It sounds like a dull story—a young, fairly junior HDB officer being charged with an offence after leaking information about a fairly unexciting HDB resale portal to a journalist. It seems laughable that this was even considered a big enough deal to be worth a charge; we’re not talking about Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden here.
But behind this absurdity lies a cesspool of problems with far-ranging consequences that impact upon not just civil servants and journalists, but also civil society activists and advocates, researchers and academics, and ultimately Singaporean society at large.
In and of itself, the Official Secrets Act makes sense. There are matters in every country that need to be kept classified and confidential, in the interests of national security. Information relating to some defence or military operations and decisions, for instance, are marked top secret so as not to fall into the wrong hands. We have, of course, seen instances in which classified military and intelligence operations are actually hiding misbehaviour and abuses of power, but in general the argument that governments do need to keep some things classified is not a controversial one.
But a government should maintain a balance between keeping things confidential for purposes of security and being accountable to its people. In Singapore, saying that the balance is a little out of whack is probably already a generous characterisation of the situation.
There is a massive information asymmetry between the government—dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party—and pretty much everyone else. Opposition parties, civil society organisations, the media, researchers and academics; everyone runs into brick walls when trying to get information, often because there is so much that just isn’t made public, and we often lack the resources to conduct large-scale, comprehensive research projects ourselves.
There is no freedom of information law that would allow a citizen to ask for information from government agencies, and—as we see in this case—everything that’s classified or confidential comes under the Official Secrets Act, and divulging or receiving such information brings repercussions even when what’s being shared arguably has little to do with real national security concerns.
This makes it difficult for anyone to hold the powerful to account; there is just so much that we don’t know.
Take, for example, my experience as an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in Singapore. While anti-death penalty activists elsewhere in the world are able to engage in conversations about important issues such as the conditions on death row, the methods of execution and the profiles of condemned prisoners, this information is classified under the Official Secrets Act in Singapore.
This means that prison wardens, executioners and even religious counsellors are not allowed to be part of the public discourse on the use of capital punishment in the country, even though they are the ones who have firsthand experiences that are valuable to building understanding and a more holistic view of the situation.
It also means that little is known about the welfare of death row inmates, or whether executions have ever been botched. In fact, information on the number of people on death row isn’t even made public, making it difficult for researchers and activists to even know who is at risk of hanging, or to discern trends or patterns related to the profiles of death row inmates. Abolitionists do the best we can to track, collect and document as much as possible, but the information we glean in bits and pieces is no match for the data that the government refuses to share.
I’m speaking from my own experience here, but almost every activist, advocate or NGO worker I know in Singapore has a similar story to tell about how data and information just isn’t forthcoming, and how even the most mundane of communications with government agencies might come marked as “classified”, which means they can’t be made public, no matter how much they might add to the public discourse.
This “simi sai also confidential” climate also explains why there is so little investigative journalism conducted in Singapore, even at a time when exposés like the Paradise Papers or Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s violence against women demonstrate the importance and value of investigative reporting. Reporters just get stonewalled all the time, and as we have seen in The Straits Times shameful (non-)response to this recent case and the “stern warning” that journalists Janice Tai received, there’s little support for reporters or willingness to stand up for press freedom when the shit hits the fan.
I know none of this sounds particularly sexy or exciting, but the implications for Singaporeans are serious.
This overzealous use of the Official Secrets Act gives the government too much of a monopoly on information. It also gives bureaucrats something to hide behind instead of being open and accountable to the people; I’ve seen all sorts of communications from government agencies and civil servants marked as “classified” or “confidential”, even when there isn’t a need for it to be so. There’s no clear process of declassification in Singapore, either—it’s been 30 years and the government still isn’t declassifying documents related to Operation Spectrum, for example—which means that this use of the Official Secrets Act doesn’t just have an impact on Singaporeans today, but also decades down the road when we are trying to look back and understand our own history.
National security is important, but “national security” can also be used as an excuse to cover up all manner of sins.
Couple this with other laws and regulations, either existing or looming on the horizon, and we get an even more worrying picture of freedom of information, free speech and press freedom in Singapore.
Take the anti-“fake news” legislation that Law Minister K Shanmugam has indicated is on the way. It’s not yet clear what that’s going to involve—and we have no idea who the government is consulting—but we’ve seen ministries like the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Communications and Information accuse the media of “fake news” and “fabricated” headlines in ways that suggest a trigger-happy approach to describing something as “fake”. There have also been references made to “legislative options” to deal with “false attacks” against the police, a comment almost certainly directed at outlets like The Online Citizen, even though TOC had approached the Singapore Police Force for comment in their stories (and did not receive a response or input).
Taken together, this places journalists and citizens in very precarious positions. If access to data and information is so closely guarded, and any inaccuracy (or perceived inaccuracy, as in the recent case of the Reuters headline) in the things we write, report or say could be jumped on as instances of “fake news”, potentially with legal repercussions, then where does this leave press freedom and journalists’ ability to produce independent reportage that serves the public? Are we to be pushed into a situation where everyone is afraid of saying or reporting anything without government approval or input? If that’s the case, Singaporean journalism will turn into little more than stenography, and the public will be all the poorer for it.
Add to this the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act, which came into force on October 1 this year after being passed in Parliament over a year ago, and there are even more mines in the field. The legislation is worded so broadly that so much activity and comment can potentially fall afoul of the rules—we’re seeing it now with Li Shengwu’s friends-only Facebook post.
There are all these laws and regulations to keep us from discovering or discussing the things that the powerful would prefer we not know or talk about, while laws such as the Administration of Justice (Protection) Act or the Personal Data Protection Act (which allows us to protect the information about ourselves that we would rather be kept confidential) have exemptions for government officials. It is practically impossible for citizens to demand information that would allow us to scrutinise the assets of the powerful for potential conflicts of interest or abuses of power and influence, yet there is also no guaranteed restraint on authority when it comes to access our private information.
All this together puts us in a position where there is too much opacity and too little transparency in Singapore, and this isn’t something that only affects journalists and civil servants — it hurts all of us in the end.
If this keeps up, Singapore will not only fail to be a Smart Nation; we won’t even be an informed one.