A step forward for transparency
By R Nadeswaran, The Sun
BEING exposed and having used the Freedom of Information Act in the United Kingdom extensively over the past six months, the passing of a similar piece of legislation in Selangor last week must be met with some sort of elation. The fact that it was passed unanimously reflects that parties on both sides of the political divide deem it fit to be more open and transparent. This bodes well for transparency which is one arm of good governance, with accountability being the other.
It is also good news for journalists whose work has always been hindered by roadblocks with red tape and inefficiency. The assumption is that when the bill becomes law after getting the royal assent, there will be queues of people sending in requests and that the information requested will be given immediately. Many would be seeking details of tenders, land transactions (especially those which involve alienation of state land) and expenses incurred by state departments, agencies and subsidiaries.
There could be some setbacks. First, our civil servants have not been trained to be open and make on-the-spot decisions and hence will always "run upstairs" for permission or authorisation. Knowing how the system works, this process could take days if not weeks. Second, how good are our filing and retrieval systems? Lawyers specialising in conveyance will tell you that it takes weeks for a file search at the Land Office and months before a transfer can be effected on the Land Register. Third and more importantly, what is there to stop a civil servant to intentionally refusing to provide the information knowing that it would embarrass his colleagues or their previous political masters?
In the UK, if you are unhappy with the response, you can request an independent internal review of the handling of the request for information by submitting a complaint within two months to the head of the performance team in each department or ministry. Can we expect the same? Not likely, judging from experience.
Although the Local Government Act expressly provides for ratepayers access to minutes of council meetings, not all councils make them available. One such request to the Petaling Jaya Municipal Council some years back was met with a stern "No" and when told of the provisions in the law, the retort was: "Go and get a court order. Only then can we release the minutes." Things may have changed since, but the worrying factor is whether attitudes and work culture can change.
PORT Klang, the gateway to trade in and out of the country has been in the news for all the wrong reasons and just as we thought the ghosts of the past had been buried; it has been resurrected, no less than by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). The arrest of 62 officers from the Customs Department, most of them based in the port, reinforces the theory that any contraband can get into the country legitimately with the sight of crispy hard cash.
It has always fascinated many on how stolen luxury cars end up in foreign shores within hours of them disappearing from parking lots and how fire-crackers can appear on shop shelves and on the streets despite their import being banned. Now we know why! We have been told that the well co-ordinated swoop by the MACC was carried out after months of painstaking investigation and surveillance.
Many would like to believe that this is the turning point for the MACC and the country’s fight against corruption. It augurs well for the people who want a corruption-free system where transactions are totally above-board. Having a system which has engrained itself in graft is no good for everyone – the government, its people and even people who want to invest in our country.
But this case alone is insufficient to restore the people’s faith in the system, especially the MACC. It should continue relentlessly its campaign to weed out irregularities carried out by all and sundry and no exceptions should be made – from the office boy to the minister. If there’s even a hint of biasness or favouritism, all the good work that has been done will go down the drain.