(Pic by Kriss Szkurlatowski / sxc.hu) TWO weeks ago, I could not help feeling that there was little difference between the Catholic Church and the Barisan Nasional (BN)-led federal government. Both these powerful institutions have one thing in common — both have cultivated a long-standing culture of secrets.
With the church, the damage has been most spectacularly demonstrated by the high-level attempts at keeping secret the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. A report from a three-year investigation released on 26 Nov 2009 found that more than 100 parish priests had sexually abused children since 1940. But church leaders in the Dublin Archdiocese did not inform police about any complaint of abuse until 1995.
The Malaysian government also recently demonstrated, yet again, its propensity for keeping secret information, though less sordid, that would have clearly served the public interest. The decision to declare as secret the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide report under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) was not only perplexing, it raised troubling questions about what exactly the government had to hide.
What lessons can we learn from this culture of keeping secrets, whether by a religious institution or by a democratically elected government?
When the powerful keep secrets, it is nearly always to protect the interests of those in power. The report on the Catholic Church noted that all four previous archbishops of Dublin strove for ”the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities” (italics mine).
But the archbishops weren’t the only ones responsible for allowing more than 100 parish priests to continue committing crime against civil and religious law. An earlier report in May detailed how devoutly Catholic police officers who knew about the abuses did nothing to stop it. In the end, whose interest was served by the secrecy and silence, if not the church’s?
(Pic by spekulator / sxc.hu)The same question needs to be asked of our government. Whose interest is being served when information is declared secret, and the public can only access and scrutinise such information at the risk of being penalised?
The Bukit Antarabangsa landslide report isn’t the only report that has been stamped as “secret” by our government. See, the OSA allows for any document to be classified as “Top Secret”, “Secret” “Confidential” or “Restricted” by a minister, the menteri besar or chief minister of a state, or any public officer appointed as per the Act. On top of that, declaring something an “official secret” under the OSA cannot “be questioned in any court on any ground whatsoever”.
And so we had, in 1997, the Air Pollutant Index, which tells citizens the quality of the air we breathe, declared an official secret. In the 1990s, the Bakun dam‘s Environmental Impact Assessment reports were an official secret, despite the huge impact the project would have on the environment and on the lives of indigenous peoples.
Under the OSA, cabinet decisions, among others, are also secret. For example, the cabinet decision to build, and then to abort, the contentious crooked bridge to Singapore was a secret. Imagine that. The cabinet can make decisions on behalf of 27 million Malaysians, and yet the decisions they make, and how they make them, can be declared official secrets.
(Pic by Horton Group / sxc.hu) In 2006, we even had the curator of the state-run Sultan Alam Shah Museum refusing to reveal scientific proof that the exhibits in the Hantu, Jin dan Keranda exhibition were authentic. Curator Mohd Lotfi Nazar said the information could not be disclosed because it fell under the OSA.
So, really, the BN government cannot claim any brownie points for declassifying the Bukit Antarabangsa report. In fact, when Works Minister Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor said the decision to declassify was done in the residents’ interest and safety, his words ring hollow. And when he added, “We have nothing to hide … as long as the procedures are followed, we will make the information available to the people”, it becomes even more apparent that really, it is not public interest that is a priority.
Of course, it could just be ill-thought-out bureaucracy. But really, if the government had nothing to hide, why even classify the report as a secret to begin with? Why even have the OSA, which gives unlimited powers to the executive to make so many things secret in this country?
Indeed, if not for the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government putting pressure on the federal government to declassify the report, and if not for the report being leaked on the internet, I, for one, do not believe that the report would have been declassified.
The truth is, the law allows the government to keep so many matters secret no matter that they don’t in any way threaten national security. This, of course, is where the similarity between the Catholic Church and the BN government ends.
The church is not empowered by law to keep secret the criminal acts of its priests, nor is it empowered to penalise those who have made public that which it kept secret. The Malaysian government, however, is empowered by law to declare just about anything a secret. Not only that, those who contravene the OSA are liable to be jailed for between one and seven years.
Already Shaziman has said a police report will be lodged over the leaking of the Bukit Antarabangsa report while it was still classified a secret.
Damage caused by the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide (Pic courtesy of Raj Kumar)
So, if the government wants us to believe that it has nothing to hide, why doesn’t it do away with the OSA, and replace it with a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act instead? It’s not impossible. In the interest of transparency and accountability, otherwise known as good governance, Selangor has promised it will do away with a culture of secrets by gazetting an FOI Act.
If the BN government would take a leaf from Selangor’s book, that would convince me that the ruling coalition has nothing to hide. But for so long as the BN government continues to hide behind the OSA, what is clearly being subordinated is the public’s interest.
Jacqueline Ann Surin believes that the Catholic Church and the BN government each have so much power at stake that both will continue to prefer secrecy over accountability, especially when they can get away with it.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns
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