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Transparency, not only vital for accountability, but also the exercise of democratic rights

By Ghui

There are many sayings in relation to the fluidity of history. "History belongs to the victors" or "History belongs to those who write it" are but examples of these.

Clearly, history is something that can be molded to suit the purposes of those who have the power to shape it. The particular usefulness of history is that it often gives the illusion that it is based on fact, which in turn lends it legitimacy.  Yet, it can also be twisted out of context to portray circumstances that couldn’t be further from the truth. It can be both friend and foe to justice depending on how it is utilised. Its importance to the wellbeing of democracy, civil rights and liberties therefore, cannot be underestimated.

In countries where there is a relatively free press and where government documents cannot be sealed indefinitely, the permanent whitewash of history will no doubt be more challenging for those who may have nefarious intent. While I understand that for security concerns, not everything can be released to all and sundry at any time, I do believe that there has to be a balance drawn between the public's right to unbiased information and data and issues of national security.

Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have sought to draw a balance between these two seemingly competing interests by introducing their own respective freedom of information acts. (See US FOIA, UK FOIA). The benefit of these acts is that it recognises the public's right to know and provides a procedural framework for obtaining such information. Grounds for refusal are also set out so that there are clear guidelines as to how the process works.

In addition, both of these jurisdictions have expiry dates on how long information can be withheld. In the United Kingdom, the 30-year rule applies while in the US; there are a variety of timelines ranging from 10 to 75 years. This would mean that factual records and information including wrongdoing cannot be buried beneath the sands of time but rather, will see light of day when the stipulated timeline is up.

This is crucial not only for the sake of accountability but also vital for people to truly exercise their democratic rights. How will one make an informed choice if one does not have recourse to all the information? From a more long term perspective, it is also a means to foster critical thinking amongst the populace.

Criticism on Singapore's tendency to present history selectively is not new. Over the campaigning period for the General Elections last year, historian Thum Ping Tjin has certainly displayed this propensity on the part of the government more than a few times!

There have been consistent calls for the government to be more open with historical records and government papers. Indeed our own Tharman Shanmugaratnam has alluded to the need for the government to be more open-minded. Despite these generic statements however, nothing concrete has been laid down. Various PAP members have also challenged the unfettered sharing of information without concrete reasons as to why this should be the case.

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Some of the reasons cited have in fact been misguided at best. Mr Lawrence Wong’s suggestions that making information accessible could lead to opaqueness and records not being made is akin to suggesting that one should not change their clothes for fear that they might get dirty the next day!

Surely, the documenting of decisions and how they are made should be documented as a matter of law as opposed to at the whims and fancy of the decision maker! The decisions of all public listed company require board meetings and minutes. What more that of an elected government? Besides this suggestion being preposterous, I am concerned by the mindset that is implied by Mr Wong. Is he condoning such far-fetched discretion on the part of the government that it can choose not to commit words to paper in the making of state decisions?

For me, this is a clear example of why opposition MPs are so crucial in Parliament. However few their numbers, their presence is why these very issues are raised in the first place!

Is the secrecy prompted more by security for a particular party than national security concerns? Will this limit our ability to grow and learn as a nation? Are we developing the necessary critical thinking skills required for us to move into a knowledge-based economy?

Being given the opportunity to look at a situation as a whole without being told what to think not only trains us to assess situations effectively, it also enables us to develop the ability to make sound judgment calls and learn from past mistakes. By restricting our ability to glean historical facts without any subjective interpretation, we are effectively being developmentally stunted. Is our collective development being hindered by the possible machinations, whether subconsciously or otherwise, of a political party bent on staying in power?

Were there things that would have turned out differently had we been apprised of the full picture?

A recent occurrence flagged by journalist Kirsten Han has been of great concern to me. (Lessons in Social Studies, question everything)

It would appear that our school textbooks have provided a very black and white account of the Little India riots without any attempt at engaging discussion or analysis. If a significant event such as this is being presented to future generations in such a shallow manner, will the same thing not happen again? Nothing would have been learnt!

What of the cloud of secrecy that seems to cling to how healthy Temasek's balance sheets are or how well the CPF is doing at managing our retirement nest? While I am not suggesting wrongdoing, I do wonder if a more transparent approach on the historical records of these entities would yield better results in terms of investment and management.

Truth and knowledge are truly empowering. It is the lack thereof that has created ignorance, suspicion and empathy in the first place. It is also the misrepresentation of history that prevents lessons from being learnt and allows history to repeat itself.

With developments in technology, more snippets of information have been slipping out which can hopefully help us to change the course of history for future generations. What this requires however is not just effort from society at large but political will.