Asli: Time to review OSA
Jacqueline Ann Surin and S. Tamarai, The Sun
PETALING JAYA (Feb 5, 2007): It is time for the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to be reviewed since it is “now being used for purposes that have little or nothing to do with the safety or interests of our country”, Asli’s Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) said.
Asli is the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.
Expressing disappointment with the government’s use of the OSA to classify its agreements with toll concessionaires as secret, CPPS senior research analyst Tricia Yeoh said the Act, in its present form, was a carry over of a restrictive piece of colonial legislation based on the British OSA of 1911.
It was initially enacted to prevent the flow of information to foreign agents that might threaten national security but was now not being used for this purpose, Yeoh noted in a press statement today.
“Not only do toll concession agreements between the government and private companies have little or no connection with national security but it can be said that such information is important for public knowledge as it relates directly to daily economic needs.
“In fact, making such information widely available to the public would better serve the interests of our citizenry and country, and leads to no security implications whatsoever,” she said.
Yeoh stressed that regularly invoking the OSA leads to a “public perception of a government that is unwilling to stand by its call for accountability, transparency and integrity.”
Four Opposition politicians were questioned by the police under the OSA today, after they disclosed in a press conference last month the agreement between the government and Lingkaran Trans Kota Sdn Bhd, which operates the Lebuhraya Damansara-Puchong (LDP).
The four are Parti Keadilan Rakyat treasurer-general Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim and information chief Tian Chua, DAP non-governmental organisation bureau chief Ronnie Liu and PAS treasurer Dr Hatta Ramli.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said it was studying the Financial Procedure Act to look at how the government can handle its exposure to “contingent liability” — which refers to liability that may or may not occur but for which provision is made in the company’s account.
Its chairman Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad said some deals may expose the government to financial obligations that it had not budgeted for, and there was a need to see how the Act addressed this.
For example, he said, if a toll concession agreement exposes the government to contingent liability, then we have to see how the government can handle this.
Shahrir said this when asked to comment on the toll and water concession agreements signed between the government and private companies, which require the former to compensate the concessionaires if they are not allowed to raise rates according to the terms in the agreements.
He, however, did not want to comment on the classification of these documents as official secrets.
Other organisations have questioned the move to investigate the four under the OSA.
Bar Council chairman Yeo Yang Poh said:
There is no justifiable reason for agreements on public infrastructure to be under the OSA. Just as a taxpayer has the right to know how tax monies are utilised, a toll-payer has the right to know how tolls are from time to time imposed or increased under an agreement that governs it.
There must be strong and cogent reasons, and a definite link to security issues, before any document may be classified as an official secret.
It is not too late for the government to reconsider the matter. The agreement should be made public. Let the truth be known. If all is well with the agreement, the public will understand and support it.
If errors were made and some parts of the agreement are not truly in the public’s interest, the errors should nevertheless be disclosed, and remedial action should be taken as far as possible.
Transparency International-Malaysia (TI-M) president Tan Sri Dr. Ramon V. Navaratnam said:
We need to understand the message instead of prosecute the messenger. The classification of toll concession agreements as official secrets seems to go counter to principles of transparency, accountability and good governance.
Whistle blowers who highlight weaknesses and abuses in public policy and government dealing should be protected instead of being investigated and possibly prosecuted.
It is time for government to take heed of critique and constructively build on the strengths and learn from the weaknesses to build a progressive future for tomorrow.