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The truth about secrets


(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?

Whose interest?

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.

BN’s insincerity

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.

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36 Responses to “The truth about secrets”

  1. Nicholas Aw says:

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Despite Jacqueline’s well-argued article, one thing remains certain: the BN government will not repeal the OSA or for that matter any law that works to its advantage.

    What the government will do is to distract the people’s focus and to implement policies such as 1Malaysia which most of us know are meant to side step current festered issues. Action taken against offenders such as the infamous Ahmad Ismail is an eyewash to appease the people. When the storm has subsided, things go back to square one.

    Otherwise how do you account for Umno lifting Ahmad Ismail’s suspension? Then there are cases which have become public knowledge such as Khir Toyo’s palatial palace, the [allegation of the] Negeri Sembilan MB’s RM10 million money transfer and the never-forgotten Lingam’s judicial scandal. These and many other cases of corruption and sedition are being washed down the drain. Case closed – no evidence or lack of evidence. UsIng the words of Lingam himself: “Correct, correct, correct!”

  2. KW Mak says:

    Ah… the lovely OSA is debated again. Let me share an interesting fact about how the Petaling Jaya City Council uses it daily.

    Just about everything discussed in MBPJ is automatically slapped with the “secret” label. For our meeting minutes, we even have a number for each councillor stamped onto each page to ensure that should the documents be leaked out, we can trace the leak back to the councillor in question. Never mind that the council officers’ copy of the minutes do not have a similar corresponding number.

    I think it’s mostly silly how we try to keep things secret… but then again, I took the oath of secrecy when I was sworn in as a councillor… so in a way, all those of us in government right now are quite silly, too.

    :-p

  3. Merah Silu says:

    Do not compare the Catholic Church with the government of this country. The Catholic Church is a holy organisation and carries out the mission of God. Of course, it needs to protect the holiness of the Church and will address their human weakness quietly. For the government, there are procedures to categorise different categories of document, and of course sometimes, there are several opinions about the suitable category of a document.

    Jacqueline would like to impose her preference for openess. Two options: You work hard as a politician or you live in a very isolated community in the northern part of Finland where everybody knows about everybody: how much money you have; where do you get money; whether you made love last night or not. Well, the second option suits Jac very well as there is no secret in the community.

  4. greene says:

    Jac, do your homework before commenting irrationally. Though there are abuses, OSA is still needed for national security and interest. The Selangor government itself used the OSA not to declassify the council minutes. Why don’t you shout about that? All are the same bunch!

  5. faith04 says:

    I am a Catholic, and I feel ashamed of the cover-up by the church concerned. The relevant archbishops/bishops must be criticised for covering up. They are not protecting the people entrusted to them by our Lord Jesus.

    They have failed miserably in their vocation as priests. Is there any law to charge them for covering up the crimes?

  6. Antares says:

    Excellent and timely comparison, Jacqueline. From my own experience, I find that the desire for secrecy stems from deep fear – and that, in turn, arises from seeing enemies all around us. Some people are habitually tight-lipped about everything, because they believe others will have power over them once they gain access to their “private” data.

    Others, like me, are an open book. Perhaps we know the time will come when all beings will consciously tap into a unified field of awareness and become telepathically connected – so what’s the point of hiding information? The fewer secrets we withhold the greater our chances of intimately knowing others. In effect, those who reflexively mantain secrecy tend to be caught up in the illusion of separation and like to keep others at arm’s length. People attracted to black magic and the illusory power over others their dark arts lend them invariably end up trying to control everything around them. In so doing, they lose control of themselves instead.

  7. Farouq Omaro says:

    Such secrecy in the Roman Catholic Church can come to an end if there were more involvement by the congregation in church matters. And such abuses are also committed by clergy of other religions, so this is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church alone.

    ==============================================

    Absolutely, and thanks for pointing that it isn’t confined to just the church. It’s just that in terms of timing, both the events I cited happened at about the same time, hence they provided a useful parallel.

    Jacqueline.

  8. Arion Yeow says:

    Keep the sheep stupid and easy for the slaughter.

  9. Mary says:

    To single out the Catholic Church as a comparison with the Malaysian government is not really comparing apples with apples. All governments in power have their own secrets to hide, be they corrupt (or very rarely, otherwise).

    The instances of abuse occur within the local diocese or “particular church” which is a more correct term, and not the whole Catholic Church, as this article seems to imply. In fact, when it comes to accountability, the Catholic Church — if one follows with an open mind the leadership of Pope Benedict, has a far better record than the Malaysian government.

    Kind regards,
    Mary

  10. Awareness says:

    I think the article about hammering BN is interesting and good. But let’s face it, what is wrong with Jacqueline Ann Surin? Why drag the church in? I say yes the church has many such scandals but I wonder why she needs to link this both together? Bad journalism or PMS? Come on Jacqueline, get a life and report things properly.

