Greater transparency with Selangor’s sunshine law

by Gan Pei Ling / 15 April 2011 © Selangor Times

Selangor made history when it became the first state in Malaysia to pass the Freedom of Information (FOI) Enactment at its state assembly on April 1.

The state now joins more than 90 countries, including our neighbours Thailand and Indonesia, with an FOI law that recognises citizens’ right to information.

The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has hailed the passing of this law as a “breakthrough” amid an entrenched culture of secrecy among our government bodies backed by the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

Compared to its original draft tabled last July that was heavily criticised by civil societies, the FOI Enactment passed last Friday has seen several improvements.

Greater transparency and accountability

Firstly, civil servants can now be fined up to RM50,000 or sentenced to five years’ jail, or both, if they are convicted of intentionally giving false or misleading information.

It is also considered an offence if civil servants intentionally restrict or deny public access to information, unless that information is specifically exempted under the law. Civil servants were not liable to such a penalty in the original draft of the FOI Bill.

Secondly, the FOI Enactment now covers not only state departments, but local councils and all state-owned or state-controlled bodies as well.

Thirdly, the Appeals Board has been replaced by a more independent State Information Board to review appeals from applicants whose requests for information have been rejected.

Under the law, the State Information Board must be led by former legal practitioners and independent members not holding any political office or position in any political party.

CIJ also pointed out other improvements in the law, such as a narrower list of exemptions and a 20-year time limit for keeping exempted information confidential.

In addition, information officers and civil servants who disclose information in good faith are protected from prosecution, sanctions and suits.

Impact on general public

When asked by Selangor Times how the FOI Enactment would benefit the people, CIJ executive officer Masjaliza Hamzah said the law had far-reaching impacts in very practical ways.

“If there’s a landslide and the state sets up a committee to inquire into it, under the FOI Enactment, one could argue that the public should have access to reports about the proceedings, including statements recorded from those who testify.

“In other words, we don’t have to wait for the Menteri Besar to declassify it,” said Masjaliza.

“If the playground near your house is in a bad state, you can ask the local council for the amount spent on maintenance and find out who built it.

“Of course, all these are just scenarios; the law will need to be tested,” she said.

FOI select committee chairperson Saari Sungib (Hulu Kelang) had told Selangor Times previously that the state expects tremendous requests for information at local councils and land offices once the law is enforced.

One can anticipate concerned residents requesting information on the state and local councils’ expenditure, tenders awarded and land transactions, to name just a few.

Despite that, it should be noted that filing an application and pursuing it would still take time and energy.

Limitations of the FOI Enactment

Nevertheless, Selangor’s FOI Enactment has certain limitations.

Information classified as official secrets under the OSA is beyond the state law’s jurisdiction.

Individuals’ private information or trade secrets obtained by the state in confidence, as well as information that would “severely jeopardise” the state’s policy implementation or development, can also be kept confidential.

However, such information can be disclosed if there is an overriding public interest or if it is for the investigation of an offence or misconduct.

Besides that, a good FOI law should keep the application fees low, but this was not stated in the enactment.

“Costs should be kept low. Otherwise, it can become an administrative obstacle that denies the public affordable access to information,” CIJ pointed out in its April 1 statement.

CIJ also highlighted that the enactment did not specify the appointment process of the State Information Board.

“This must be an open and transparent process where the public can nominate candidates and the shortlist is published. This will strengthen the independence of the board,” CIJ added.

The law also does not mandate the periodic publication of information to make information more accessible to the public.

“Routine publication will help to reduce the administrative burden on information officers and increase transparency across all public bodies,” said CIJ in response to the shortcomings in the law.

The state’s FOI taskforce chief, Elizabeth Wong, said the FOI Enactment is a “dynamic, living legislation” and the legislature can improve the enactment from time to time.

“This is only the beginning of our journey to introduce a culture of openness and transparency in public administration,” said Wong.

