22 Dec 2005

Let govt-held info be an open book

Singapore has come a long way, but don't stop now
Thursday • December 22, 2005
Charles Tan

FOLLOWING the startling revelations of the KPMG report on the National Kidney Foundation, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan has acknowledged the lack of clarity in the regulatory structure, admitted the Government's responsibility, and vowed there would be no cover-up.

It is yet another dramatic addition to the discourse of transparency and accountability in a year of corporate and charity scandals. What about openness at the highest level?

In more than 50 countries, citizens have the right to obtain access to government documents, and the governments have a duty to disclose them. The fundamental reason for providing such access has to do with the concept of an open and accountable government, and the evolution of a civil society.

Access to information, some argue, is an important bulwark against corruption. It is also closely related to the idea of a robust democracy. Yet, thus far, most governments churn out information selectively and at their discretion.

There is no doubt the Singapore Government is becoming more open. Today, there is much public consultation on policies and feedback is sought on issues that affect everyone. Nearly all government departments have comprehensive websites providing information such as annual reports and financial statements to the online public.

But surely more can be done.

The introduction of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation is important as it allows checks and balances on government activity. Its three main objectives are public scrutiny and participation, the accountability of decision-makers, and an individual's right to information contained in government records.

But it does not mean that every citizen has the right to all information kept by public bodies.

Exempt from public scrutiny would be the key areas of government activity (such as law enforcement, defence and international relations), third-party interests (private as well as commercial), court and parliamentary matters.

That said, non-disclosure should be the exception rather than the norm.

Under this legislation, an independent person — someone from outside the bureaucratic hierarchy — should be employed to check on the decisions to refuse either all or part of each request for information.

This would also apply to refusals to correct personal information, which the requesting person believes is incomplete, incorrect or misleading. There should also be a higher authority, such as the courts, to which one can make an appeal on the decisions of internal reviewers.

In most countries with FOI legislation, the standard time to release information is within 30 days of an application. Such access is not free, of course; a fee should be payable, unless the applicant is indigent.

Several Asian countries — India, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Pakistan — have introduced FOI legislation in recent years. In the Philippines, the right to information was first included in its 1973 Constitution, and expanded on in its current 1987 Constitution.

A 2001 survey co-organised by the Philippines Centre for Investigative Journalism, which covered eight South-east Asian countries, showed the Philippines to have the most liberal information regime.

On public accessibility to government-held records, Singapore scored 42 per cent, after the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia. Malaysia was fifth at 33 per cent.

In a publicised case in Thailand, a mother whose daughter had failed to gain admission to an elite state school demanded access to all exam results. After she was turned away, she appealed to the Office of the Official Information Commissioner. She succeeded in obtaining the information, which showed that children of influential people had been accepted despite having scores lower than those of her daughter, who was ultimately admitted.

During the Sars crisis in recent years, China was condemned by the world for failing to reveal the extent of the epidemic. Shanghai and Guangzhou are now taking the lead to introduce at municipal level open government information (xinxihua) and open government affairs (zhengwu gongkai).

The time is ripe for governments to be more enlightened in dealing with increasingly sophisticated citizens. And, as one American jurist remarked on the issue of citizens accessing government-held information: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

The writer is a Singaporean based in Perth.

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