In October 2011, some five months after the general election that year, Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament, Pritam Singh, called on the Government to establish a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Mr Singh, who was speaking in Parliament then, argued that “a prospective Freedom of Information Act will allow any Singaporean citizen to make enquiries with any public body for statistics and information at a reasonable price.”
He said that a FOIA would “allow ordinary citizens to pull information from public bodies that have not put the information sought in the public realm.”
“It is useful to note that Freedom of Information legislation is very much the norm in countries which host a diverse and plural polity,” he said.
Mr Singh also explained that “apart from introducing substantive accountability and transparency in Government-decision making processes”, an FOIA “will likely provide Singaporeans with valuable insights on why decisions were made the way they were by political leaders in the past.”
“Such a repository of information is extremely helpful to ensure succeeding generations of Singaporeans understand the circumstances behind the success of their predecessors while avoiding the very same mistakes and missteps,” he said.
Responding to Mr Singh’s call, MP for Tanjong Pagar, Indranee Rajah (who is now the Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Law and Ministry of Education), said that “there is a lot of information out there” and she was “not sure we need another Act for that.”
However, the Minister for Communications and Information (MCI), Yaacob Ibrahim, did not entirely dismiss Mr Singh’s suggestion.
Dr Yaacob said that while the “incremental value of freedom of information legislation may be limited”, he nonetheless agreed with the WP MP “that we need to study all possible formulations of the Act or other existing Acts that may help us to achieve the outcome that we want.”
In 2014, WP chief Low Thia Khiang again brought up a related matter – that Cabinet Papers be released to the public.
Mr Low said that while the National Archives is the custodian of public records and “the keeper of our collective social memory”, he said “there seems to be a huge gap in the records and our collective memory because our Cabinet Papers are not released to the National Archives.”
Mr Low explained that the principle behind the 30-year rule, which some countries have adopted in their freedom of information acts, not only concerns transparency and accountability to maintain public trust in the Government, “but also you are encouraging historical investigation and writing to foster a strong sense of national identity.”
“Singapore would be 50 years old next year,” Mr Low said. “It is timely that the Government adopts a 30-year rule, legislates a Declassification Act and release the first trench of Cabinet Papers for public access.”
Mr Low added that “currently, all the stories, Singapore stories are told by National Archives, the establishment.”
He said that he was sure “historians in Singapore are interested to research into the history of Singapore in an independent manner, and without those papers that are being published” it would be “quite difficult for them to do so.”
Replying to Mr Low, the then Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, Lawrence Wong, said the government’s “approach is not transparency for transparency sake.”
“Our approach,” he said, “is transparency that leads to good governance.”
Mr Wong added, “Policy Papers or Cabinet Papers which are written may not have full information and full details because the civil servants writing them know that these are will [sic] be made available.”
The door, it seems, was shut tight as far as Mr Low’s request for declassification of Cabinet Papers was concerned.
And in the latest turn of events, a film by Tan Pin Pin of interviews she conducted with several of Singapore’s political exiles was effectively banned from public viewing by the authorities.
The film undermines Singapore’s national security.
It is similar to the ban on three other films by Martyn See, except that the reasons given by the authorities then were different.
In 2005, See’s film – “Singapore Rebel” – about opposition politician, Chee Soon Juan, was deemed “objectionable” by the authorities, who also questioned Tan for her association with See.
The film was banned from public screening.
The ban was only lifted in 2009, after an appeal by See. (See here for the chronology of events.)
See’s 50-minute film, “Said Zahari – 17 years”, made in 2006, was banned in 2007 because it was “against public interests”, the then Ministry of Communications, Information and the Arts (Mica) said.
“The film gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Said Zahari’s arrest and detention under the Internal Security Act,” the ministry said in a statement, echoing what it said when restricting Tan’s latest film.
Said Zahari was detained under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) for 17 years, making him one of the longest-serving political detainees in Singapore’s history.
In 2010, the government banned another of See’s film – this time of a video recording of a speech by former political detainee, the late Dr Lim Hock Siew.
“Dr Lim was detained during Operation Coldstore in 1963 and was held for 19 years, a record second only to Dr Chia Thye Poh,” See wrote on his blog.
Mica said then that the film, as with “Said Zahari – 17 years” – was “against public interests”.
The two films remain banned in Singapore.
In recent times, Singaporean historians such as Thum Pingtjin and Lysa Hong have unearthed new information – from other sources such as British declassified papers – which question the official narratives of Singapore’s history.
Calls for the authorities to release official documents here, such as the one made by Mr Low, have been met with refusal from the government, while independent works such as those by See and Tan continue to be prohibited for public access.
It is truly unfortunate that on the eve of our historically momentous 50th birthday, the PAP Government feels so insecure that it would deny and deprive Singaporeans a national dialogue based on independent accounts of our collective story.
Instead, the Government prefers to hide behind legislative prohibitions and restrictions to protect its questionable account of how we came about as a people and as a nation.
Singaporeans must continue to add their voices to the call for a Freedom of Information Act, or a Declassification Act, and be given access to official and secret papers which will once and for all shed light on the truth of their history.
*Main picture from Martyn See.