Related post: Freedom of Information FAQ

Freedom of Information FAQ

Compiled by Gan Pei Ling / 15 April 2011 © Selangor Times

What is Freedom of Information (FOI) and why do we need laws to ensure it?

As tax- and ratepayers, the public has a right to know how governments use and manage public funds. FOI laws empower the public with access to information, and allow inspection of files and scrutiny of government administration.

In other words, a good FOI law helps promote transparency, accountability and reduce graft.

Does Malaysia has a FOI law?

We do not have a FOI law at the national level, but Selangor passed the FOI Enactment in its state assembly on April 1. It is the first state to do so.

Following Selangor’s footsteps, Penang also tabled its FOI bill in November 2010, but the draft has came under fire from civil societies as lacking in substance.

The Selangor FOI bill also came under severe criticism when it was first tabled in July 2010. However, the legislature appointed a select committee to consult civil societies and civil servants to improve the bill.

An amended version was tabled on March 28 and passed without objection on April 1.

When will Selangor’s FOI Enactment come into force?

Elizabeth Wong, who is leading the Selangor’s FOI taskforce, said it would take around six months for the state to enforce the law.

She said they would need to appoint and train information officers in all relevant bodies to handle information applications, draft the application forms, and set up a fee structure.

Selangor also needs to set up the State Information Board, which would review appeals from applicants whose request for information has been rejected.

Wong, who is also the executive councillor on tourism, consumer affairs and environment, estimated that Selangor would need to allocate RM1 million to enforce the FOI law.

Who will give me information? Is there a fee?

An information officer will be trained and appointed in each department to handle public requests for information. The information officer is required to respond in writing to your application within 30 days from the date of acknowledgement of the application.

Illiterate or people with disabilities may make a verbal request to the information officer, who will then make a written application on behalf of the applicant and provide a copy of it to the applicant.

The fee structure has yet to be ironed out by the state.

What is covered under Selangor’s FOI Enactment?

Once the FOI law comes into force, you can request for information from any state department, local council, or any entity owned or fully controlled by the Selangor government. For example, you can request for information on the state and local councils’ expenditure, tenders awarded, and land transactions.

However, information classified under the federal Official Secrets Act, individuals’ private information, and trade secrets obtained by the state in confidence are exempted under the FOI enactment.

Secrets from states or international organisations may also be kept confidential if its disclosure would affect Selangor’s relations with other states or international organisations.

The information officer may also refuse to disclose information that is likely to severely affect Selangor’s development.

Despite that, information must be provided if there is an overriding public interest that outweighs the risks stated above.

The information officer may also allow access to exempted information if it is required for the investigation of an offence or misconduct.

However, all exemptions lapse after 20 years.

What if my application is rejected, or if I’m not satisfied with the information provided?

You can appeal to the State Information Board, made up of former legal practitioners and independent members, within 21 days after you receive the notice from the information officer.

FOI Enactment (Selangor)

Related post: Greater transparency with Selangor sunshine law

Forests in Selangor under threat

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 February 2011 © The Nut Graph

THERE was much cause for celebration when Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman announced on 16 Feb 2011 that the plan to build a 30 megawatt coal plant in the state’s pristine east coast had been scrapped.

Instead, the government is now considering gas and other cleaner energy options like biomass. Activists, particularly those from environmental coalition Green Surf, ought to be commended for their tireless campaign, since 2007, against the proposed coal plant.

Postcard protesting the coal plant (© Postcards to PM)

I wish the same were happening for the forests in Selangor. The state has been delaying its decision on a proposal to convert the Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest to an oil palm plantation. Additionally, the federal government has been turning a deaf ear to civil societies’ opposition against the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road.

Indecisive Selangor

It was in late 2010 that the Selangor Agriculture Development Corporation proposed to develop the 7,000ha Kuala Langat South forest reserve into oil palm estate. The clearing of the forest could potentially generate RM1bil in timber revenue.

Map of Selangor State Park, with permission from Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES).

It is troubling that the Pakatan Rakyat-led state did not reject the proposal immediately. After all, it announced that it would impose a 25-year moratorium on logging when it came into power in 2008.

