Pritam Singh: Singapore needs a Freedom of Information Act

October 20th, 2011

Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh called for a Freedom of Information Act in his speech in Parliament on 20 October 2011. Here is the relevant extract from his speech.

What a Freedom of Information Act would do is to allow ordinary citizens to pull information from public bodies that have not put the information sought in the public realm. A Freedom of Information legislation is not meant to oblige the government to release sensitive data such as defence deployments and procurement. Exceptions are routinely scheduled in Freedom of Information legislation elsewhere, which prohibit government release of sensitive information. It is useful to note that Freedom of Information legislation is very much the norm in countries, which host a diverse and plural polity.

And in case some members feel such open-government legislation only originates in Western countries and that we Asians do it differently, the multi-racial Malaysian states of Penang and Selangor have opened a dialogue on the induction of such legislation. India passed the Right to Information Act in 2005, a high-water mark of the previous UPA government.

Let’s try to envisage a Freedom of Information Act in practice. In the event, some misinformation is being peddled about on the internet or mainstream media, ordinary citizens and journalists can walk into any ministry, go to the designated information officer and seek official statistics on the matter. With this information in hand, the peddler of misinformation either online or in the mainstream media, would be found out, and the webpage or newspaper which hosted the misinformation would lose credibility.

No Singaporean will be able to accuse the government of selectively putting out information it wants to, since ordinary Singaporeans will be empowered to seek the information they require.

A Freedom of Information Act hosts other benefits too. Only a few weeks ago MCYS launched “Be the Change”, an initiative, which invites “young Singaporeans to step forward, share their ideas, and take the lead in turning their ideas into reality.”  Such projects are likely to be far more successful, popular and broad-based if youth can make enquiries of government on data and statistics to ensure their ideas are workable and practical.

A second arrow in the politics of empowerment is an obligation by the government of the day to order the automatic release and disclosure of official information at fixed intervals of 30 years or so. In the United Kingdom, the Public Records Office manages this process. The disclosure of official documents, apart from introducing substantive accountability and transparency in government-decision making processes, will likely provide Singaporeans with valuable insights on why decisions were made the way they were by political leaders in the past. Such a repository of information is extremely helpful to ensure succeeding generations understand the circumstances behind the success of their predecessors while avoiding the very same mistakes and missteps.

Automating the periodic disclosure of official documents may necessitate a review of certain sections of the National Heritage Board Act. The government should not see such changes as an attempt to criticize and expose previous governments. But no politician should be beyond reproach and a commitment to open government files for historical scrutiny are important features of a politically mature society.

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