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Going public

ivana /

IN October 2008, Malaysia Today revealed that Datuk Seri Najib Razak had apparently exchanged text messages with lawyer Datuk Shafee Abdullah over Abdul Razak Baginda’s position in the Altantuya murder trial.

The transcript of SMS exchanges caused a stir. Shafee was the counsel for Razak Baginda, a known close associate of deputy premier Najib who is expected to become prime minister in March 2009.

Even though political analyst Razak Baginda has been acquitted and discharged of abetting the murder of Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu, Najib still has to fight off perceptions about his own involvement in the murder case.

Additionally, while Najib has denied any abuse of power regarding the SMS exchange with Shafee, he has also not categorically denied the authenticity of the transcript of SMSes reproduced by Malaysia Today.

(© lusi /
The bigger question, perhaps, is this: How private are our mobile phone conversations? Maxis, the phone operator identified in the SMS transcript, refused to comment on the issue when asked by The Nut Graph. The company also declined to explain what kinds of measures it has put in place to protect customers in this regard.

The other issue that has been raised is just how secure is private data in this country, and in what instances can it be made public?

The Nut Graph interviews Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran to examine some of these issues.

TNG: While Najib has neither denied nor admitted the authenticity of the SMSes, do you think that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) should have investigated whether the SMS leak was genuine? And whether it has breached consumers’ privacy?

Gayathry: At the outset, the leak is of course a violation of personal privacy which should not be accepted. This is similar to the leak of the medical report involving Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan when he went to Pusrawi Hospital. How did a medical report, which should be confidential, become public?

I think we can say that given the absence of a credible media, police and judiciary, it is in the public’s interest to know if the next prime minister is clean or a conspirator. This is not to justify the wrong to prove a point. But it shows the weaknesses of the institutions that should be watching the powerful and protecting the weak that information like this has to be leaked. Whether the information is true can only be determined once it is challenged, preferably in a court of law.

Should MCMC investigate? I think they should even if a complaint has not been lodged, though I think they will be in a very difficult position with their findings. But I do think that the scenario has to be read beyond whether it is right or wrong to leak.

(© digi /

Someone who had access to records of communication between these individuals thought rightfully or wrongly that the disclosure should be made in the public’s interest as it involves high profile people, people who have been elected into office. Should we treat this individual as a whistleblower or someone who has committed an offence in invading the privacy of these two individuals? If the person is a whistleblower, we should protect them. If he or she is not, then there is a lot of explaining to do. For something as serious as this, I am tempted to think that the leak was done to expose the involvement of these high profile people.

A tele-conversation or SMS between a minister and a woman not his wife for example, I think should not be leaked unless we know or want to prove that the minister is abusing state funds to pay for her trips or shopping. There is a line we can draw with regards to privacy — where it starts to tread on broader public interests. I think any high profile person in office must be subject to scrutiny.

Maxis has remained silent on the matter. Do you think that the telco is just not bothered about protecting the privacy of individuals?

I have yet to see corporate companies in this country with a serious consumer protection policy or approach. I don’t expect Maxis to intervene and I think this is one area you will not find proactive measures.

Do you think the authority’s reluctance to take this matter seriously is due to the fact that it involves prime minister-in-waiting Najib, and the sensitivity of the Altantuya court case?

It could be, but I wouldn’t be able to speculate on that.

CIJ has fought for the protection of private information over the years. What are the major obstacles in providing this kind of protection in Malaysia?

Gayathry says more consumer awareness is needed
I would say that we have been focusing more on the individual’s right to access information and along that line, we realised that there is a lot of fear among people that a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act means all information, including personal information, will be public.

We have started addressing this concern but must emphasise that FOI is about information held by public bodies while the confidentiality of personal information such as health and personal records will not be affected.

Some of the challenge comes from private businesses. [Protecting private information] means they will not be able to use the information for their research or marketing. But we see that political parties also use [private] information such as phone [numbers] to lure voters or send targeted messages.

I have heard of individuals who get phone contacts and records of SMSes from their friends working in the telco companies because they want to know if their boss, boyfriend, husband, or wife is cheating on them. So, everyone who can get information to use it for their own purpose will find it a big shift to start respecting other peoples’ privacy [if we have legislation to protect private information].

What should we do in order to protect private data and individuals’ privacy in Malaysia?

Most importantly, I would say is consumer awareness. A lot of people don’t read the terms and conditions and privacy statements, and many times, we are actually signing our rights to privacy away. For example, when we purchase goods or services and we don’t state that our numbers or personal information should not be used by third parties or for other purposes. Then you get calls from all sorts of people asking you to join clubs or health spas. How did they get your number?

The second is really to introduce a proper mechanism for data protection, and the Data Protection Act is one such way. We know the government has been mulling about this and we hope that they introduce an act that is fair and just. The DNA Bill was one example of how protection is not in place. 

You have mentioned before that Malaysia’s existing legal structures promote secrecy in public decisions, while individual information is not protected. Why and how has this contradiction taken place in Malaysia?

Top secret
(© spekulator /

I think largely with a dominant political party ruling the government and with the nexus between politics and business, we have come to a situation where public issues with commercial interests have been subject to secrecy. Just look at the different public projects concerning water, roads, waste management, health and environment-sensitive projects where information is kept from the public.

No consultations are conducted because the overwhelming interest is the ringgit and sen. This is made worse by the fact that people are generally disempowered and not organised enough to demand for disclosure, though we see changes in this aspect. For example, the coalition against privatisation of healthcare revealed that even the Terms of Reference for the consultant were secret!

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