The government should grant greater, “freer” access to declassified government documents in the National Archives, said Workers’ Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leon Perera.
“The declassification of British colonial government documents relating to Singapore from the 1950s and 1960s provided a valuable resource for historians and others seeking to better understand that period in our nation’s history.
“I urged that freer access be given to documents that have already been declassified – even accessing declassified documents is a process subject to conditions and long waiting periods for approval in many cases,” said Perera in a Facebook post today (5 Sep).
Perera’s comments were made following Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann’s response to his question in Parliament on Wed (4 Sep) regarding the proportion of government documents that are more than 25 years old and are now publicly accessible on the National Archives of Singapore (NAS)’s online portal.
The MP highlighted that based on the figures given by the Minister in her reply yesterday, “only 8% of government documents in the archives have been declassified and made searchable on the National Archives online portal”.
Sim yesterday revealed that NAS currently holds around two million government records that are over 25 years old as public archives.
However, out of the two million records, only 160,000 of them are publicly accessible on NAS’ online portal, said the Minister.
“Not all Government records can be released for open access, especially those that relate to our national defence, foreign relations and internal security, as well as documents which may be bound by confidentiality obligations or personal privacy reasons,” she explained.
MCI, however, will work with Government agencies to “progressively declassify Government records”, said Sim.
“This number will grow as we work with Government agencies to progressively declassify Government records,” she said.
In a supplementary question, Perera said that even if a record is on the portal, there are still restrictions in accessing it fully in some cases, such as the requirement to seek approval to do so via writing.
Furthermore, he asked if they could be made more freely available.
Sim noted that while there are already “quite a number” of documents that can be viewed in full, the government is already working at making “as many documents and records publicly viewable and also searchable as possible”.
Perera also asked if there is a process to review the documents again – perhaps after 50 years – should the records remain declassified for public access at the 25-year mark.
“At the point of 25 years, there could be certain personal sensitives, confidentiality obligations … but is there a process to review documents further down the line? Because those personal sensitives may not be there, say 50 years down the line,” he questioned.
Ms Sim replied: “I’ve shared the numbers just now, so there’s quite a lot of work to go through for the current number of records that are 25 years and older.”
“So I think we’ll take his suggestion into consideration but, really, I think the priority is to declassify as many documents as we can and to encourage our agencies to do so and to help us in doing that,” she added.
Govt doesn’t practice “transparency for transparency’s sake”: Then-Senior Minister of State for MCI Lawrence Wong regarding demand for greater public access to Govt records
Sim’s response partially reiterates the government’s previous stance on making government records more readily available and accessible to the public.
Lawrence Wong, who was then Senior Minister of State for MCI, said in response to then-WP chief Low Thia Khiang five years ago in Parliament that the government does not adopt the approach of having “transparency for transparency’s sake”, and that it is unwise to allow certain documents to be easily accessed in the interest of national security such as those relating to defence, foreign affairs and internal security.
The Aljunied GRC MP called upon the Government to release past cabinet records for public access, and questioned as to whether such documents “are still sensitive”, even after nearly fifty years of Singapore’s independence at the time.
“I’m sure there are some that are not,” Low asserted.
Wong responded that some countries have “gone somewhat overboard with freedom of information legislation or open access” which has led to the complete avoidance of records, or omissions in such records.
Citing the possibility of civil servants committing such omissions in writing policies or cabinet papers, Wong said: “I think we have to be careful of such inadvertent consequences, which we do not want to have in Singapore”.
“Our purpose is to promote good governance. Our approach is that we want to make more information available but it would be subject to the broader conditions,” he added.
Low asserted that “there seems to be a huge gap in records and our collective memory” due to the way in which cabinet papers are kept confidential, and suggested the government to adopt a “30-year rule” such as in the United Kingdom, where confidential records of cabinet meetings are incorporated into the national archives after 30 years.
He argued that doing so will not only “conserve transparency and accountability in order to maintain public trust in the Government, but also encourages a historical investigation to bolster a strong sense of national identity”.
Noting that “all the stories, Singapore stories are told by National Archives, the establishment”, Low posited: “I am 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, I think it is quite difficult for them to do so”.
Wong reiterated in response that “all Government records beyond a 25-year period are deemed as public archives”.
“That is stipulated in the NLB Act. Access would be provided to any of these public archives but there is a proviso that we will have to check with the relevant agencies and to make sure that these are unclassified information,” he added.