    ========================================================

    Perhaps you’d like to attack my arguments instead of attacking me by suggesting that because I am a woman, and hence menstruate, that I am incapable of rational thought and argument?

    Making personal attacks instead of arguing one’s case is the laziest form of criticism really. Surely, you can do better than telling me to “get a life” so that I can learn from you exactly what is so objectionable about drawing parallels between the power structures within the church and within government.

    Jacqueline.

  11. Jeffrey Lim says:

    It is indeed troubling to the public that the OSA is used to cloak government acts which are prejudicial to the interests of its citizenry, to avoid protests. Putting an EIA under the OSA is contrary to the spirit of environmental protection since the people must be given [a platform] to voice out their concerns and objections to projects which are detrimental to future generations.

    Samy Vellu did that with the toll agreements [and] the public is paying the price. The Bukit Antarabangsa tragedy claimed lives and yet the government does not want the affected people to know the truth even after spending millions on the studies. Where is the Hazard Maps? Does the government want more lives to be lost instead of carrying out works to make our environment safer? Did any of those who used the OSA see the adults who suffered and lost dear ones in the tragedy crying openly? So much for BN Penyayang.

  12. Half Truth says:

    A truth is truth. A truth in religious perspective means it should also be universal. A truth needs no label i.e. there should [not] be labelling as Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Islamic truth.

    One must be brave enough to accept truth as truth although it is the most bitter medicine to swallow.

    When one tries to run or hide away from truth, it means one has some unwholesome intentions, or [unwholesome] actions [have been done and the person] fears to face the consequences.

    When one does not have the shame of doing evil actions and [doesn't] fear the consequences, he/she will continue to do evil/wrong action.

    This is what is happening in our country. Using the OSA as a mere excuse to hide their wrongdoing. Simple it is.

  13. rompedas says:

    Well said and well done. At least I know of someone who can say something that makes sense. All others are superficial. We need somebody who has the grey matter to lead. Unfortunately, we are the product of a sick society. We are not moving in sync.

  14. oh dear says:

    Oh dear…. I was once a staunch supporter of The Nut Graph….not any more. Bye.

    =========================================================

    I’m curious…what did you find so objectionable?

    Jacqueline.

  15. Collin Michael Nunis says:

    The parallels are coincidental and timely, although Jacqueline will certainly be criticised by Catholics for linking the sins with that of the Catholic Church. While it hurts me to say, as a Catholic myself, the coincendental link is inevitable, and I would readily admit to that.

    Nevertheless, with regards to the Irish sexual abuse cases, the current Archbishop of Dublin has been handling the cases very well by cooperating with the police and publically calling for the accountability of the bishops involved in the damning report. While it will not erase the damage done, such an occurence is indeed a glimmer of hope for some people and is indeeed redeeming.

    However, we can readily agree that God indeed is a just God and He will not allow His people to suffer at the hands of those He had entrusted to lead them in the first place. I personally do believe that justice is slowly making its way to the treacherous clergy. As a clergy myself, I do hope to see this justice done.

    In the meantime, my prayers and hopes are for those who have been affected by all that has happened.

  16. Leean says:

    It may be necessarily a matter of public interest to point out the evils of OSA and the like. It is nevertheless most regretable that the writer choose to do so by comparison. It is akin to pulling the other down so that one can stand tall rather than concentrate on oneself to stand tall.

    A better analysis or write-up would be if the writer had analysed the situation by its own standing. There are many ways to highlight the negative side of the issue without dragging a third party into the picture. Unless the writer has every intention to kill two birds with one stone.

  17. Jackie says:

    I like articles that are calling a spade a spade – regardless of whether it is about politics or even religion.

    When you do something wrong, it is wrong. No matter where you are from. There are many people taking advantage of religious institutions and committing crimes or immoral things – thinking they can take advantage of the people.

    People have always believed that religious people are holy. Sad to say, most of them are not. Please open your eyes and don’t be blindfolded and misled by them. I like what a previous commenter said: truth is truth.

    I don’t see anything wrong comparing the BN and the Church, if this is the truth. Just because someone is talking bad about your church/religion, he/she has instantly become your enemy.

    Come on, discuss the matter intelligently and with an open heart. Don’t slam your door but try to find out what the person is trying to tell you. I know it is hard to accept criticism and negative feedback. But that is how we grow. Don’t we?

    Jac, I am with you as long as you are daring to call a spade a spade. Don’t be offended by the naysayers as you are doing an excellent service to the nation. My donation is on the way. Keep it up.

  18. John Lee says:

    It’s sad that Jacqueline chose to report only on the sex abuse overlooking the many corporal works of mercy and charity that the Catholic Church is involved in. How can you compare a religious organisation with the BN goverment? One has God as its focal point whereas the other.

