Brave New World (The Star)
15 July 2010
Only with accurate information being freely available can the rakyat play a meaningful role in ensuring government decisions will have a positive effect on their lives.
THE Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) tabled in the Selangor assembly this week is the first major legislative action taken by the Pakatan Rakyat state government, and it is an important one.
It is, in my opinion, the first time they have taken a substantive step — by which I mean more than mere rhetoric — to show an ideological divide between themselves and Barisan Nasional.
The FOI, if it is passed, is a law that will enhance and strengthen one of the people’s fundamental liberties; specifically Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which is about the freedom of expression.
The right to information is an integral part of the right to expression because it is near impossible to voice your views with any authority if information is denied to you.
If the FOI lives up to its promise and works on the philosophy that information as a matter of course will be released, then it should make a real difference to the rights of the residents of Selangor.
Their participation in governance will then become much more meaningful.
And this is the second reason why this bill is so important. To achieve good governance, two of the key ingredients are accountability on the part of authority and meaningful participation by the citizens. In one swoop the FOI can enhance both.
When information is available freely, it is harder to hide wrong-doings and corruption, too, becomes more difficult to practice.
Human beings are flawed and because of our flaws we shall always be vulnerable to temptation. It is hard to change people’s character but what one can do is to ensure that the system within which they operate does not give them free reign to indulge in the baser parts of that character.
A system which is transparent and promotes accountability does just that.
With regard to participation, citizens will need the necessary data to take part meaningfully in any discussion regarding actions that will affect their lives.
Sometimes this information will be used in an ad hoc manner, for example in formulating a criticism over forestry policy.
Other times it can be used as part of an established system of public participation, for example through the provisions in the Town and Country Planning Act allowing for the public to give their viewpoints to the planning authority.
There are basically two avenues through which this can be done. The first is if there is a development project in your immediate neighbourhood; the second is when the entire town or district is given the opportunity to comment on the Draft Structure Plan for their area.
Both avenues will be made more effective if the people have access to information.
I certainly hope this law will become reality although I realise it may take some time to be passed and, more importantly, to be operational.
In the meantime, there are other things that the Selangor government can do to make information more freely available.
To my understanding, during the consultation period for draft structure plans, local authorities actually note down and consider public opinion. If this is true, then it is very good practice indeed.
However, it will only be truly meaningful if the people are in the know about this practice.
In other words, this process must be made known to the general populace so that they can see whether their opinions are taken into consideration.
Another thing that the Selangor government can do is to introduce a more people-friendly modus operandi with regard to consultation processes.
If there is going to be a large-scale consultation process involving the planning authority, then tell us via our cukai pintu letters.
After all, you are going to post us those letters asking for our money anyway.
It is true that the FOI is limited to Selangor and the activities which are within the jurisdiction of the state government.
Be that as it may, that still covers a lot of issues concerning the people living in this state. The FOI is welcome indeed and I hope it is passed.
This combined with better practices in the day-to-day government operations will go a long way in showing that Pakatan means business when they say they are concerned about more rights, more democracy and good governance in this country.