the needs of its people.
As such, there is reason to believe that more good than harm would come out of a Freedom of Information Act, and this is one step that our government should really consider. What can be achieved from FOI is not efficiency, work flow, response time or even less paperwork.
What FOI allows is a platform where the government can be open with its people, leaving behind the need for defensiveness, and build trust between the government and the governed. FOI, while concerned about the documents of the past, is really focused on the policies of the future.