February 3, 2007

The Right To Know!

Posted in Malaysia, The Cause at 10:59 pm by egalitaria

I wrote an article in The Rocket. Made sure I put in the necessary disclaimers, which I guess I should put here as well… 🙂 The author works for a public policy research centre. The views expressed are her own. Very much so!

Read on…..

The Right To Know

A culture of secrecy was evident and characteristic of the Soviet regime, a catalyst which led to the rapid downfall of one of the most powerful agencies of its time. Information was scarce and fiercely held within top ranks; threats were duly given to those who dared question official figures; government activities were closed to public scrutiny. The nameless, faceless masses were slowly but surely coerced into silence, forced to accept official statements despite obvious discrepancies. Needless to say, Russia suffered its consequences and until today has not recovered its economic and political glory of days past.  

We in Malaysia are fortunate to have not lived through the Communist era. We are blessed with an administrative system that recognizes relative openness. The responsibility of us within civil society, however, is to be alert and ever watchful for signs that indicate we are walking down the opposite path.  

Whilst there have been significant steps taken by the government in releasing documents and encouraging a more open environment, recent incidents reflect otherwise. Despite great emphases on transparency, there has been little support for freedom of information within particular departments. Deeply steeped within the system is an overriding fear of revealing too much, too quickly, many times at the expense of the citizens and nation.  

The corporate equity report that blew up in September this year was a perfect example. The report indicated that the official figure on Bumiputera corporate equity was understated and a new figure was calculated based on independent research and analysis. The basis of the controversy reads as follows: If corporate equity held by Bumiputera has exceeded its original target – 30% of national equity – then there is no need to continue pursuing economic policies that predominantly favour one ethnic group over the other.  

Authors of the report proposed to meet with the relevant government departments to discuss its findings, but to no avail. A practical, rational discussion would have confirmed the government’s intention of practising transparency and openness. 

Instead, a host of players representing the government chose to carelessly debunk the report in its entirety, claiming its inaccuracy and irresponsibility. Many seem to have jumped on the bandwagon despite not having read the report in full. In addition, the report focused upon the need for better wealth distribution to reduce intra-ethnic inequalities within the Bumiputera community itself. This crucial point was unfortunately overlooked by various critics, constructive though they may have intended to be.  

The public then called for the opening up of the government’s official methodology in calculating national corporate equity. It is unfortunate that when the responses came through, they resulted in two separate statements revealing two separate final figures. Such discrepancy between official statements from the government reflects poorly upon its organisation of data. The perception this creates is one of ambiguity and unabashed concealment – for what purpose one continues to wonder.  

This culture of secrecy frustrates many who eagerly desire and await an open Malaysian society. More frustrating is that calls for information are not for the purpose of tearing down the country. In fact, researchers, academicians and civil society all work towards the same goal, to develop Malaysia and see it succeed on an international platform. Independent of political affiliation, social stature and religious conviction, the objective of nation building – with its relevant aspects – should be sufficient reason to spur gatekeepers towards a policy of making available as much information as possible. This is especially so in the case where information aids in good governance: people have a right to know when it directly affects them.  

Given an environment of openness and disclosure, data from various sources – the Economic Planning Unit, the Department of Statistics and others – would then feed into rigorous academic research of the highest quality, an exercise within tertiary institutions that has been given priority. This then contributes to the improvement of national policies – social, economic, financial and developmental. This obvious advantage for all parties is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the debate.  

One of the arguments given by various government officials for their principal of non-disclosure is that data is deemed sensitive in nature. If this is truly the case, there then ought to be specific guidelines within government departments that determine what is publicly available and what is not. What is the yardstick, if any, which measures the “sensitivity” of data? A standardized principle, as opposed to arbitrary individual decisions, would be helpful for the public.  

Secondly, it is important for government departments to provide researchers and the wider public, channels through which questions and feedback can be directed. Unbeknownst to many, the government has invested millions of ringgit on data collection and analysis. However, very little of this is being utilised. It is essential that such information be increasingly optimized to maximize usage.  

In the case where clarification from government departments is sought, oftentimes response is slow or not at all forthcoming. It is understandable that each department cannot possibly respond to every personal request, trivial as they can be. However, it is recommended that a division should be set up within the formal Departments for the sole purpose of communicating data to researchers in need. A public relations and communications team cannot but be for the good of information dissemination – one of the Department of Statistics’ key objectives. 

Making information readily available requires a definite paradigm shift, a cultural exercise that all Malaysians should learn to adopt. Civil society’s role is to give valid and logical reasons for the government to adapt its insular ways, not run amok with senseless demands either. Carefully weighed out arguments should be made supporting the need for information disclosure.  

Such reasons include optimization of existing government statistics, better quality research within universities and research institutions, both of which lead to long-term nation building through improved socio-economic development. That data is considered ethnically sensitive is but an excuse for prolonged redundant policies that may ultimately lead to the detriment of the country.  

A secret is kept because it hides information valuable to and protective of its keeper. In the Soviet story, what was concealed from the public eye was a host of muck that brought it to its knees hard and fast – corruption, cronyism, nepotism, mismanagement of funds. It is hoped that Malaysia will be able to successfully walk away from a culture of secrecy into one of reasonable transparency. This should be done, and quickly so, lest we spiral down the same path as that taken by Russia in its final days.  

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