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Release of all past cabinet records may not lead to better outcomes: Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE — Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang today (March 10) pressed for greater transparency in Government records, and called for the Government to release past cabinet records for public access.

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SINGAPORE — Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang today (March 10) pressed for greater transparency in Government records, and called for the Government to release past cabinet records for public access.

But Mr Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State for Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), refuted him, saying that such an open policy may not necessarily lead to better outcomes.

Mr Low, an MP for Aljunied GRC, had pointed out that “there seems to be a huge gap in records and our collective memory” because cabinet papers are not released to the national archives. He asked the Government to consider practising a “30-year rule” which is common in some countries like the United Kingdom, where confidential records of cabinet meetings are transferred to the national archives after 30 years.

This “not only conserves transparency and accountability in order to maintain public trust in the Government, but also encourages a historical investigation to bolster a strong sense of national identity”, he said.

Responding, Mr Wong said the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) does make available public archives for inspection for research and reference. Requests can be made at the NAS’s reading room, and the NAS will consult the relevant agency about providing access to these records.

But while all unclassified information is made available upon request, there are some records which are not available for open access, including those relating to national defence, foreign relations and internal security, as well as documents which may be bound by confidentiality obligations or personal privacy reasons, said Mr Wong.

His reply prompted Mr Low to probe further on the Government’s stand on the declassification of cabinet papers.

“We are 50-years-old next year. Fifty years on, (can it be that) all the papers are still sensitive? I’m sure there are some that are not,” Mr Low retorted.

Mr Wong countered that the Government’s approach “is not transparency for transparency’s sake”, but transparency that leads to good governance.

He pointed out that some countries have “gone somewhat overboard with freedom of information legislation or open access”, leading instead to the opaqueness and avoidance of records.

Policy papers or cabinet papers may not have complete information or detail because the civil servants writing them know that the reports will be made available, he said. “I think we have to be careful of such inadvertent consequences.”

Today, fellow Aljunied GRC MP and WP chairperson Sylvia Lim also questioned MCI Minister Yaacob Ibrahim on Mr Janadas Devan’s appointment as Chief of Government Communications (CGC) at MCI, given that Mr Janadas is also Director for the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

She asked if Dr Yaacob agreed “that such a dual role...is not quite a desirable state of affairs because it might raise some questions about the role of the IPS”.

To that, Dr Yaacob said the ministry had considered his appointment seriously and felt that it is “very clear that what IPS has done is very different from what the CGC is supposed to do”, adding that they do not see any conflict of interest in this respect.

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