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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Scorpenes graft: Official Secrets Act must make way for Freedom of Information

Sulaiman Kamal | 12:57 PM | | | | | | | | | Best Blogger Tips

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The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is indeed a step in the right way for a government to be transparent and accountable to the people it serves. It allows the people of a nation to have knowledge on the dealings of the government it has installed to look into its welfare.
Yet in Malaysia, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) may go head to head with the proposed FOI Act. The Official Secrets Act (OSA) passed in 1972 states, “any document specified in the schedule and any information and material relating thereto and includes any other official document, information, and material as may be classified as ‘Top Secret’, ‘Confidential’, ‘Secret’, or ‘Restricted’, as the case may be, by a minister, the Menteri Besar or Chief Minister of a state or such public officer appointed under section 2B”.
In 1983, a provision was added to the OSA that makes it an offense to not report anyone seeking official Information. If charged for not reporting foul play, the accused will face an $8600 fine and/or a 5-year prison sentence.
Under the OSA, the government can classify any document as “Secret” and this is a point of contention for the FOI Act. By implementing the FOI Act, the provision that allows this has to be removed and replaced with instead by a list of documents that can be classified secret.

The Schedule to the Act covers "Cabinet documents, records of decisions and deliberations including those of Cabinet committees", as well as similar documents for state executive councils. It also includes "documents concerning national security, defence and international relations"
Over the years the OSA has been used against bloggers, public documents such as toll concessionaires, water rates by a private water utility and a 433-page report of recommendations on how to fix the police force.
It is because the OSA is open to abuse by those in power, that it either has to be abolished or redesigned to allow for greater transparency and with a better classification to what can and cannot be considered state secret. With this the FOI Act can work, allowing the general public access to what and how the government is using public funds and to how the decisions came about.
What is KJ supporting - giving with the right hand and taking back with the left
Support for the FOI Act has now come from UMNO Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, though he does not seem to understand the gravity of the situation involving the OSA. Or perhaps he may be shutting a convenient eye.
“No country will disclose specifications” of their military hardware due to security concerns. The exact specs of tanks, what kind of systems and missiles we use shouldn’t be discussed in Parliament and recorded down on the Hansard,” the Rembau MP told a forum last week.
But by excluding the defence purchases from the FOI Act, Malaysia is back to square one. What is Khairy supporting and going on about? To date the defence purchases have been the most controversial in the country.
The purchase of two submarines from French defence company DCN in 2002 by Najib Razak, who was then the defence minister, and a company run by Abdul Razak Baginda, a close friend of Najib's, were reported to have received commissions of over RM500 million from the deal. Obviously, the kickbacks paid by DCN would find its way back into the bill DCN presented to the Malaysian ministry of defense and ultimately to the taxpayers.
Another recent case is the overblown estimate to purchase Eurofighter Typhoon by the current Defence Minister Zahid Ahmad and not to mention the patrol boats that cost too much. The public have a right to know the rational behind such purchases.
Therefore, it is sickening when officials find it convenient to hide their dealings behind the OSA and at the same time call for transparency and responsibility from others when dealing with national matters.
Defence purchases can be directly tied to national security and thus, the veil of secrecy is warranted. The specifications may be secret but the rationale behind the decision to purchase and how the purchases will be made are not. Therefore, every effort has to be made to ensure transparency is upheld, and to eliminate instances of abuse and corruption.
Taxpayers have the right to know how their hard-earned ringgit is being used to protect the country they live in. Thus, the officials in charge must present themselves as being responsible to the public and not to their political masters.
Khairy’s apparent support of the FOI Act is welcomed, yet the test will come only when he is called upon to label a document as “secret”. Will he sway with the wind them? OSA when it is needed to shield himself, his colleagues and his bosses? FOI, when there's nothing to lose and a bit of repair publicity to gain.
Will he choose personal gain over public responsibility? This has been the test for the government of Malaysia, and to date most of their decisions have been found  wanting.

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