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The secretive Malaysian government

Dr Selva (pic courtesy of Bar Council)

A SHOW-CAUSE letter sent to whistleblower Dr Selva Vathany Kanapathi Pillai, who has been highlighting mismanagement at the Orang Asli hospital in Gombak, cites rule 19 of the Peraturan-Peraturan Pegawai Awam (Kelakuan dan Tatatertib) 1993. It states, amongst other things, that a civil servant cannot make any public statement or provide factual information about the government’s policies and functioning without the relevant minister’s written permission.

The 14 April 2010 letter from the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA), recently provided to The Nut Graph, wants Dr Selva to explain a February 2010 press conference where she raised allegations of mismanagement and cronyism at the hospital.

The fact that these disciplinary rules are being used against Dr Selva begs several questions. Why is the government targeting a whistleblower who exposed information that could lead to better governance? Is it in the public’s interest for governments to possess such wide powers to silence civil servants? What should the government be able to legitimately keep secret and what should it be compelled to disclose?

“No factual information”

The government’s conduct and discipline rules are wide-ranging indeed. Amongst other things, statements, whether oral or written, cannot:

a) touch on the strengths or weaknesses of any government plan, policy or decision;
b) give any factual information about the government’s functioning;
c) give any explanation about any incident or report involving the government;
d) and make any statement that could embarrass the government.

This list simply boggles the mind. It suggests that the government is determined to operate in opacity and secrecy, denying the public as much information as possible about how it is governing.

“Minister’s written approval”

Talked to a brick wall lately?

Talked to a brick wall lately?

The Nut Graph’s own experience in trying to obtain information from government officials has also revealed how difficult it is to get them to speak about government policies and plans. Even an official as highly placed as the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) director-general, Datuk Shagul Hamid Abdullah, told The Nut Graph in February 2010 that he couldn’t speak to the press. He said all queries had to be directed to the deputy minister in charge, Datuk Ahmad Maslan. When contacted, all Ahmad Maslan would say to The Nut Graph on the BTN course was “fine-tuning sudah siap”. Follow-up calls, text messages and e-mails over two weeks to find out what this fine-tuning involved were all met with stony silence.

The Nut Graph’s enquiries in November 2009 to the Finance Ministry and the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry about gender-sensitive budgeting also proved fruitless. After calling official after official, no answer was ultimately forthcoming. Questions posed to minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s press secretary also went unanswered.

Requiring a minister to personally authorise every single government communication to the public is at best, inconvenient and at worst, deliberately obstructive.

Ministers have also been deliberately opaque in classifying documents which affect the public as “secret” under the Official Secrets Act. One example is the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide report, which was later declassified by the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government. The other more recent example is Selangor’s water concession agreement with Syabas, signed under Barisan Nasional (BN)’s rule, which the BN federal government is still fighting to keep secret.

Right to know

Good, efficient and corruption-free governance is absolutely essential if the government is serious about “transforming” Malaysia into a high-income economy by 2020.

Article 19

Article 19

For this to happen, information must flow much more freely from the government than is currently the case. “If people do not know what is happening in their society, if the actions of those who rule them are hidden, then they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society,” says Article 19, a human rights organisation which promotes freedom of expression and information. UK-based Article 19 notes that information is not just a necessity for the people, but an essential part of good government because it exposes corruption, inefficiencies and wastage.

Take the Auditor-General’s Report, for example, on government expenditure. Without it, the public would never have known that the BN government paid RM42,320 for an outdated laptop or RM224 for a screwdriver set which only cost RM40 in the market. Even with the public outcry, no noticeable action was taken against the perpetrators of such wastage. Imagine the greater impunity with which government actors could function if there was no such annual report.

Legitimate aims

In contesting the attempts to declassify the Syabas agreement, the federal government’s counsel argued that disclosure would affect the government’s daily administration and public interest as a whole.

(© spekulator | sxc.hu)

Only certain things should be top secret (© spekulator | sxc.hu)

But how far can the government play the “secrecy in the public interest” card? Granted, there should be some measure of confidentiality in government policy formulation. Ministers should not have to fear government officers running to the press with details of disagreements during policy discussions. Other information such as national defences and confidential information involving minors, for example, should also not be freely available.

But it is insufficient for the government to merely bleat “national security” or “public interest” whenever it is called upon for information. The government should have to demonstrate exactly how the disclosure would harm these legitimate aims and whether there are any greater public interests that override these aims. Article 19’s report cites exposing corruption in the military as an example. Although at first sight, it appears to harm national security, over time, it strengthens the armed forces by keeping the forces clean.

And if governments wish to enforce requirements for officers to obtain clearance before speaking about policies, it should ensure that such clearance is readily and swiftly attainable. Reasons should also be forthcoming if a request for information is refused. The UK Freedom of Information Act gives public authorities 20 working days to respond to written requests. Action is taken against government agencies that repeatedly fail to comply within the timeframe.

There must also be strong protection for whistleblowers such as Dr Selva. By issuing a show-cause letter for her exposure of maladministration, the government is going against the spirit of the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010, meant to “protect those who disclose information on wrongdoings”. Indeed, for so long as such government attitudes and practices persist, it’s questionable just how serious the BN is in promoting an open, efficient and clean government.

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6 Responses to “The secretive Malaysian government”

  1. dropout says:

    That’s how the government has been operating since ages ago. A civil servant cannot even criticize his/her own boss in ANY way, let it be written or spoken. Although the boss abuses his/her power for personal gain at the expense of the subordinates. One has to swallow all the injustice done to keep their job. If one revolts, he/she could end up like me, terminated from public service just like that. It’s all because one voices out opinions against the superior.

    That was voicing dissatisfaction about a person. I’m not yet talking about criticizing government’s policy/action/whatever. If one do so, having consequences like Dr Selva is quite a norm. Not to mention civil servants who dare to speak up will be treated like a pariah among others who know the case. You will end up feeling like a criminal although what you did was to make public service better.

  2. KW Mak says:

    I wonder if this policy applies to councillors too…

    Local Government Act
    Officers to be public servants
    Section 126. The Commissioner of the City of Kuala Lumpur, Mayor or President, Councillor, officers or employees of every description shall be deemed to be public servants within the meaning of the Penal Code [Act 574].

    Fascinating, no?

    • Sean says:

      I often wonder when you observe that things could be better – if only a PJ resident would exercise the rights that you so often remind them they have. It’s an apparently evergreen theme in your articles. Perhaps they’re doing you a favour!

      • KW Mak says:

        @ Sean

        The rights I mention in my articles apply to Malaysians in general, with PJ being used to provide context. It is not forbidden to you to try asking for your rights if you are living in any other city / town in Malaysia using the same principles.

  3. mykantree says:

    All the more reason to have the Freedom Of Information Act in place. The public and the opposition parties in both the states, and federal governments in particular, should fight, however long it takes, for such an Act to be implemented/legislated.

  4. Veena says:

    What has happened to Dr Pillai now? Does she still have a job? How is she fighting the show-cause letter? Can she?


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