Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Public Interest - Not a sufficient reason to disclose information

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam: “People do want to know, there is curiosity, it is a matter of public interest. That is not sufficient reason to disclose information. It is not sufficient that there be curiosity and interest that you want to disclose information.”

One of the functions of Parliament is to call Ministers to account. With regard to individual Ministers the expectation is that PArliament is able to get information from them on matters that affect the public. As a representation of Ministerial accountability, Parliament is empowered under Standing Order No.19 to put questions to Ministers pertaining to 'affairs within their official functions'.

Any question about Temasek put to Mr Tharman would be within the ambit of his official functions as a Finance Minister. By Convention he is obliged to answer those questions unless the question is itself within the ambit of excluded matters listed out at Standing ORder No.21. (The Parliamentary Standing Orders are available at this link: )

The possible legitimate reasons that he might state for refusing to answer question could be that disclosure might harm national security or that official secrets might be compromised. But, judging from the report in the Straits Times, the Finance Minister appears to offer no justification for refusing to answer the questions. He appears to state that public interest is not a sufficient reason for disclosure. Based on the concept of Ministerial REsponsibility and based on Parliament's crucial role in ensuring that accountability, I would have thought that public interest is the most potent reason for disclosing information that is otherwise not protected as a state secret or information that is capable of compromising national security.

If Public Interest is not a sufficient reason for answering a question in Parliament, then Parliament can be disbanded. Parliament's scrutiny function would be redundant. Ministers can answer every question by saying: "There is a public interest in this issue. But, that is not a good reason for providing you with an answer." MPs don't have to provide a good reason for asking a question apart from the fact that it is a matter of interest to their constituents. It is a mockery of the PArliamentary system to say otherwise. To the Finance Minister, I would like to ask this: What does it mean sir when we say in our pledge: 'to build a democratic society'? Doesn't a democratic society involve the people having a right to know how governance is carried out? In a representative form of government such as ours, do PArliamentarians not have a right to ask a Minister to answer questions of public interest? Doesn't the failure to answer a question without providing any specific exceptional grounds (such as national security) undermine the workings of Parliamentary democracy? Where does that place our pledge so soon after that artificially concocted universal pledge moment?

Sample Q & A in Parliament:
MP: How much was collected from ERP gantries in 2008?
Minister: This is a public interest issue. But, that is not a sufficient reason for answering your question.

MP: What is the current birthrate in Singapore?
Minister: This is a public interest issue. But, that is not a sufficient reason for answering your question.

MP: What is the government doing to assist the elderly living on their own without the support of their children?
Minister: This is a public interest issue. But, that is not a sufficient reason for answering your question.

It can go on and on and on.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

8:22 - The Hypocritical Oath

8.22pm, 9th August 2009 – A moment of no real significance for our nation. But, as trumpeted by the mainstream media, it was ‘the universal pledge moment’. A moment of ‘significance’ manufactured out of thin air. An insignificant point in time artificially grafted onto the nation’s collective consciousness.

10am – That would have been my preferred time. 10am – The moment that the independence of Singapore was proclaimed on the steps of the City Hall.

Wouldn’t that be more significant? Wouldn’t we at least have a greater historical sense of what we were doing when we took the pledge? Wouldn’t it be emotionally significant to those old enough to recall where they were and how they felt at the precise moment of independence?

As with the general plasticity of many things in Singapore, the 8.22pm moment was just another plastic moment. Well, it doesn’t really matter in the end what time the pledge was taken. The larger question that we should ask is how many of those that took the pledge at that appointed time meant what they said?

If you watched the parade on tv, you would have seen a short ‘preamble’ appear on the screen……. ‘say what you mean. Mean what you say.’ I really hope that the citizens of Singapore taking the pledge on that day said what they meant and meant what they said.

My challenge to the pledge takers is this. Ponder very carefully on what you pledged. You pledged…(amongst other things)....

…. to build a democratic society based on justice and equality….

How have you helped to build such a society? Do we have such a society? What can we do to live up to our pledge?

What does it mean to say that a society is democratic? Is democracy defined by the conduct of elections? If the electoral process does not involve a level playing field, does it warrant being termed as being reflective of democracy? If the ballot is cast without an informed choice, is that democratic? Is it democratic to group constituencies together thereby shielding potentially weak candidates from electoral fire? Or even to use such a system to allow candidates that may have otherwise lost their seats to nevertheless become representatives of constituencies where they do not enjoy majority support? Is that democratic?

What is the meaning of justice? What do we mean by equality? Do we have due process in all instances? Or can we be arbitrarily classified as a security threat and incarcerated indefinitely? Do we enjoy equal treatment or does political persuasion play a part in decision making by the authorities?

These are questions that we have to ask ourselves.
If you believe that we do have a democratic society based on justice and equality, good for you. Blessed are the ignorant.
If you do not believe that we have a democratic society based on justice and equality, then you have to consider what is the peaceful and constructive way to accomplish such a society. You have to do this in order to live up to the pledge.
However, if you do not believe that we have a democratic society based on justice and equality and do not think that you need to even ponder about how such a society can be accomplished, but nevertheless gleefully took the pledge, you are a hypocrite!

Friday, August 07, 2009

TAMIFLU, Pharmaceutical companies and their profits

Big Pharma is at it again. I have long been conerned by their attempts at restricting access to cheaper alternative drugs. Originally, the Trade Related Intellectual Property Agreement provided the pharmaceutical companies with a great deal of bite in the global market through enhanced patent protection. However, thanks to a third world led fight for an exception in the TRIPS Agreement, patented drugs need not be shoved down the throats of needy patients in countries where they can't afford the drugs. They can obtain cheaper alternatives. This exception applies when there is a public health emergency.

Therefore, given H1N1's status as a pandemic, the public health emergency exception should now apply to TAMIFLU. But, would patients be able to get their hands on cheaper alternatives? Seems like the World Health Organisation is serving Big Pharma's interest right now.

The following article from The Independent is instructive:

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Celebrating National Day

He peered into the bin exploring the day’s possibilities.

At 71, Mr Lim is active enough to support himself. After all, life is a constant barter trade of drink cans for his daily bread. Like all good businessmen, he has learned the art of cost-cutting: home is now a choice of 4 void decks and the wet market thankfully offers a 20cents per entry toilet.

Staring at him from the bin was a kickapoo can; not as common as Coke or Pepsi these days. He used to enjoy it almost every day at the shipyard.

Those days are still fresh in his eyes. He watched the port speed its way to become the busiest of them all. His best friend Ramu used to joke, “we carry the whole of Singapore on our shoulders”. Ramu was a proud man. Diabetes took away one of his legs and he used to sell lottery tickets at waterloo street until two years ago. Lim heard that nobody claimed Ramu’s body. ‘What happens to unclaimed corpses at the mortuary’, he wondered.

His prolonged gaze at the kickapoo can was broken by an agitated female voice: “Seow ah!’
‘Yes, mad!’ he thought to himself.