The Nut Graph Blog

Freedom of information: Making it happen
2 Dec 08 : 9.00AM

By Deborah Loh
deborahloh@thenutgraph.com

IN the first parliamentary sitting in 2008 this May, Subang Member of
Parliament (MP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat vice-president R Sivarasa
tried to table a private member's bill on freedom of information
(FOI). Although it appeared in the order paper, the House never
reached the item.

R Sivarasa
Sivarasa, who is also a human rights lawyer, has re-submitted the bill
twice since then to no avail. Unfortunately, he isn't expecting the
bill to get any time.

"It gets pushed further down the order paper as more government bills
are added. I think this is why private member's bills are so rare.
Other modern parliaments allocate time for opposition or private
bills, but not here."

The treatment of private member's bills aside, Sivarasa's attempt to
revive interest in FOI fulfils part of the Pakatan Rakyat's promise to
the electorate before the 8 March 2008 elections to have a new law
guaranteeing freedom of information.

Awareness on access to information laws is still lacking among
politicians and the masses. But it is becoming increasingly clear that
there is a need for it. This was recently highlighted when Works
Minister Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamed announced that toll concessionaires,
except for one, would declassify concession agreements made with the
government.

Why should toll rates, which affect consumers, be classified secret?
Is this not abuse of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) 1972?

An FOI act would oblige the authorities to disclose government-held
information when citizens request for it. Such a law would remedy many
of the things Malaysians are frustrated about. There would be
transparency in government procurements, tenders and the fixing of
toll rates and utility fees. Court trials would be speedier. Corrupt
politicians would be swiftly charged. Citizens would be able to find
out exactly how their tax money is spent, and how much of it actually
returns to benefit them.

The result would be a less corrupt, more transparent and mature
society. Politicians and the civil service would have to be more
professional, knowledgeable and accountable.

Which reinforces the reasons why Malaysians need it, and ironically,
also why the current government is reluctant to introduce an FOI bill.

See, Sivarasa wasn't the first lawmaker to raise the need for access
to information laws. Former Kota Melaka MP Wong Nai Chee from the
Barisan Nasional (BN) spoke about it in Parliament in 2007. But, there
was no follow-up.

In the meantime, some 70 other countries have passed FOI Acts. Some of
these are African countries, far less developed and arguably more
repressive than Malaysia. Indonesia, China and Nepal are also among
those which recently passed FOI laws.

Selangor leads

In May, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri
Aziz said there was no need for FOI laws because the cabinet could
decide at any time to declassify documents as it sees fit.

The minister who oversees Parliament and law even suggests that MPs
such as Sivarasa try a different approach to get such laws enacted.
"It's convention that government bills get priority. He should get in
touch with me, and I can arrange for BN MPs and senior civil servants
to listen to his proposal," he tells The Nut Graph.

Not to be thwarted by the slim chance of an FOI bill being introduced
at federal level, Pakatan Rakyat states, with the help of civil
society groups known as the Coalition for Good Governance, are trying
to introduce it in the state legislative assemblies.

Of the Pakatan Rakyat-led states, Selangor has made the most progress
and could see the passing of an FOI enactment in its state assembly by
mid-2009.

Learning from experience

Selangor Taskforce on FOI chairperson Elizabeth Wong says the state's
elected representatives support the bill because they have experienced
how difficult it can be to obtain information.

"FOI will have direct impact on our work. Even executive councilors
have to write letters to get access to certain files. In some cases we
even have to swear secrecy. It is particularly difficult to obtain
information on land-related matters and documents on decision-making,"
says Wong, the Bukit Lanjan state assemblyperson.

The taskforce plans to launch education and awareness sessions to
introduce the bill to local councilors, the state civil service,
public and business sectors.

When the FOI act is in place, she envisions that the public can get
access to state health figures, pollution levels, tender information,
procurements and other decisions made by local authorities.

While waiting for the bill to be passed, she says the state has
adopted an "open government policy" whereby none of the documents or
decisions made in exco meetings are classified.

"The media can ask us anything they want about the meetings, and we
will not deny anyone's request if they come to any exco member for
information. The issue now is how to operationalise FOI so that it
filters through the civil service."

The OSA

Elizabeth Wong

While abolishing the OSA would be ideal, Wong says the FOI Act can
co-exist with the former because FOI provides a separate platform for
public access to information.

The Coalition for Good Governance notes that since the OSA does not
compel classification of other types of documents outside its
prescribed schedule, there is no reason for state governments to fear
contravening federal law by enacting their own FOI law. Besides, a
chief minister or menteri besar is also allowed under the OSA to
declassify state documents.

Secrecy is still necessary in some instances. But these need to be
narrowly defined to prevent abuse of power, noted a workshop on FOI in
October organised by Transparency International Malaysia, the Swedish
Embassy and civil society groups. The forum suggested that areas
exempted from public disclosure include personal information, legal
privilege, national security and defence, information for preventing
or prosecuting crime, protection for whistleblowers, public economic
interest and public health safety.

Lasting legacy

Apart from Selangor, the other Pakatan Rakyat states appear to be
making slower progress in introducing access to information policies
or laws.

Penang has set up a committee to gather input on the kind of
information that should be made public. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng
had promised on the day of his swearing-in to initiate an FOI
enactment, but compared to Selangor, does not appear to be any closer
to achieving this.

Updates from Perak, Kedah and Kelantan could not be obtained despite
questions being submitted to the respective excos in charge of
information. Non-governmental organisations working with these
governments on FOI have noted that there is keen interest but more
needs to be done to raise awareness.

The Pakatan Rakyat states are still learning to govern after their
unexpected win in March. There will be politicking and polemics but
they should make the most of their time in power to keep their promise
to the rakyat, and institute lasting legacies.

"That's why we want an FOI enactment. Just having an open policy won't
last. Policies only last as long as the government of the day does,"
Wong said

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