Certain matters should be private


  • On The Beat
  • Sunday, 19 Dec 2010

Balance in the availability of information must be maintained.

MANY things are private and confidential. Even WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as with all journalists, believes in keeping his own sources secret and takes great pains to do so.

He is also secretive about his private life and isn’t comfortable with the bits of information that have come out about him.

In short, the man who has wrecked governments worldwide with classified material leaks, also believes in the importance of secrecy.

In an oxymoron way, he is defending secrecy in order to attack it, as Time wrote recently.

But for Assange, the rule doesn’t apply to government and diplomacy.

All transactions between nations and leaders should be transparent.

The debate has continued over whether the world would become a safer place with these leaks or even whether the strain in relations between countries would benefit from the bits of diplomatic gossip.

Certain things, as we are all aware, are sometimes best not said.

To be more precise, what you do not know does not hurt you and that probably includes what your neighbours say about you behind your back.

Journalists and diplomats have some things in common.

They are required to pick up information, file reports and generally update their bosses on current developments, often political in nature.

Depending on who you talk to, the assessment can sometimes be accurate, wrong or just plain useless.

Certainly, diplomats and newsmen talk to each other a lot.

So, we should not be surprised if Singapore talked about Malaysian politicians including the Prime Minister’s political standing, the Altantuya case, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, sodomy and sexual preferences.

If we all talk about these, why shouldn’t diplomats?

If Singaporean diplomats think our politicians are incompetent, there may be some truth.

Some politicians are truly incompetent.

In fact, some are outright clowns, just look at the antics of some lawmakers in Parliament.

On the other hand, we have also accused Singaporean politicians of being snobbish, cold, selfish and too much of a technocrat.

Even Singaporeans think so, according to reports.

I, too, have said many times that while some Singaporean lawmakers may be academically impressive, they lack “the connect” with the grassroots and would probably not even win an internal party polls at the branch level in Malaysia.

The difference between us and Singaporeans is that we Malaysians are so politically passionate that we contest in everything, including Parent-Teacher Associations.

In Singapore, PAP leaders have to go down on their knees to persuade people to take up politics.

Our diplomats must have told nasty things about Singapore to US officials.

So, what happens when WikiLeaks releases cables of what we said about them?

If we have been saying only nice things about Singapore to the United States, I think something is seriously wrong with our guys. In fact, they should be sacked.

Diplomats, like journalists, should be sniffing for top quality information that would help give us a headstart, whether for defence, trade or political reasons.

A lot of these are obtained at cocktails, social functions and dinners.

My fear is that many of our young diplomats are no longer as skilful as their predecessors, who had social skills.

I am told many shun away from social events and their lack of proficiency in English, resulting in a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, hasn’t helped.

We cannot hope wrong information would not be filed because of language concerns.

I know of foreign correspondents who arrive in Malaysia with impressions founded on the views of taxi drivers, people they meet at Bangsar and certain politicians, lawyers and activists recommended by their fellow journalists.

There is also a certain degree of hypocrisy when it comes to matters pertaining to secrecy.

Newsmakers, including politicians and movie stars, thrive on publicity, but when it involves negative news, they complain about intrusion of privacy.

Suddenly, the journalists that they cultivate turn enemies because that’s not what they bargained for.

Public figures really have no private lives because that’s the cost of high-living.

We have political parties that purportedly uphold transparency, press freedom and the right to information but shut the door to the media during their annual general meetings.

Only official information, which will enhance the image of the party, is released.

That’s simply because these political parties also believe that certain matters have to be private and confidential.

It is the same with other organisations and it would be naive if we think otherwise, citing conscience and principles.

When lives and properties are affected, then we have more reasons to keep the lid.

Whether they are for strategic or tactical reasons, we all keep some secrets in our daily engagements, often on a need-to-know basis.

Often, these are translated into long-term benefits.

But overclassification of documents is not good and the abuse of the Official Secrets Act, to stop access to information, is not acceptable either.

There has to be a balance in the availability of information, especially the principle on the right to know which is fundamentally important in a true democracy.

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