Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Budget 2008: MICA, 29 February 2008

I decided to speak on this topic after my abortive attempts at getting immigration and citizenship figures last year. It's no secret that the Government guards its secrets jealously, and uses official information to its strategic advantage, especially in responding to critics.

I'm not convinced that, in this day and age, this is the best way to go. Indeed, this may even be unhealthy for Singapore in the long run. A book on the civil service last year (the title escapes me right now) highlighted the danger of "group think" in the civil service, but it is well-nigh impossible to have a diversity of rigorously-researched views or analyses in the absence of adequate information to do research or to analyse.

The Senior Minister of State mentioned how MOM had published two papers on that day, about the employment of Singapore citizens, PRs and foreigners, and the quality of employment creation for Singapore citizens. I think that, far from supporting the SMS' argument, the fact that these papers were only published then, despite repeated requests by so many people -- not just myself -- really drives my point home. Why was the information not released earlier? Also, will it take a "cut" every Budget debate for such data to be released, or will MOM update and release this information regularly?

The SMS also referred to a survey by Transparency International. Someone pointed out to me that this was actually TI's Corruption Perceptions Index, and not transparency as such. He questioned whether it was deliberate obfuscation, or lazy incompetence by a staffer. I have no answer to that. But it should be clear that while transparency is an important component of the standard policy prescriptions on fighting corruption, this particular survey is really not relevant to what I was saying.

Finally, a couple of weeks after this exchange, the Straits Times ran an article on this issue. Hard to argue with its conclusions.

Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts
Official Information
29 February 2008

Mr Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member): Sir, the Government collects and holds a lot of information. Yet, much, if not most, of that is unavailable, even to researchers for research purposes. The Government controls how much data to release, and how and when. Available data is sometimes presented differently at different times, making comparison difficult.

Even MPs, it seems, are not able to obtain certain data. I know, because I have asked for citizenship and PR figures in Parliament, but I have been told by MHA that it is "unable to provide this specific data requested." No reasons were cited. And it seems parliamentary convention permits this.

Meanwhile, we simply do not record some types of data. Most notably, when MOM tracks resident employment data, it does not differentiate between citizens and resident foreigners. I think most Singaporeans would consider that essential information if only to better understand how their country is changing. This Government fiercely prides itself on its transparency and accountability.

I therefore ask the Government to be more proactive in collecting and publishing official statistics. Any official data that does not invoke national security or similar concerns should be made available. Indeed, I urge the Government to enact a Freedom of Information Act to set the rules under which Government information is made available to the public as of right.

In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution describing freedom of information as a fundamental human right. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which forms part of customary international law, explicitly provides for the right to seek and receive information. The right to information is therefore a fundamental human right. It is timely for Singapore to have its own Freedom of Information Act. Such legislation promotes transparency and accountability. It allows citizens to understand their governments better. It facilitates independent research. It enriches the history of the nation.

Today, over 70 countries around the world have such legislation. Even China, a Communist state, is implementing a statute on access to government information. It will come into force on 1st May 2008. It is time for Singapore, as a developed country, to take its rightful place within that group of countries.

The Senior Minister of State for Information, Communications and the Arts (Dr Balaji Sadasivan): [...]

Let me now turn to Mr Siew Kum Hong’s concern about freedom of information, which was a subject of discussion in this House at least twice before. Sir, Singapore is plugged into the globalised world and thrives on a free flow of information. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) in its Asian Intelligence Report’s assessment of economic statistics noted that for Singapore, "a wide range of topics are quickly compiled and made available to researchers on a regular basis". The range, coverage and availability of our economic and social statistics compare very favourably to those compiled and disseminated by more statistically developed countries, for example, US, UK, Australia and Hong Kong. The IMF, in its annual Article IV consultations, has also consistently assessed Singapore’s economic statistics to be timely, credible and reliable.

Mr Siew also asked about the availability of information such as employment data differentiating between citizens and non-citizens. In line with national statistical practice, MOM regularly publishes employment figures by residents (Singapore citizens and PRs) and non-residents (foreigners). MOM has also released two papers today retrievable on their website - the first on the employment of Singapore citizens, PRs and foreigners, a subject that Mr Siew showed interest in, and the second on the quality of employment creation for Singapore citizens.

Similarly, the Department of Statistics publishes regular demography statistics according to this breakdown, in addition to other economic and social statistics. In fact, all Government agencies regularly provide updated information on matters of public interest, such as health, education, and finance through the media, publicity campaigns as well as the Internet.

The National Archives of Singapore is also a rich repository of historical data that is invaluable to researchers. As stipulated by the National Heritage Board Act 1993, most archived public records are made available for public consultation after a 25-year period.

The lack of legislation on Freedom of Information has not prevented Singapore from doing well in international studies of transparency. In 2007, Transparency International ranked Singapore fourth in an international survey, above the United States, which does have a Freedom of Information Act.

That Singapore is a financial, information and economic hub, and that the people’s trust in our Government remains high, is proof that the system we have today is working well.


Trebuchet said...

Mr Balaji's logic seems rather specious to me. He seems to be arguing that we do not need a FOI Act because...

1. The government publishes selected statistics on matters of public interest. (i.e. matters it has determined are in the public interest.)

2. We make information available after 25 years, and this is invaluable to researchers. (In general? Not just the historians implied? This seems to say that if you want more recent data, it doesn't matter.)

3. Transparency is high. (It does not matter whether information is available on demand.)

4. The people trust this state of affairs. (Although, of course, perhaps we trust it because we don't have all the information.)

I remember asking the Chief Statistician's office, through MOE, whether non-sensitive data could be made available to secondary school students for research projects (this is what some govt agencies do in the States). The reply was, "It is not our policy to do so. We make some reports available to libraries and higher-level institutions." That was about 10 years ago.

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