  19. tomas says:

    I don’t understand the need for your attempt to draw parallel between a government and a religous institution for writing “the truth about secrets”. The truth about secrets can be better (if not best) explained by examining personal life examples, like yours and mine, and may be expanded to a tiny institution, like a marriage and a family. When we are all ready to do just that, then we may then earn the right to hurl at a more complex institution. Without that truth to begin with, you can speak with very little (if any) interest of the truth itself – may be just a reflection of your own truth? Well, just in case, with 100 priests less, I’m sure you can still find a good priest to make clear your conscience, that is if you ever want to get a step closer to the truth.

  20. Su-Lyn says:

    I wish people would stop making personal attacks on the writer just because she criticized the Church. I am a Christian myself, and it saddens me to see that God’s people, who profess to follow after Christ and even hold high standings as His leaders, can commit abuse and try to hide their sin.

    Instead of defending them, we should just plainly admit that what they did was very wrong, and each of us should strive to ensure a culture of transparency in our own local church. No point in covering up the sins that God exposes.

  21. Mervyn says:

    While the parallels pointed out are quite interesting, I don’t see the point in its addition in making a statement. But then again, I’m not a man of faith so it made me smirk.

    Well written otherwise. I personally think it all goes down to abuse of discretion. In many countries there are laws that contradict one another and may overlap, the best examples being of course FOI rights derived from legislation/constitutions and the powers of making any information a ‘state secret’. But the latter should only be used for authentic reasons to cover up the holes within a nation-wide right of FOI which may threaten national security, etc.

  22. KohJL says:

    I suspect quite a number of readers are confusing criticism of the Catholic Church as an institution run by humans, with criticism of Catholicism as an idea (i.e. the religion itself). Hence, they are taking personal offence in the matter.

    Nonetheless, I believe neither should be above criticism =P

  23. Seems like a lot more people were too distracted by the Catholic Church analogy to pay attention to the substance of the essay.

    What do you propose as an alternative, or a way of safeguarding the OSA from being used as a tool for abuse? Obviously we need it around — SPM question papers are under OSA too, last I recall.

  24. U-Jean says:

    My thoughts about this are that even if the truth is out, will anything change at all? Look at Lingam’s and Kugan’s case. Has the wrong be put to right? Besides the freedom of information, what else do we need to put them right?

    Thank you Jacqueline for the response to Awareness who is sexist and not very aware at all.

  25. Ashraf says:

    Wow, I was surprised by the bold step of TNG in publishing this article. Anyway, Happy Holidays.

  26. Tan says:

    Credit should be given to Selangor MB for his courage and perseverance in ensuring the report was declassified. OSA and ISA should be abolished as it has been abused time and again by ministers for reasons known to themselves. Mr Minister, how can an investigative report on Bukit Antarabangsa be a threat to national security and classified under OSA? Whose interest are you try to protect?

  27. Awareness says:

    Jac … I stated it clearly, the issue is the comparison. Can’t you read? What is the relevance? Why not say the Muslims? The Taliban Muslims, then equate that to BN? Why not try the Buddhists where some temples actually profit by using the institution? Why not? Come on my dear girl …

    You may have some agenda. I also stated clearly the Church has its skeletons but what does that have to do with BN? Creative licence? Please … the attack on the Church is okay but to say its a PMS thing is so so personal? Well I said it because it’s been proven that PMS can cause women to murder, not all but on the rare, rare occasion and about 2-3 days back one of my female friend tells me when she PMS it’s bad, she is totally irrational at times, at times but not always. So maybe, just maybe you were also.

    PS – I have no special love for the Church and do not attend it by the way but let’s be objective.

    Editor’s note: Well, for the record, I am the columns editor at The Nut Graph, I am a man, and I do not have PMS whenever I edit Jacqueline’s column. I am curious about the link between PMS and murder, though, because as a man sometimes it is just impossible to understand why other men can rape and murder.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  28. Simon says:

    The writer of this article is certainly trying very hard to show how informed and how well read she is. Of course many people will be impressed with how much she knows about issues. I don’t blame her for trying to impress because journalism is such a competitive field nowadays as a lot of people can write and voice their opinions online. I am sure Jac is only trying to show us she is a Catholic who is very wise. It must please her a lot that she is able to link the Catholic scandals to the country and in particular Barisan Nasional. Never mind, she has certainly earned some respect from people like Antares [...]. Syabas, Jac! You have certainly got many responses with this post.

  29. SM says:

    Yes, initially the “sections” of the Catholic Church tried to “hide” the sexual abuses of these priests (just like followers of any religion, the Catholic Church has its flaws).

    Anyway, if it was such a secret, then no one would have known about it!

