Go beyond Tharman’s words and open up archives to public

By Ong Chang Woei


Since the recent elections, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has been noted for displaying an open-minded attitude towards the opposition parties, civil society groups and social media. He has suggested that they should play a more active and positive role in Singapore, and he also encouraged some of the outstanding new faces among opposition candidates to persist instead of giving up after their defeat at the polls.

However, a verbal acknowledgement of any political party or civil society organisation alone, or a positive attitude towards them per se, will not go far in giving them leeway to play a positive role. More crucially, the government has to take concrete action in order for them to participate in some role or function.

Former Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) chief economist, Yeoh Lam Keong, recently made a posting on Facebook expressing thought-provoking views on the lack of equal political competition in Singapore for the opposition. But it is one important question he raised that I would feel particularly concerned about: Does the government need to monopolise control over all official information and data, such that nobody other than some unidentified experts would be able to propose effective policies or engage in relevant debates?

If we wish for opposition parties or civil society groups to play a more constructive role, we would have to ensure transparency in the flow of information. For example, academics who are researching on Singapore history have said that a lot of government records are not open to public access. That makes research very difficult, as one can only attempt to reconstruct historical narratives by relying on archives overseas or other sources.

Last year, the Worker’s Party MP, Low Thia Khiang, called on the government to adopt a ‘30-year rule’ similar to the practice in other countries like the UK, where Cabinet papers and other documents are released for public information and research.

But this was flatly rejected by the Singapore government which said that transparency for transparency’s sake may not lead to "good governance."

The then Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, Lawrence Wong, argued that some countries had “gone somewhat overboard” with freedom of information laws, such that instead of leading to better governance, it led to more opaqueness and avoidance of records.

“Policy papers or Cabinet papers which are written which may not have full information and full details because the civil servants writing them know that these will be made available,” he said. “I think we have to be careful of such inadvertent consequences.”

Such a response is puzzling.

For a government which has always had full confidence in its own efficiency and trustworthiness, is it not possible to avert such “inadvertent consequences”? Is there no way to ensure that civil servants be strictly open and truthful in such matters?

To deny a principle of procedure by pointing to the possibility of lapses is hardly convincing as an argument.

Official information in the custody of the government would make a most crucial component in the process of formulating and discussing any policy.

Without such data, scholars who are researching on policies may well arrive at conclusions which are far removed from reality.

For example in 2003, two economists who were then with the Nanyang Technological University had to rely on data taken from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website to assess the employment situation in Singapore. Based on the findings, as many as three out of four job opportunities created in the preceding five years were said to have gone to foreign workers.

As soon as the report was released, it was met with severe criticisms by then Minister for Manpower, Ng Eng Hen, who said that the figures cited in the report were way off the mark, that one had no idea how the economists obtained those figures or how they arrived at those claims.

The two economists eventually conceded that they had made an inadvertent mistake in their interpretation, as a result of them citing figures which differed from data of administrative records that MOM referred to in their operation but never released to the public. That led to the discrepancy in different conclusions. The minister accepted their explanation, and that was the end of the episode. But it is clear from this incident that the heart of the matter was how two economists did not have full access to official data, and that prevented them from engaging in more effective and more accurate analyses.

Regrettably, the incident did not spark off any public debate as to whether it was reasonable for the government to withhold official data. In fact, that was by no means a rare and isolated case where the local academia is concerned. Many colleagues of mine in the fields of economics and social studies have often lamented how it was useless to request the government for information and data for any research.

It is therefore my hope that the government will re-examine the principle of non-disclosure that it has adopted with regard to official information. If the government is ready to be receptive towards the contributions of opposition parties and civil society, then there should be no more delay in opening access to official archives, records and data.

This commentary was originally published in Lianhe Zaobao last Friday, 18th September 2015. The writer is Associate Professor in the Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore.

Translated by Wong Chee Meng