Call made for Freedom of Information Act in Singapore

Freelance journalist Kirsten Han and The Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu at the Select Committee hearing yesterday. Ms Han said a Freedom of Information Act here can empower people to do their own fact-checking and conduct their own analysis, wh
Freelance journalist Kirsten Han and The Online Citizen chief editor Terry Xu at the Select Committee hearing yesterday. Ms Han said a Freedom of Information Act here can empower people to do their own fact-checking and conduct their own analysis, which can strengthen public trust.PHOTO: GOV.SG

There should be a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore so that citizens can put in requests for data from the Government, freelance journalist Kirsten Han said at the Select Committee hearing on online deliberate falsehoods yesterday.

This can empower people to do their own fact-checking and conduct their own analysis, which can strengthen public trust, she said.

It can also tackle the issue of fake news and disinformation campaigns, which can thrive in an information vacuum, she said in her written submissions to the committee.

Committee member and MP Edwin Tong quizzed Ms Han on various aspects of her suggestions, from the law's efficacy in fostering trust to potential abuse by businesses and national security concerns, raising examples from several countries.

Mr Tong noted former British prime minister Tony Blair's comments in 2011 that the law, which fully went into force under his government's watch in 2005, has "hindered progress in our trusting of politicians", even though it has achieved greater transparency.

To this, Ms Han said it was not the Freedom of Information Act that undermined trust in the British government, but rather Mr Blair's government's complicity in the Iraq War.

Mr Tong then turned to Australia as an example, saying that its senior public servants called for freedom of information laws to be amended to conceal sensitive advice to ministers in 2016. He also cited a poll last year which found that the most frequent users of such a law in the United States were businesses, which may use this to seek commercial advantages.

However, Ms Han stood by her suggestion. She did not see a problem with businesses having access to such data because journalists and non-governmental groups have the same access. Such a law also does not impede the Government's ability to keep things confidential for legitimate national security reasons, and can be amended to suit Singapore's needs, she said.

Asked by Mr Tong if she has studied this issue in depth, Ms Han said that she has not, and suggested setting up a Select Committee to study how such a Freedom of Information Act can meet Singapore's needs. Mr Tong replied: "I am sure that will be considered."

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here and watch more videos.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2018, with the headline 'Call made for Freedom of Information Act in S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe