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