Behind the PAP’s ‘good governance’ are Cabinets full of secrets

The Workers Party’s Low Thia Khiang asked in Parliament a month ago if the Government would de-classify Cabinet Papers. “We are 50 years old next year; 50 years on and all the papers are still sensitive? I am sure there are some that are not.”

The member for Aljunied GRC raised a very relevant point: “Currently, all the Singapore stories are told by National Archives, the establishment. I am sure historians in Singapore are interested to research the history of Singapore in an independent manner, and without those (Cabinet) papers being published, it is quite difficult for them to do so.”

Lawrence Wong, the Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information replied: “Our position on the National Archives and declassification is not specific to particular types of information but broadly … all Government records beyond a 25-year period are deemed as public archives in the National Library Board Act. Access would be provided to any of these public archives (provided) these are unclassified information. Cabinet Papers are classified and they are not made available.”

Wong went on to explain: “When you look at declassification policies, our approach is not transparency for transparency sake. Our approach is transparency that leads to good governance. If you look at what some countries have done, where they have gone somewhat overboard, with freedom of information legislation, or open access, it has not always led to better governance. 

“What has happened is that the legislation that has been put in place has inadvertently led to more opaqueness and avoidance of records.

“Policy papers or cabinet papers which are written may not have full information and full details because the civil servants writing them know that these will be made available.

“We have to be careful of such inadvertent consequences, which we do not want to have in Singapore. Our purpose is to promote good governance. Our approach is that we want to make more information available but it would be subject to the broader conditions…”

Thus the PAP government’s definition of good governance is keeping its policy-making process hidden from the people — better that we don’t know what civil servants and their masters really think, Our Singapore Conversation and Reach notwithstanding.

The reason for such an attitude will not change until the man responsible for many of these “secrets” passes on because while Lee Kuan Yew may no longer be in the Cabinet, his imprint on the PAP regime still holds strong.