Students Advocate For Introduction Of Singapore’s Own Freedom Of Information Bill

A group of Singaporean students are advocating for the introduction of a Freedom of Information Bill (FOIB) to allow better access to public information and data in Singapore “in light of contemporary advances in falsehood propagation, and an ever-growing need for evidenced-based policy research”.

The Freedom of Information Singapore (FOISG) Working Group Committee has submitted a policy proposal for the bill to the Minister for Communication and Information S Iswaran, Senior Ministers of State, Ministry of Communications and Information & Ministry, Mr Janil Puthucheary, Ms Sim Ann and Ms Alamelu Subramaniam, senior director in MCI, on 1 February at 12pm.

So far, no reply has been given by the Ministry.

Mr Ariffin Sha, the Chairman of FOISG said that the enactment of a FOI will serve two purposes.

Firstly, it serves as a potent antidote against the spread of fake news. By allowing for the free flow and public access of information, fake news will be easily defeated without the need to employ any mechanisms of the state. Facts, not the force of the law, is the most effective weapon in the fight against fake news.

Secondly, an FOIA will help to level the playing field by solving the information assymetry that currently exists in policy discussions. Very often, academics, politicians and civil society actors find themselves handicapped and run the risk of perpetuating fake news when they discuss and debate public policy. With information being made available and legislation that mandates the Government to declassify documents after stipulated periods of time, we can ensure that there will be more informed debate that will lead to better ideas for all Singaporeans.

Other members of the FOISG include Mr Nabil Khairul Anwar (NTU), Mr Ryan Lee (NTU), Ms Carissa Cheow (LKYSPP), Mr Gabriel Tan (Durham) and Mr Kenneth Lin (Massey).

In a statement, FOISG noted that access to public information and data is currently limited to data on public websites like data.gov.sg and singgstat.gov.sg. However, public agencies use their own discretion for deciding what data is made available on these sites and what isn’t.

One example FOISG highlighted is that the National Archives only makes available about 8% of the 2 million public government record that it has.

As such, the working group proposed the FOIB as a means to address the “information symmetry by reversing the burden of proof concerning public information”. Currently, citizens who request access to public information are required to justify their request. What the bill does is to flip that, meaning public agencies will have to justify their inability to comply with those requests instead.

“Essentially, public information is treated as public unless otherwise necessary (such as in the case of personal data),” said the statement.

FOISG expects their proposed bill to benefit researchers and academia by providing them access to rich and full datasets, statistics, and archives which would allow them to carry out more robust and evidence-based policy research.

Another benefit expected is the decreased potency of falsehoods and misinformation as citizens are better empowered to directly access the facts themselves, “thereby collapsing the information vacuum in which fake news thrives”, said the working group.

Finally, the FOISG believes that this freedom of information will create a space for better governance and transparency to develop as having more publicly available data allows for people to better hold the government accountable for its actions.

“Accordingly, such accountability will also help build trust in public agencies,” they added.

Policies proposed in the FOIB

The proposal is aimed at establishing the right of citizens to request information from public agencies and establishing requirements for public bodies to comply with those request.

It is also stressed that the bill would not mean that public bodies are obliged to process each and every request for information, retaining its discretion on which requests to follow up with and which to reject.

However, the rejection will have to be justified and the requestor will be able to file an appeal within reasonable grounds.

The proposal also outlines four instances where a public agency may reject a request for information.

  1. If the information requested is that of personal data for which permission has not been granted for the disclosure of the data to the public.
  2. If the information is of a sensitive nature which could risk compromising national security of foreign relations if disclosed and therefore has been given a classification higher than ‘unclassified’, which would be the default of all public information.
  3. If the information is deemed ‘frivolous’ or ‘vexatious’.
  4. If the information does not exist and/or is not in the possession of the public body that received the request.

The proposal asserts that if the information requested does not fall into any of those categories, then the public body may decide for itself how long it would need to furnish the information to the requestor and the public.

This discretion is granted based on the complexity of the requests, such as parameters considered, time period of records, and scope of records. FOISG expects that less complex requests would have a shorter response time compared to more complex requests.

It said, “the public body’s estimation of duration can help to calibrate the expectations of the requestor on when they can expect to receive a response on the information.”

The policy proposal also detailed the need for provisions to “specifically deter requests that fall into one of the above categories without deterring requests that do not fall into those categories”.

It suggests that an administrative fee be imposed on requests and pegged at a level that is “accessible but increases in deterrent effect” as the number of requests rises.

As for the procedure to submit requests, FOISG suggest that it be defined to make clear that each submission includes a request for a singular piece of information. This can be worked into the design of the submission platform to ensure compliance to the required format, said the group.

FOISG have also launched a website where people can provide feedback on the bill and read more about their proposals which can be accessed here.

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