By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, first published in The Star on 22 February 2016.
The Attorney-General aims to ensure government efficiency by protecting information that has not been fully decided upon, but regaining public trust must be his top priority.
THE Open Government Partnership (OGP) is an initiative that was formally launched in 2011 by eight founding countries including Indonesia, the Philippines, Britain and the United States.
On its website, the OGP is described as “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”
The OGP now has 69 participating countries. To become a member, a country must announce their support of the Open Government Declaration and devise an action plan on how they will improve transparency and accountability.
We are persuading the Malaysian government to sign up for the OGP. To qualify as a member, we need to score at least 75% in the OGP eligibility scoring system. We are almost there, with a 2014 score of just over 62%.
Being a member of the OGP indicates a government’s commitment to good governance. No wonder then that the level of interest in the OGP is increasing. More countries are looking into the framework.
At the bi-annual OGP Summit, the number of participants has always been very healthy. We took part in the last two OGP Summits in Bali and Mexico City.
The level of enthusiasm from governments, civil society and even from some parts of the private sector was visible at these Summits. And I am really pleased that there were also other organisations from Malaysia who attended the Summit.
The hurdle that is blocking our entry is in the areas of asset disclosure by public officials and public access to information. But the level of interest is increasing, both globally and in Malaysia, as more and more people see the value of government openness.
It was unfortunate that while society and the world as a whole are showing greater interest in openness, our Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali announced that he wanted to strengthen the Official Secrets Act (OSA).
He was reported to want an increase in the punishment for those who leak Government secrets to life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane. He was also reported to have said that journalists who protect their sources may be charged.
There was an immediate uproar from civil society. Many are unhappy with Apandi’s desire. Even former Attorney-General Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman was reported to have expressed unease with Apandi’s statement. Abu Talib reminded Apandi that the world is moving towards more transparency, not secrecy.
Abu Talib is right. The world is indeed moving towards greater transparency. Apandi’s statement made it sound like he is stuck in the Soviet era.
But we should be fair to Apandi. Despite the public impression created by his statement, he actually does have a point.
In order to operate effectively, all organisations, including the Government need to have secrets protected. If information is released when it is not yet fully decided upon, all sorts of misunderstandings can be created.
But the desire for efficiency must be balanced with modern day demands for transparency. When high-ranking officials like Apandi speak about enhancing secrecy without promising improvements in transparency, it can only be expected that many people would be cynical about the motives.
On top of that, Apandi should remember that he faces an uphill battle when it comes to trust. Many people still have questions about the removal of his predecessor.
I say this with great sadness. It is depressing that we have come to a situation where it does not matter if Apandi is the most honest and the most professional Attorney-General in history.
There are people out there who just simply do not trust him. This makes it an uphill battle for him to command respect from all segments of the public.
Going back to his statement on the OSA, even if he said it with the purest of intentions, it is not easy for him to convince everyone that he is behaving professionally. He just simply does not command full public trust yet. As a result, no one even noticed that his desire to ensure Government efficiency is a laudable one.
With all due respect, my suggestion to Apandi is that he should concentrate on earning public trust first. He should avoid making statements that would erode trust because it would not help him in performing his duties. Earning trust must be his top priority.
Apandi should take advice on how to present a progressive image so that he can bring back the credibility of the office that he now holds. Only then would he be able to delve into controversial issues without creating more damage to the institution.