To the Selangor government’s credit, however, it did commission an audit in December 2010 to assess the forest’s biodiversity value. In addition, it has engaged environmental non-governmental organisations as well as government agencies in its biodiversity audit.

The audit report was expected to be presented to the state in January 2011 but it was postponed to early February. To date, the Selangor government has yet to make an official announcement on the matter.

When asked by reporters recently if a decision was made at the Selangor Economic Action Council’s meeting, executive councillor Elizabeth Wong, who is in charge of the environment portfolio, skirted the issue.

Granted, commissioning an audit to assess a forest’s biodiversity value before clearing it for plantation or other development purposes would be unimaginable under previous state administrations. But the state’s current indecision on the Kuala Langat South forest reserve also seriously raises doubt about whether the state might revoke the status of other forest reserves when there is further pressure for development.

It should be noted that the Kuala Langat South forest reserve can be deemed as the most important peat swamp left in southern Selangor as almost all others have been lost to development.

Putrajaya’s silence

Another lingering threat to Selangor’s forest reserves is the KL Outer Ring Road which would cut through the ecologically-fragile Selangor State Park.

A federal government project, the highway is being proposed to ease traffic congestion on the Middle Ring Road Two. Construction near the Kanching Forest Reserve has already begun but the road alignment that would slice through the Selangor State Park has yet to be confirmed.

Photo of Klang Gates Dam at dawn in 2010 (by Gan Pei Ling)

Gazetted in 2005, the 108,300ha park is an important water catchment area for the Klang Gates Dam and Ampang Intake. Ironically, Putrajaya and Selangor have been wrestling over the construction of the Langat 2 plant to source water from Pahang to avoid potential “water shortage” in the state. Yet, little attention has been given to the highway’s potential impact on Selangor’s water supply.

To date, the federal government has yet to respond to civil societies’ objections against the KL Outer Ring Road.  The Selangor government has said it is not within its power to scrap the highway.

An election issue?

Compared to the proposed coal plant in Sabah, which has been going on for a few years and also attracted international attention, the threats to the Kuala Langat South forest reserve and the Selangor State Park have received much less media attention.

However, if there are some lessons to be learnt from the anti-coal activists, it’s that with persistence and a persuasive campaign strategy, governments may be compelled to listen to civil society after all.

In the end, the people are the boss in a democracy and if the government-of-the-day wants to be re-elected, it had better learn to listen to the people — not just wealthy developers, but environmental groups and concerned citizens, too.

Growing up in the Klang Valley, Gan Pei Ling didn’t know until recently that around 30% of land in Selangor is still forest reserves. She hopes most, if not all, of these reserves will still be around in 2050. Would that be too much to ask?

Plastic matters

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 November 2010 © The Nut Graph

SELANGOR’S No Plastic Bag Day campaign recently came under attack in a report on online news portal The Malaysian Insider.

Elizabeth Wong

The 9 Nov 2010 report claimed that “hypermarkets and retail shops” in Selangor have suffered up to 30% decline in their businesses on Saturdays since the Selangor government implemented the campaign in January 2009. In a 12 Nov 2010 report, the news portal also rubbished Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong‘s claim, that plastic bags are an environmental problem, by citing environmentalists and scientists.

Are The Malaysian Insider reports accurate? Are they doing what good journalism is meant to do — hold public officials accountable for the decisions they make that affect public life? Or do the reports miss the point by taking things out of context?

Sloppy reporting

Interestingly, even though Penang has been more aggressive in implementing the campaign, the Selangor government has suffered most of the brunt from The Malaysian Insider’s reporting.

More interesting was how the news portal attempted to be critical of the Selangor government’s campaign. The news portal only cited three supervisors in its 9 Nov 2010 report that claimed “hypermarkets and retail shops” in Selangor had suffered up to 30% drop in businesses on Saturdays. It also quoted only customers that were unhappy with the state’s campaign.

