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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: http://www.parliament.gov.sg/Publications/SO-merge%20with%20SO%20notes.pdf )

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.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I understood the Minister's statement to mean that mere public curiosity does not mean the matter is of public interest. He is playing with semantics and definitions.

Anonymous said...

The above comment was by me

~ Vinod

Anonymous said...

Yes, logically correctly

Anonymous said...

Dear Sirs,

I am a student at the university of Amsterdam. At this moment I am in the end phase of my study and have started to conduct research for my thesis to complete my master in political science. In my thesis and related research I aim at analyzing blogs in Singapore that focus on Singaporean politics, including for instance political issues, political system critics etc.

Is it possible that you would cooperate with me and that you answer some questions I will send to you? The questions will be about blogging in Singapore.

Thank you very much for your help!

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Nienke van Voorthuisen
S.N.vanVoorthuisen@student.uva.nl

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