Openness will pay off

15 Apr 2014 / 20:00 H.

    ON Monday, the chief secretary to the government, Tan Sri Ali Hamsa, warned that the government will not compromise and take firm action including sacking civil servants found leaking its secrets. Bernama quoted him as saying that civil servants were responsible for ensuring confidentiality to ensure national security and the wellbeing of the people.
    The key phrase in the warning is "national security". Period. For the wellbeing of the people, everything should be open.
    All these brouhaha came about after the itinerary of the deputy prime minister's visit to the United Arab Emirates fell into the hands of opposition MPs.
    Having put such narrow interpretations on what constitutes "government secret", it can be assumed that other than security issues, everything else is okay.
    Since when has the itinerary of a cabinet minister been classified as a secret? If that is the case, then many ministerial aides would have been sacked. Everyday, this newspaper receives, sometimes, in detail, information on the movements of ministers. Because they seek coverage and publicity, aides deem it fit to send the minister's schedule of functions for the day.
    When former tourism minister Ng Yen Yen arrived for the Chelsea Flower show in London three years ago, she decreed that she travelled at her own expense.
    Tourism Malaysia loathed even my mere presence in the British capital and treated me like a leper keeping me outside the loop, but it was not difficult to get the minister's plans. Her entire itinerary was and is still in my possession. Tourism Malaysia officials had given copies to drivers of three luxury vehicles and even a copy to the hotel concierge and it was not difficult to get a copy.
    Would that be "leaking secrets" according to Ali's interpretation? I also know that Tourism Malaysia in London had paid journalists "allowances" for coverage of the minister's activities and have copies of invoices to prove the same. Why should such payments be construed as "secret" when it is paid with taxpayers' money?
    On New Year's Day, a former minister with an entourage in tow and who now sits on a statutory body had the best seats in the house at the Hong Kong Harbour to watch the fireworks display paid for by the government. Would making public such abuse of power and misuse of public funds amount to leaking secrets?
    Many years ago, a rombongan from the Selayang Municipal Council, which included former foreign affairs minister Kohilan Pillay, went on a lawatan sambil belajar to Mauritius and South Africe to inspect toilets. Two days after they flew, I had the entire itinerary and even details of where they stayed in both these countries. They were using ratepayers' money and hence, the issue of government secrets does not arise.
    There are scores of instances where simple information is labelled as "secret" and everyone jumps, especially when the opposition raises the ante. The obsession on secrecy, I believe, has further given honest civil servants the resolve to expose the shenanigans (if any) of their bosses.
    Should a junior civil servant be penalised if he tells the whole world that his boss went on an official trip for five days but spent four on the golf course and in shopping complexes? If a director-general chooses Brisbane as the destination for his next study tour, should the junior officer say that his only purpose is to visit his son in a boarding school there?
    These are moral and ethical issues where one's conscience comes into play. I wrote on Monday, even the prime minister has admitted that the days of government knows best are over. A change in mindsets is long overdue. The government cannot be going on a witch-hunt or swatting flies to put an end to access to information.
    When the prime minister talked about more openness, we expected more transparency, and Ali's thinking seems to be going in the opposite direction. It appears that all the government is interested in is finding the source of the leak instead of addressing the issue. There is nothing wrong in the DPM playing in a Tourism Malaysia-organised round of golf in Dubai as to all intents and purposes, it is a government function.
    Shortly after the new government was installed in Selangor, I had a visit from two assistant superintendents of police. They wanted to record a statement on my extensive writing on the issue of almost RM10 million belonging to the Wives of Selangor Assemblymen and MPs Welfare and Charity Organisation (Balkis).
    But instead of wanting evidence as to the illegal transfer, they were more interested in my source and how I came upon the documents. It was done in bad taste and yet again illustrated the government's paranoia of the truth.
    So, let us stop this inquisition and the intended subsequent persecution of the civic-minded and much maligned civil servants who honestly believe they owe a duty to their fellow citizens to safeguard the people's money.
    Stifling such conscientious and meticulous scrutiny of conduct of civil servants should not be the monopoly of enforcement agencies.
    R. Nadeswaran says openness is the biggest gift the government can give its people but maintains that anything affecting the security of the nation should remain secret. Comments:

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