A customer in Carrefour Market helps herself to cardboard boxes provided as an alternative to plastic bags — the mini hypermarket in Bangsar South has a no-plastic-bag policy (© Lainie Yeoh)

In comparison, The Star‘s 11 Jan 2010 report in the campaign’s early days found that even though some shoppers were caught unaware, many were still supportive of the campaign. In addition, retailers like Tesco, Giant, Jusco and Ikea actually started encouraging its customers to use reusable bags even before the state government began its campaign.

It is also problematic when the reports stress a 30% loss in business on Saturdays without asking the question whether that loss in business has been compensated in an increase on other days. If it has, then the alarming claims that business has been affected by an environmental-friendly policy may be misguided and mischievous.

The Malaysian Insider report misses the nuance and context of the criticism by scientists; they are against focusing solely on banning plastic bags.

On top of that, The Malaysian Insider claimed in its 12 Nov 2010 report that scientists and environmentalists have dismissed plastic bags as a “non-issue”. To put things into context however, it is true that scientists and environmentalists have been critical of governments but only of those that focus on banning plastic bags alone without implementing more concrete and comprehensive plans to save the environment.

Hence, it is only problematic if the No Plastic Bag Day campaign were all that the Selangor government was doing in its effort to conserve the environment. That isn’t the case at all.

The Pakatan Rakyat-led government enforced a moratorium on logging in Selangor as soon as it came into power. The Selangor Forestry Department is taking various measures to prevent illegal logging.

The Selangor government also gazetted the Kota Damansara forestAyer Hitam forest, and the firefly sanctuary in Kampung Kuantan in 2010. The state is engaging on a long-term plan to rehabilitate the Klang River as well.

There is much more the Selangor government could do to conserve the environment but I believe credit should be given where it is due, too.

Small steps

The Petronas Twin Towers during Earth Hour 2009 (© Lai Seng Sin | Wiki Commons)

Sceptics often criticise campaigns such as No Plastic Bag Day and Earth Hour on the basis that they merely create the illusion that small steps can make a difference. On my part, I would not be so quick to dismiss these small steps because they do help to increase awareness.

Additionally, reducing waste requires consumers to be constantly mindful of the impact of our actions so that we can choose to reduce our consumption at many levels. Symbolic campaigns like No Plastic Bag Day and Earth Hour may not save the planet, but I think they do serve to inspire consumers to a certain degree to rethink the impact of their consumption patterns on the environment.

Any environmentalist will tell you there is no one way to save the planet. Solving our impending environmental crises requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about and treat our environment.

Despite the urgency of these problems though, such change is expected to take decades. The least the media could do is to report on the issues as accurately and fairly as possible to contribute to meaningful debate and greater awareness about how our personal consumption choices can accumulatively save or destroy our planet.

Gan Pei Ling does not fancy picking up plastic bags or bottles in a beach or waterfall clean-up. She salutes those who do so regularly.

Related post: The plastic menace

The plastic menace

by Gan Pei Ling / 20 July 2010 © The Nut Graph

“IT’s not sexy, that’s why nobody cares,” a friend comments on why few Malaysians are concerned about the problem of plastic waste even though it threatens the environment that sustains us. “It’s sexier to talk about renewable energy and green buildings than how we handle our trash,” the friend adds.

That is until some of our state and local governments took the initiative to launch No Plastic Bag Day campaigns. Penang was the first to launch the campaign in July 2009. Those without reusable bags have to pay 20 sen for a plastic bag when they shop on Mondays. In January 2010, the campaign was extended to include Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At the same time, Selangor launched its own No Plastic Bag Day campaign on Saturdays. Subsequently, the Miri and Sibu municipal councils in Sarawak, as well as Kota Kinabalu city hall and six other districts in Sabah announced similar campaigns.

How effective are these campaigns? Can they really help save the planet? And what can be done to make these campaigns more popular?

