Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Official Secrets Act (OSA) 1972 - Bane of Transparency?

According to Jacqueline Ann Surin from The Sun:

The (Official Secrets) Act (1972) stipulates that any document classified as "Top Secret", "Secret" "Confidential" or "Restricted" by a minister, the mentri besar or chief minister of a state, or any public officer appointed as per the Act, is an "official secret".

And here's the rub. The act of declaring something an "official secret" cannot "be questioned in any court on any ground whatsoever".

The OSA also clearly defines the following as "official secret":

>> cabinet documents, records of decisions and deliberations, including those of cabinet committees;

>> state executive council documents, records of decisions and deliberations, including those of state executive council committees;

>> documents concerning national security, defence and international relations.

This means that all kinds of government decisions, for example, how the cabinet under Mahathir decided to build the crooked bridge or how the cabinet under Abdullah decided to abort the project, is automatically off-limits to the public.

That two senior cabinet members decided to invoke the OSA when being questioned about some govt contracts with the "private sector", we really shouldn't be surprised at all.

Here's Lim Keng Yaik invoking the OSA:

PUTRAJAYA (Jan 18, 2006): Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik said it was up to the cabinet to decide whether to make public the water concession agreement or the audited accounts of Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor (Syabas) which are classified under the Official Secrets Act.

He said he was prevented by the OSA from publicising these documents, and he had informed those who sought the information.

And here's Samy Vellu doing the same:

KUALA LUMPUR (Jan 25, 2007): The Cabinet is not prepared to make public the toll agreements inked between the government and highway concessionaires, says Works Minister Datuk Seri S.Samy Vellu.

"I have also suggested that the Cabinet take appropriate action against the person (or persons) who had stolen and exhibited an agreement. The agreement is solely between the government and the company and it is a secret document," said Samy, adding that he brought up the matter at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

I'm not interested in the legality of the OSA. Laws are made by lawmakers. Lawmakers are elected by the people (and apparently some dead people as well). And that's that. Having said so however... the first party that repeals the application of the OSA to the following:

>> cabinet documents, records of decisions and deliberations;
>> state executive council documents, records of decisions and deliberations;

... will automatically get my vote at the next General Election. Elected representatives make decisions by the grace of the people, and they should not be allowed to hide the basis of those decisions from us. That is simply good governance and transparent goverment.

Now... What I'm really interested in is why the lawmakers ie. our elected members of parliament, do not share the view of the people ie. you and me - that the OSA is hindering the transparency of the government's decisions and their accountability to the people.

Here's what Minister in the PM's Dept, Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz had to say:
"We need the OSA to carry out the government's task efficiently and without disturbance,"

"It is not true at all that the OSA is hindering efforts to combat corruption."

"The 1997 Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) Act has given powers to the ACA to view all documents categorised as OSA."
Fine, governments should be allowed to run efficiently and with no disturbance. Malaysia is no different. We don't need a nationwide referendum for every decision that needs to be made.

However, after the decisions have been made, don't you think that there should be an avenue of review? Some checks and balances? Explanations to answer the public's concerns?

The ACA's power to view all documents under OSA is laudable. But I do have many questions regarding the independence and effectiveness of the ACA itself. But that's another article for another day.

If the water concession agreements and toll agreements are deemed too "sensitive" to be declassified under OSA and made public, the government has to explain clearly to the people - exactly HOW those documents are "sensitive" and WHY their disclosure would be detrimental to the country's interests.

If the cabinet is "not prepared" to make those documents public, then I want to know WHY the cabinet feels that way.

Simply saying the cabinet is "not prepared" or "decided not to"... is NOT GOOD ENOUGH! The Malaysian public are not children, and the govt are not the parents. Being condescending and patronising by telling the people, "BECAUSE I SAID SO", is not going to cut it.

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