On 10 March 2014 Workers’ Party leader and MP for Aljunied GRC Low Thia Kiang raised a question in parliament on the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) and called for the adoption of a Declassification Act where among other documents, Cabinet Papers are usually released for public information and research after an embargo of 30 years.
The response by Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information (MCI), as reported in the English-language mainstream presses, was predictably perfunctory to say the least. Headlined ‘Release of govt papers: Guide is good governance’(Straits Times) and ‘Release of all past cabinet records may not lead to better outcomes: Lawrence Wong’ (Today),they highlighted the minister’s pointing to the need for documents on national defence, foreign relations and internal security to remain classified, and that ‘transparency for transparency’s sake’ does not necessarily lead to ‘good governance’.
These remarks and the way they are reported evades the core issue, though it should be mentioned that there are writers who have been given privileged access, including a handful of journalists, selected historians and other academics, a member of parliament who was a former journalist writing a biography on S Rajaratnam. Needless to say, their views are unremarkably similar in nature.
It behoves users of the NAS, especially historians, for whom archival material are well-nigh indispensable for their research, to join issue on the matter. It is no surprise that historical studies on Singapore after 1963 tend to be rare, for that is when the colonial office records, thus far the staple of historians, no longer cover Singapore. This leaves precious little materials by comparison for researchers to work on. The vast majority of administrative files relating to culture, housing, community services, education, labour, transport, the economy, health are still with the respective ministries, and not the NAS, even though the documents are deemed to be part of the public archives after 25 years if they are not classified.
Researchers thus have no idea of what files there are in existence, unless they approach the various ministries and boards, which is unlikely to have a user-friendly catalogue of its resources, for that is not within their mandate. Their mandate is to transfer those records of more than 25 years’ vintage which have been screened and declassified to the National Archives. It does not seem that ministries have processes in place for this.
The most current published account of the travails that historians go through in the course of their work is detailed in the Preface of Loh Kah Seng, Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (Asian Studies Association of Australia, 2013).
Fifty years after the fire, obtaining access to the archives remained fraught with difficulty: official gatekeepers are mindful of the long shadows cast by the makers of the recent past. In Singapore, a researcher seeking access to classified government records is required to obtain the depositing institution’s approval. The HDB turned down my request “as records contain personal data of identifiable individuals.” Subsequently the assistance of my member of parliament, an academic, enabled me to obtain partial extracts of 8 of the 25 requested files. The Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports granted me access to 23 Social Welfare Department files, mostly on its relief work for fire victims, with the condition not to release sensitive information prior to the ministry’s clearance—a necessary stipulation. But I was unsuccessful with the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security Department…
But it was not just a matter of having to persist in the herculean and byzantine effort to gain access to what should be routine the files of the various institutions. Loh had the sense that his endeavours were received with suspicion:
I was also being followed, I came to discover, by rumours in some official quarters that I was attempting to fix the blame for the fire on the ruling government. As the researcher, I found myself enmeshed in rumours about rumours.
Such attitude in official quarters can be expected if its members have to contemplate the possible consequences that would befall them if the materials they sanctioned for public availability are utilized in writing ‘alternative’ or ‘critical’ history. These terms are used as code words for ‘anti-government’, and even possibly ‘subversive’ by some academics at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
Notwithstanding the newspapers’ coverage, however, the Senior Minister of State had actually concluded his speech on the NAS on a positive note: “I would assure Members that MCI and the National Archives will continue to work closely with Ministries and agencies to progressively make more information available to the public.”
Indeed, Section 8(2) of the Statutes (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Act 2012 provides that the National Library Board (which the NAS falls under) “shall examine the public records in any public office and advise that office as to their care and custody.”
One hopes that the Board will fulfil its mandate to get ministries and agencies to transfer routinely the public documents in their custody to the National Archives where they belong.
Also bona fide public documents at the NAS should be available to all who wish to read them, without permission having to be sought from their originating institution. All along, the criteria for granting or refusing permission have not been spelt out. Such case by case decisions is time-consuming for the institutions, and highly frustrating for researchers who have to second-guess the mind of officialdom.
Singapore has had the same ruling party and strongman for the past fifty years, and the vested interest in defending the policies and actions taken half a century ago has remained.
It is time for the younger ministers to divest themselves of the burden of having to do this, and establish a new compact with the people, one based on mutual respect and endeavor to understand the country’s history in all its complexity.
Dr Hong Lysa, historian, was formerly a member of the History Department, National University of Singapore, and has since been doing research on her own.
She is a founding member of the e-journal collective, s/pores: new directions in Singapore studies [www.s-pores.com] and co-author (with Huang Jianli) of The Scripting of A National History: Singapore and its Pasts (Hong Kong University Press, 2008).