Why so secretive, civil society asks Selangor, Penang

by Gan Pei Ling, 31 October 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

THE Selangor and Penang administrations have come under fire for their lacklustre implementation of the freedom of information (FOI) law, with civil society groups saying that citizens’ access to state information remains largely unchanged since its introduction.

The sunshine law was enacted in 2011 to promote greater transparency and accountability, by allowing the public access to state information.

However, six years on, both state governments have done “very little or nothing at all to promote the use of the FOI”, said corruption watchdog Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) executive director Cynthia Gabriel.

“There is zero publicity from the state governments. This is very unfortunate, even disappointing,” Cynthia told The Malaysian Insight.

Cynthia, formerly a councillor with the Petaling Jaya City Council, said Penang Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy and Selangor Speaker Hannah Yeoh were among the handful of Pakatan Harapan politicians who have raised public awareness about the FOI.

“The citizens of these states could have used the law more proactively to show the Barisan Nasional-ruled states how an FOI law can be used to improve their quality of life,” said Cynthia.

Due to the low public awareness, Penang only received 71 FOI requests in 2015 and 41 as of June 2016, Dr Ramasamy told a forum hosted by the Penang Institute last year.

Selangor received 163 FOI applications between 2013 and 2015, out of which only five requests were unsuccessful.

Critics have pointed out that these five include requests for the declassification of high-profile cases, such as the Selangor water agreement and documents related to the Kidex highway.

The Malaysian Insight’s efforts to get the latest numbers of successful and rejected FOI requests from both state administrations were unsuccessful. “At the time of publication, the state governments are compiling the data.”

Last year, C4 partnered with another local transparency watchdog, Sinar Project, to launch the Right 2 Know Malaysia campaign, aimed at helping Malaysians learn about the FOI via a website and public talks.

Sinar Project coordinator Khairil Yusof said that the project set out to test how well the FOI law worked in practice at the local council and state level requests.

They found that the Selangor FOI law and process was much better in practice than Penang.

However, the group was surprised that the Selangor executive council denied their request for information on the expenditure of excos under former menteri besar Khalid Ibrahim as well as current Menteri Besar Azmin Ali.

Khairil said the rejection of their request appeared to show that the Selangor administration is not willing to be fully transparent when it comes to executive councillors’ expenditure.

Selangor also denied requests to make public information regarding controversial projects and agreements, such as the Damansara-Shah Alam Elevated Expressway (DASH) and the state’s water agreement.

In response to criticism on the implementation of the FOI law, Selangor’s Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) carried out a public hearing in January 2015 to review the implementation of the law.

Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong was put in charge of overseeing the FOI implementation but did not respond to interview requests at press time.

Cynthia from C4 also said that the FOI would always fall short of its ideals of greater transparency as long as restrictive laws, such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA), supersedes it.

“The OSA still supersedes the state FOI enactments. Information on highway projects, infrastructure and road works has been denied on such grounds.”

She said Malaysia, which aims to become a developed country by 2020, must reform the OSA if it is sincere in eradicating corruption.

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