    The BN however, even when faced with obvious truths, will still cover up!

    I figure that Ms Surin has an axe to grind with the Catholic Church, thus the article.
    And this is supposed to be an award-winning journalist? Quite a disappointment!

  30. oh dear says:

    Objectional? You miss the point.

    The point is what you say matters (or mattered). The point is you have painted a blinkered picture of what the Catholic Church is and what it stands for. The lack of objective reporting is misleading ang troubling. You make no attempt to discuss the stand of the Church and what the Church has since done to address this wrong. You make no attempt to discuss what the Church really feels or thinks about the abuse of childern and also what the Church’s stand is on the action of the bishops.

    You are content to leave the impression of a Church that is powerful, corrupt and dishonest and yet powerful. You leave the impression that there has been no change, no action.

    What is the Church? The Church is not only the priests and the bishops. Every Catholic man, woman and child is the church. Every Catholic family is the church. You are content to leave the impression that we all subsribe to the actions of the bishop.
    I have this thought always: We don’t know what we don’t know. When I read an article like this, I am troubled by the message that you give to those who “don’t know”. I think about the articles I have read previously about areas in which I have shallow knowledge. Were they written in the same way? How am I to trust what you write anymore. And that is the point: Why continue to read what we can’t trust?

  31. @Merah Silu
    I think you are deliberately trying to confuse the issue. What I’m asking for, similar to what other advocates of FOI are asking for, is for information that is of public interest to be made public. By declaring that I want a society where private information, such as whether somebody made love last night, to be made public is either a sign that you don’t understand the difference between private and public information, or that you are deliberately trying to obfuscate the issue. None of the issues I highlighted were of a private nature. The issues of air quality, environmental impact, and the cause of the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide are all issues which affect the public. In fact, these kinds of information are funded, either in full or in part, by tax payers. Why shouldn’t we be privy to such information?

    @John Lee
    By your argument then, if an upstanding public personality who is well known for his philanthropy is also a child abuser, I should focus on his philanthropy and not take him to task for his crime? The Church is entrusted by believers to act in ways which do no harm, especially since in your own words, the Church has “God as its focal point”. If the Church acts in an unGodly manner, don’t you think it is incumbent on those who love God to speak out? I would hope for the children who were abused by priests that someone would have the courage to act in a Godly way to speak out.

    @tomas
    Seriously, I don’t think it’s my conscience that I need to clear. I believe it is the priests involved in the abuse and in the cover-up who need to get their conscience cleared, and make reparation for their crimes.

    @SM
    Yes, you’re right — I have an axe to grind. As a journalist, I have an axe to grind with institutions of power — whether religious or government — which keep secrets in order to perpetuate their positions of power at the expense of public interest.

    I’m curious — what’s so disappointing about a journalist who wants to hold accountable institutions of power? Would you rather journalists in Malaysia didn’t?

  32. smallville says:

    Most of the time, having secrets is meant to protect the ones you love most or the ones you hate most.

  33. Ann Teoh says:

    Each issue should be analysed on its own merits, aside from the fact that BN is a geographically specific temporal political institution and the Catholic Church represents at its very least, a supranational spiritual government. The reason why many Catholics feel offended by your comparison is because they love the Church like they love their family. The crimes (and sins) have been committed. No one doubts that or is saying it’s all right to perpetuate them. There remains a need to make amends for the victims. But if my own sister or child has committed a crime, I would not condone it, and I believe justice still needs to be served but it does not mean I would enjoy highlighting it or having it used as comparison for other crimes. As in all crimes, the people who suffer are not just the direct victims but the family and friends of the people who committed the crimes. We, the Catholics, in another part of the world, still suffer today because of the acts of those Bishops who covered up those crimes. We cannot stop you from making comparisons, but as a Catholic, I bear the shame of my “family members” who did carry out those despicable acts.

  34. SM says:

    Ms Surin, what was disappointing was the fact that you singled out the Catholic Church (notice that I’m not arguing that the CC has made mistakes or have tried to cover those mistakes). What about other religious institutions? Would you have dared say anything about institutions like Jais in Malaysia? What was disappointing was that your article was not impartial. Again why single out the CC? I’m sure you knew you would get loads of comments from this article especially from Catholics (and those who hate the CC too!) so I guess you have achieved your aim. Sure..have an axe to grind but use the axe impartially.

    Editor’s note: For your information, The Nut Graph has carried numerous articles – analyses, commentaries, interviews, etc. – which hold the Islamic religious institutions accountable. We talk to stakeholders on all sides of the debate – from supporters of Islamisation to its critics. See: http://thenutgraph.com/spotlight-political-islam

    We strongly believe in holding all institutions accountable, regardless of whether they are religious or not.

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  35. SM says:

    Shanon,

    Thanks for your clarification.


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