National Archives of Singapore building. (Image from RSP Architects Planners & Engineers)

More access to some data in move to become ‘Smart Nation’ but researchers want more access to historical information as well

Almost five years ago, the government pledged to make more data available to the private sector as a way to turn Singapore into a Smart Nation. But while companies and academics say greater data openness has been beneficial in these past few years, there is still room for more detailed data to be made available such as population distribution and historical data, argue academicians.

In the field of historical research, the lack of access to data is constraining and has led some to steer clear of conducting research on Singapore. That is hugely unfortunate as peering into the past could surely be beneficial to Singaporeans.

Noting that historical records such as internal government communication and memos are difficult to obtain, Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian told TODAY online that he would like to take a look at the state of Singapore-China relations before official diplomatic ties were established in 1990.

The deputy head of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is a researcher of foreign policy. Pointing to, for example, PM Lee Kuan Yew’s first visit to China in 1976 when he met with Mao Zedong and the leader’s success Hua Guofeng, Assoc Prof Chong said he would have liked to explore how that contact first came out. The considerations and limitations of that relationship as well as what may have complicated, informed or limited efforts of co-operation between the two nations after that initial meeting would be enlightening. But alas, those records are not readily accessible.

“We have no idea. So, in terms of understanding our own country, this becomes a big limitation,” Assoc Prof Chong said.

The associate professor explains that while internal papers like minutes of meetings and internal memos are made available in places like the United States and Taiwan, the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) does not have a publicly available detailed catalogue of such things.

Researchers who want to get their hands on historical documents can approach NAS but their requests are often passed on to the relevant government ministries. Unfortunately, there is no standardisation on how each agency approaches national security of privacy. They may have different approaches, notes the academician.

On top of that, there’s also no systematic mechanism to declassify documents which Assoc Prof Chong adds is a “big deterrent to doing more research on Singapore.”

“I would rather do work that I can get a clearer sense of what I can do, rather than fish around. I don’t have that much time, resources or energy to (do so),” he added.

What this means is that there is less research being done on Singapore’s history which could be informative to people in the present. Assoc Prof Chong asserts that this limitation of studying the country’s past “prevents a better self-understanding of our society.”

On his Facebook page, Assoc Prof Chong shared a list of links to archives of various countries including Singapore, Taiwan, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany – illustrating just how easy it is to rifle through historical data in the archives of other countries compared to Singapore.

Echoing in agreement is Professor Lim from the University of Michigan who asserted that academics do not study what they can’t get data on. So research in Singapore with ‘missing-data issues’ will naturally lag behind that in other countries. Consequently, the country is not represented in published international research in this particular niche.

The government’s response to lack of access to data

Responding to TODAY on these concerns, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office insists that the Government shares data with the public including businesses and researchers in order to facilitate research, develop new applications and improve service.

A spokesperson clarified that this sharing of data is done in a ‘safe and secure’ manner with ‘strong safeguards’ in place when sharing highly sensitive individual level data. The spokesperson added that while researchers can continue to request for data via Singapore’s open data portal data.gov.sg, the relevant government agency will review each request on a case-by-case basis.

“When there is strong demand and justification for a data set, the relevant government agency will endeavour to make the data set available on data.gov.sg, which will be updated on a monthly, bimonthly or yearly basis depending on the type of data,” the spokesperson explained.

GovTech (Government Technology Agency of Singapore) added that in 2015 they had refreshed data.gov.sg to “actively provide data visualisations and data-driven blog posts, to make government data relevant and understandable to the public” following criticism that they only published broad and aggregated data.

Even so, government hasn’t directly address the points raised by Assoc Prof Chong about historical data such as internal memos and minutes of meetings being made available for research purposes

When asked about the government striking a balance between sharing information and protecting data security, deputy chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information Ms Tin Pei Ling said that some information is withheld for strategic and security reasons.

The reason requests for data from researchers are handled on a case-by-case basis is because there needs to be “a clear understanding of what value-add will come out of the collaboration”, she added.

On the subject of transparency

Assistant professor in the department of Asian and policy studies at the Education University of Hong Kong Dr Kris Hartley was quoted by TODAY as saying that the balance of access to data and security “must be mediated through the political process, and thus, differs across political systems”.

In most Western liberal democracies, access to data is largely regarded as an entitlement because of freedom-of-information policies, explained Dr Hartley. The same does not hold true for Singapore which doesn’t have its own iteration of the United States’ Freedom of Information Act.

“While Singapore makes some data openly available, it seems uninterested in embracing a wholesale approach to data sharing, particularly on issues related to elections, fiscal spending and other politically sensitive issues that arguably have little to do with national security — outside military budgets,” he said to TODAY.