Campaigns’ effectiveness

The idea of banning plastic bags to reduce its use is not new. In 2002, Ireland imposed a 15 euro cent tax on plastic bags, and its use dropped over 90% within five months. In the same year, Bangladesh banned polyethylene bags in Dhaka as the bags were choking the drainage system and causing floods in the capital.

China banned plastic bags in 2008. A year later, it was reported that the country saved the equivalent of 1.6 million tonnes of oil and 40 billion bags. Other countries that have introduced additional charges or tax on plastic bags include Rwanda, Eritrea and Switzerland.

In Selangor, the use of plastic bags was reduced by five million in the first four months of its campaign. In Penang, the amount was one million bags over the same period.

(Pic by roberto /

Despite such reductions in plastic bag use, Ireland’s scheme has been criticised for triggering a 400% increase in the purchase of bin liners and greater reliance on paper bags. Contrary to the popular belief that paper bags are more eco-friendly, they actually require more energy to manufacture and cause more pollution during production. This probably explains why Penang and Selangor did not compel or encourage retailers to replace plastic with paper bags.

Convincing the public

Asking consumers to sacrifice requires some doing, especially when Malaysians are so used to free plastic bags that some consumers mistake it as a “right”. Some consumer associations, for example, claimed that the 20 sen charge was decided without their consultation and was therefore unfair.

Perhaps as a public relations measure to help consumers make the switch, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced that the state would use the funds collected from the plastic bag charges to eradicate hardcore poverty.

In Selangor, participating retailers are required to use the funds to conduct corporate social responsibility programmes. The Selangor government encourages these retailers to conduct programmes relating to the environment.

Perhaps one other way to compel consumers to change their lifestyle is to lead them to the Pacific Garbage Patch that stretches several hundred miles in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five plastic garbage patches in our oceans. For now, there is no way to clean up these garbage patches, scientists say.

As a result of our consumption and disposal of plastic, scientists estimate there are six times more plastic than plankton in the “continent”. Trapped by circulating ocean currents, the plastic we throw away are choking fishes and seabirds to death as the marine animals mistake them for food. Every year, more than 100,000 marine animals such as dolphins, whales and sea turtles are killed because of plastic bags.

Plastic waste found on the beach in Kuantan (Pic by Carolyn Lau and Ng Sek San)

If we don’t care about marine life, here’s another thought that should give us pause. Plastics absorb pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls, otherwise known as cancer-causing PCBs, and pesticides.

“These particles are ingested by marine life and pass into our food chain. We all do it: we throw this stuff, this packaging, what I call dumb plastic, into the bin, and we think it has gone. But it comes back to us one way or another. Some of it ends up on our dinner plates,” British adventurer and environmentalist David de Rothschild tells The Guardian.

In 2009, Rothschild sailed to the patch in a vessel made entirely of plastics called Plastiki. The billionaire banking heir has definitely found a way to make the issue of plastic waste seem sexier.

Considering some of the gruesome facts surrounding plastic bags pollution, 20 sen per bag is a really small price to pay.

Other solutions

The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association has proposed to the Penang government to give out free oxo-biodegradable plastic bags so that consumers can still enjoy free plastic bags on campaign days.

However, oxo-biodegradable plastic bags are not 100% degradable. They can only degrade in the presence of sunlight and oxygen. Those that end up in landfills would not degrade at all. Therefore, reusable bags are still the best option.

For certain, most of our plastic waste comes from packaging that is often unnecessary. Malaysian consumers cannot hope to rely solely on governments to resolve our plastic waste problem. After all, in a marketplace driven by profit, consumer demand and lifestyle are often much more powerful than government regulations.

As Leo Hickman writes in The Guardian on 11 Aug 2009: “[Plastic bags] are the ultimate symbol of our throwaway culture.”

No Plastic Bag Day campaigns are merely the first step towards stimulating the public to rethink the impact of our “use and throw” habit on the very environment that sustains us.

Gan Pei Ling believes reusable bags are the best solution to our plastic bag dilemma, but would like to remind readers to wash their reusable bags frequently in the interest of hygiene.

Related post: Plastic matters