Category Archives: Manifesto

WP: Freedom of Info

Asked by reporters to comment on the Workers’ Party’s proposal in it’s manifesto released last week, to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, Mr Lui said it is not necessary.

This is because the Government already puts up a lot of information on its websites, said Mr Lui during during a visit to Block 49 Sims Place Market and Food Centre, with Minister for Environment and Water Resources Yaacob Ibrahim, MP Denise Phua and People’s Action Party new face Edwin Tong.

They form the likely line-up to contest the new Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

Mr Lui also told reporters that the government has also taken steps to relax several laws on censorship and Internet election advertising.

Noting that several of WP’s ideas are imported from abroad, Mr Lui cautioned against adopting them wholesale as there are serious consequences if they do not work for Singapore.

‘At the end of the day, the road to the abyss is paved with good intentions,’ he said.

(“Not all ideas work for Singapore: Lui“, The Straits Times)

Obviously the Minister doesn’t understand a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Sure, there’s plenty of stuff on government websites…but that’s NOT the point. No doubt the government has a heavy online presence, but it is limited to speeches, press conferences, procedures or policies etc. Yes, anyone through the Internet can find out how to apply for a HDB flat, a business permit, or how to renew his passport. Government websites are designed in a corporate manner, to allow citizens to conduct their ‘business’ on the websites.

These websites introduce the ministries, their visions and missions, organization charts. It is true that anyone with Internet access can find out who is the director of this and this, and even contact him.

But a FOIA is very different. A FOIA means the government is obliged, if a citizen requests, to release any information, except for those relating to national security, law enforcement, individual privacy, internal standard operating procedures for each ministry, sensitive financial records etc. For example, the NEA holds records on dengue ‘hot spots’. Let us assume they are undisclosed, but we know they have such records. Hence a concerned citizen can make a request to the NEA, and the NEA will have to tell him where the dengue hot spots are. NEA can only reject the request if the records are exempted from public access due to national security etc.

Or a historian can request the ISD for files on Operation Spectrum, which arrested alleged Marxists in the late 1980s.  Or a S’porean can ask HDB for records on how much subsidies he receives when he purchases a new flat. You get the drift…

Minister Lui claims many of the Workers’ Party’s ideas are imported, so they are impractical in Singapore. I don’t know how, but expanding the freedom of information access is definitely good for Singaporeans. That is something universal.

If I were given a choice between the PAP and the WP, and the only evaluation criteria is on media, arts and information, I’d support the WP. I mentioned previously that arts licensing and declassification of sensitive records after a set period are two proposals I think are good for Singapore. Now I further support their Freedom of Information Act proposal:

1. We should enact a Freedom of Information Act containing provisions to allow citizens to gather information from the State and to ensure that the government puts out sufficient information.

2. Temporary statistics and information collected by the government, particularly aggregated social statistics, shall, as far as possible, be de-classisfied and made available in the public domain to promote research and informed debate on matters of public interest.
My reasons are simple:
  1. S’poreans have a right to ask the government for records, if the request is reasonable and doable e.g. as the records already exist, it is a matter of publication, not creating new ones.
  2. Availability of information, subjected to some restrictions, creates transparency. This principle should be consistently applied, and not on a case-by-case basis.
  3. Lastly, the government is not a secret keeper. Yes, there are some secrets regarding the military, financial reserves, etc but these are understandable secrets. Other than these, any interested citizen should be able to browse through government files. A government is not a business anyway, so why lock the information up?
The PAP government is too uptight over information rules. It even banned a former leftist’s video, as apparently it hurts public interest. Yet to the historian this video is an important evidence, providing an alternative perspective to the PAP-Singapore Story. And what public interest can the video possibly hurt, when this leftist is aged and powerless?
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First look at the WP Manifesto

You can have a look at the WP manifesto here. It is sufficiently broad to cover the concerns of every group I can think of, but in terms of depth, it is lacking, because it is either politically expedient or they are unable to develop their ideas.

Section 14 on the ‘Arts, Media, Information and New Technology’ caught my eye. A few weeks ago, I’d attended a film screening at the Esplanade Library, and the organizer brought up the topic of censorship in the post-screening forum. The director of Tanjong Rhu, Boo Junfeng, mentioned his film was pulled out of a National Museum screening programme without any explanation. No one knows why, but obviously there must have been pressure from “above”. As a film buff, I don’t think Boo’s film, or anyone’s artwork for the matter, should be subjected to the whims of censors or the “above”.

One of the WP’s proposals is this:

The licensing of the arts should be taken out of government control and given to an independent body with representation from the arts community.

Currently, groups which stage any kind of public arts event, be it, dramas, concerts, exhibitions etc MUST apply to the Media Development Authority (MDA) for a license. There are some exemptions, like getai. The government can refuse to grant the license or censor part of the arts event. Examples have been documented by Arts Engage here.

The govt believes itself to be the moral gatekeeper of society, but I think it is difficult to achieve this, nor is it desirable. While moral values like filial piety, integrity, loyalty etc are deemed desirable by most, if not all of us, there are some issues which are ambiguous and controversial. One good example would of course be homosexuality. Many think it is “immoral” because of their religions, “conservative” backgrounds, and there are probably a few who still believe it is a medical condition. But is it that clear-cut? No, my personal belief is that gender orientation is NOT a moral issue at all. It is neither purely good nor bad, it is just there.

I don’t really care if there are others who think that homosexuality is an immoral sin. But I think it is incorrect when the govt, because of pressure from certain groups, over-extends its role as the moral gatekeeper of society, to influence what we can or cannot watch. Hence I’d support this proposal from the WP, that the govt should not regulate the arts, but an independent body which does not bend down from pressure. Yet the WP lacks elaboration on this idea. A deliberate act?

The second note-worthy proposal in this section:

Official secrets should be de-classified after a maximum period of time has passed or as soon as the information is no longer sensitive. This will enable the public to debate the course of history and deepen citizens’ understanding of key events.

This book writes of the difficulties which historians face when they access the official archives. 50 years have gone since the pre-independence struggle between the PAP and leftists, why the need for agencies like the ISD to bury their files like treasure chests? In the foreword of “Men in White”, MM Lee wrote that he asked permission from the ISD to reveal the fact that Lim Chin Siong had met with the Plen (the Malayan Communist Party’s point man in S’pore), so as to prove his claim that Lim was a communist, and by extension, he sought to overthrow the govt through an armed revolt or whatever.

Ordinary S’poreans have no access to the ISD archives. I don’t think most can understand. But the ones who do, the academics, journalists and researchers, need access to these locked files. It’s time for them to be unlocked, for a fuller discussion of events since independence, like Operation Spectrum, which arrested alleged Marxists. I think the PAP govt shouldn’t be too worried about these “secrets” undermining their legitimacy or authority. Or even nation-building. Nope, openness and fairness should be principles consistently applied, including to state archives.

Other than this section, I don’t have any pressing comments. Will blog if I’ve further thoughts.

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