Archaic, anachronistic and even antediluvian to have Official Secrets Act in age of information – OSA should be repealed and replaced by Freedom of Information Act

Some 38 years ago, on October 16, 1979, I moved a motion on behalf of DAP in Parliament to introduce a private member’s bill intituled “Freedom of Information Act” to ensure openness of government and to prevent the law on government information from protecting inefficiency, maladministration or even malpractices and corruption.

I moved the motion in the conviction that if Malaysia was to have a meaningful parliamentary democracy, we must create a more open government, which respects and upholds the fundamental right to know of the citizens in all matters affecting the country and the people.

I made it clear that the DAP accepted that there were some legitimate secrets which needs to be protected by criminal penalties, e.g. matters involving national security, defence, maintenance of law and order, personal information, etc.

My answer therefore to the subject of the forum tonight is quite obvious.

In 1978, I was prosecuted and convicted on five charges for violating the Official Secrets Act 1972 for exposing excessive expenditure involved in the purchase of four Swedish-made SPIC A-M fast-strike craft for RM166 million, and which was eventually reduced to RM157 million – a saving of RM9 million.

Although there was no gratitude from the Executive for saving the country RM9 million, and wanted me jailed and disqualified as a Member of Parliament for my exposes, which were made for the good of the country, there was an independent Judiciary and the Federal Court reduced the sentences on the five convicted charges to each below the disqualifying fine of RM2,000.

My case resulted in the amendment to the Official Secrets Act in 1986 which provided for the draconian mandatory minimum one-year jail sentence for conviction for any offence under the Act.

In my speech on the OSA Amendment Bill in Parliament on Dec. 5, 1986, I said that the OSA Amendment Bill violated the fundamental guarantee of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in Article 10 of the Constitution.

It also undermined the doctrine of separation of powers among the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary, a death knell for a free press and an open, responsible and accountable government.

We are in the age of information, which means the right to information must be the order of the day and not an exception.

In the present context, an Official Secrets Act, which provides a blanket ban on all government information on pain of criminal penalties unless officially declassified, is archaic, anachronistic and even antediluvian, and must give way to a Freedom of Information Act.

But such enactment of a Freedom of Information Act which enshrines the right to information of Malaysians is only possible if there is a change of Federal government from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Harapan in the forthcoming 14th General Elections.

Such a Freedom of Information legislation is only conceivable under a Pakatan Harapan Government, which is committed to a law reform agenda to democratize laws and institutions in the country.

In two weeks’ time we celebrate the 60th National Day anniversary, and it will be most fitting and appropriate if the NGOs and the civil society, such as the Malaysian Bar and C4, initiate a national conversation on the fundamental rights and guarantees enshrined in Merdeka Constitution 1957 and the Malaysia Agreement 1963 – particularly whether we have remained loyal, true and faithful to the bedrock principles of our nation-building.

Lim Kit Siang DAP Parliamentary Leader & MP for Gelang Patah