Releasing personal information in the public interest while withholding statistical data for the same reason?

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the government fall on two ends of a spectrum relating to releasing information for the sake of public interest.

In one case, the government was quick to release the personal information of a woman who went public with her struggles in withdrawing her own CPF savings due to a serious medical condition which rendered her unable to secure employment, which led her to deplete whatever savings she had on hand.

In another case, the government keeps pushing back against releasing statistical data that opposition politicians and the public have kept asking for. The reason given is to protect the public interest. A minister even cautioned that releasing such data could risk driving a wedge in society.

Why is that? Let’s look at the two cases.

The case of Ms Soo and CPF’s quick come back

Last month, TOC published a report about a 45-year old Singaporean and single mother suffering from Systemic Lupus Erytemathosus (SLE) since 2011 and has been out of a job since 2016 due to her health condition.

We wrote about how she has been trying to get her CPF funds from Medisave and her Special Account released to help support her financially given that she has exhausted all her savings in the last three years of being unemployed. Identified as Ms Soo (not her real name), she reached out for help to the CPF Board and President Halimah.

The CPF Board told her that she will need a medical certificate from her doctor confirming that she is permanently unfit for work to be able to release her monies but the doctor only gave her a temporary notice of 6 months.

She also tried reaching out to various agencies for help but has been unsuccessful at the time the article was published.

Just two days after TOC’s article was published, however, CPF released a joint statement with various ministries in which they addressed the situation while revealing personal details of Ms Soo including her real name and details of her family. The statement included information about Ms Soo’s admission to the National University Hospital (NUH) in 2011 for her lupus condition as well as her subsequent recent visit to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and applications for financial aid.

When queried about the government’s policy on disclosing the personal data in certain cases, the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) said, “The Online Citizen first published an article on (Ms Soo) on 17 Dec 2019 which omitted key facts and contained misleading statements. The relevant public agencies jointly issued a clarification to provide the full picture to the public. Some specific personal information was disclosed in order to convey verifiable facts and to enable the individual to challenge the Government’s account of the case, if need be.”

It added: “Public agencies have a duty to preserve the public trust reposed in them and to ensure that citizens are not misled.”

SNDGO likened the move to the Personal Data Protection Commission’s policy of permitting companies to disclose relevant personal information of an individual in a public forum in order to counter false or misleading allegations from that person.

It said, “This gives the companies an opportunity to clear the air for themselves, and convey the facts of the case to the public.”

The Board also noted that such disclosures are lawful and should not be conflated with unauthorised breaches of data which all public agencies including CPF are committed to guarding against.

So in the case of Ms Soo, the government took no longer than two days to disclose information about a woman who had wanted to remain anonymous when sharing her struggles. The public also expressed little to no interest at all in Ms Soo’s personal information. They just wanted to know what CPF was doing to help her.

On the other hand – still no breakdown of employment data

In stark contrast, the issue about employment data has been dragged out as many opposition politicians, media, and netizens have persistently requested for a breakdown in employment figures of citizens and permanent residents but the government continues to be evasive.

Earlier this month on 6 January, Worker’s Party chief and MP Pritam Singh had tabled a parliamentary question asking for the number of jobs created in each sector of the government’s Industry Transformation Maps (ITMs) broken down according to citizens, PRs, and foreigner groupings.

In response, Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing merely said that local employment increased by nearly 60,000 between 2015 and 2018.

Following Mr Chan’s speech, Mr Singh repeatedly asked for breakdown of the employment data but Mr Chan did not directly answer the question.

Mr Pritam addressed the house: “My original parliamentary question really was a question seeking data. Minister for Trade and Industry spoke of the local PMET share going up (from) 54 per cent to 57 per cent. And my question really is can we expect in future — either by way of (response to) a parliamentary question or by the Government on its own accord — (to be given data broken down) into Singaporeans and PRs? If the Government’s approach is, ‘No we are not going to provide that data’, can the Minister please share that detail with us here. Because it’s pointless for us to keep asking for that data if the Government is not going to provide it.”

Chan then replied, “I don’t think we have anything to hide. We have just shared the data.”

Pritam then asked, “If that is the case, then for (the increase of 60,000 in local employment between 2015 and 2018)… How many were for Singaporeans and how many went to PRs?”

He pointed out that the government frequently groups data concerning citizens and PRs together under one grouping called ‘local’.

Mr Chan responded, “We can get you the numbers. But let me say this: What is the point behind the question? First, has local unemployment increased with all these efforts?”

“The answer is a resounding ‘no’. Our people are getting good jobs. Are our wages going up? Yes, and it’s faster than many other countries. Those are proof points to show that we are doing right by Singaporeans. But I’m always very cautious about this constant divide — Singaporean versus PR. The insinuation seems to be that somehow Singaporeans are not benefiting.”

The back and forth continued beyond Parliament when Senior Minister for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat weighed in to caution against ‘driving a wedge’ in society by differentiating between PRs and citizens.

In a Facebook post, Mr Chee explained that between 2015 and 2018, the 23 Industry Transformation Map (ITM) sectors grew by 19,5000 (excluding foreign domestic workers). This comprised of an increase in employment of citizens by 39,300 and of permanent residents (PRs) by 8,600 as well as a decrease in employment of foreigners by 28,500.

He went on to reiterate Mr Chan’s point that the government has nothing to hide, adding that “most international labour market statistics are not even broken down by nationality.”

In the end, Mr Chee warned that all attempts to drive a wedge between different groups in society should be rejected, calling for people to “stand resolute” against efforts to “stir fear and hatred for political gain”.

But still, Mr Chee did not exactly provide the breakdown that Mr Singh and others have been asking for.

Now, given that the government was quick to reveal the real name and information of Ms Soo in the ‘public interest’ even when netizens made it clear that they were not interested in her personal information, why then is the government so reluctant in revealing a detailed breakdown of employment data when so many people including opposition politicians have been persistently asking for it?

Is it not also in the public interest to make such information available so that the public can judge for themselves if the government’s employment policies are as beneficial as ministers claim?

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