April 2, 2011

No more secrets, please

A GOVERNMENT that implements a law that puts itself to account speaks a lot more than one that spends public funds to advertise itself. Come April 28, we may finally have a law that promotes government accountability and transparency; the Selangor state government tables its final draft of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill. It is worth noting that feedback from civil society was taken into account in its Select Committee’s amendments.

We must ensure this momentum of questioning an archaic assumption whereby information held by governments are to be secret by default, but that it is the government’s obligation to ensure the public’s right to that information.

The lack of information is an impetus for weak public discussions. In the case of the Klang Valley MRT, certain media or individuals made it out to be a simplistic debate of rich vs poor. The use of stereotype-based accusations must be the easiest manner in which to derail meaningful public discussions. This is further made worse by access and quality of information that is ultimately decided upon by the state.

Being able to limit or control the kind of information to be released can influence public perception. Is it acceptable that the state – whom we as taxpayers fund – in turn can arbitrarily decide what we know, or don’t know? Except for narrow exceptions (for example, military secrets) the public should have every right to information held by governments, such as those concerning public transport, land deals and water concessionaire agreements.

We waste a lot of time in trying to access information to make informed decisions. The Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) has promised to consider all feedback obtained during the three-month period before proceeding with the MRT project. A transparent process and longer period for feedback would certainly enable communities to better organise themselves; a factor perhaps deemed as a hindrance if one needs to expedite a project.

Despite the less than favourable conditions for communities to take part in meaningful ways, residents associations in parts of Klang Valley have come together to make a united stand and petition athttp://kvmrtwatch.blogspot.com/, calling for a responsible implementation of the MRT and outlining reasons why it should go underground. We must engage and hold decision-makers to account.

Questions surrounding the appointment of American consultants in relation to the MRT project were raised by Chua Tian Chang in Parliament, who also revealed the disposal of valuable land parcels to certain companies at below market value. If we had an FOI Act in place, anyone – not just MPs – will have the right to request for such information that are of public interest.

Eighty-five countries including India and neighbouring Thailand have implemented some form of FOI Act. In the United Kingdom, FOI requests were made from how their government spends on media and PR relations, to documents revealing serious safety issues in one of their atomic power stations in 2006.

Man-made disasters are aided by the lack of accountability in decision making processes. Who and how was it decided that a rare earth plant was to be built in Kuantan that would generate radioactive waste? As with plans to build nuclear plants in Malaysia, there are too many questions for projects alleged to be economically advantageous but present great risks to the people. The energy, green technology and water minister saying that the "government will not do it (build nuclear plants) secretly without informing the public" does not mean a thing if decisions are made without transparent due process and genuine public consultation.

While it may be a long way before an FOI law is implemented nationwide, the passing of the Selangor FOI Bill will be a historic and important step towards accessing information that rightly belongs to us.

Updated: 09:34AM Fri, 25 Mar 2011

February 12, 2011

Racism - The Semantics

The following is a letter to editor (The Sun) which was not published. The writer then sent it to me. With the writer's permission, I'm reproducing the letter in its entirety here:

I have followed KK Tan's articles on racism in The Sun (July 29, Aug 26, Sept 15, Sept 24) and despite Zalifah Azman's letter (oct 4) I can only agree with the views of Leow Mei Chern(Sept 30) that redefining terms doesnt help and may be even more damaging.

The meaning of a word depends on the way it is used by the people who speak the language - and dictionaries record and describe this in their definitions. The meaning of a word cannot be what an individual thinks the word ought to mean. Everyone has a right to one's own opinion; but if you redefine a word in your own way you are going to be linguistically incorrect, and not calling a spade a spade! The words racism and racist appear regularly in the media and as far as I can see they have been used appropriately to mean what they do in Malaysia and the rest of the english speaking world. Racism refers to dislike or unfair treatment of people based on a belief that one's own race is best, rather than K.K Tan's insistence on a 'systematic oppression of one or more races by another'.

When a section of a crowd at a football game in some European countries verbally abuses a player because he is black, this is despicable and it is racist, even though you wouldn't call it systematic oppression of a race. Hence Fifa has a campaign to kick racism out of the game. The slogan is 'kick racism', not 'kick out racial chauvinism', which has the virtue of being accurate as well as shorter and snappier.

One can readily acknowledge that some forms of racism are much, much worse than others, but racism is racism whatever the degree. Stealing a million dollars is worse than a thousand dollars, but both are theft. Poverty in Malaysia is no where as bad as other places in the world but we still talk about eradicating poverty. The difference between manslaughter and murder, however, is not one of degree. The former is unintentional killing.

There have been a couple of wilful misinterpretations here:
1. No one has denied that racism experiences by black people as slaves in America or under apatheid in South Africa was worse than racism experienced by others.
2. I don't think anyone has accused Tan of trying to excuse or downplay a problem or of pretending it doesn't exist - its just that and danger of this happening through redefinition should be avoided.
Tan is surely well intentioned (at least in his first two articles) and the sad thing is that the 'seven sins' he describes, and the proposed public declaration may deserve to be read and considered carefully, reflected upon, and discussed. But I feel that all the good work done is undermined by the redefinition issue.

Any attempt to impose or prescribe one's own definition of an accepted term can only bring confusion and obfuscation which is unhelpful for an honest and correct analysis of a social problem.

-Linguistic Observer