The Oath of Secrecy

Te whetu Orongo

Truth is literally that which is without secrecy, what discloses itself without a veil.

– D Laing, Scottish psychiatrist

The difference between privacy and secrecy is this: one is used to protect, the other is used to hide. Governments are usually embarrassingly mired between these two biases often accompanied by not-so-secret scandals that rock the minds and expectations of the governed.

An American politician, Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that “secrecy is for losers… It is time to dismantle government secrecy. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness that is already upon us.” Of course, the USA is the original “bolehland” where anything and everything goes depending on fads, feuds, fashions, foibles and fraudsters.

Which brings us to eviscerate Article 43(6) of our Federal Constitution (FC) which not so secretly provides: “Before a Minister exercises the functions of his office he shall take and subscribe in the presence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong the oath of office and allegiance and the oath of secrecy set out in the Sixth Schedule.”

The word “allegiance” must necessarily refer to the supreme law of the land (FC), to the political party under whose banner the minister won his or her seat, and most importantly to the rakyat who voted them into office. It cannot, and should not mean anything else.

The Oath of Secrecy is phrased broadly: “I do solemnly swear that I will not directly or indirectly communicate or reveal to any person any matter which shall be brought under my consideration or shall become known to me as (a government directive, policy, a contract, etc.) except as may be required for the due discharge of my duties as such or as may be specially permitted by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.”

The key word here is “permitted,” and the onus is on the minister to disclose or reveal to the Article 39 FC chief executive, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, anything and everything the minister is permitted to do, or not permitted to do. The checks and balances seem to be in place under constitutional fiat.

Any oath of secrecy is fraught with sinister implications as is the norm in the conduct of public affairs. For example, a minister should reveal the worth, value and cost of a multi-million-ringgit project simply because the wealth of the nation belongs to the rakyat, and not to the oath of secrecy.

Enter the Official Secrets Act 1972 (Act 88) (OSA 1972), where the short title declares that it is “An Act to revise and consolidate the law relating to the protection of official secrets.” The entire Act encompasses anything and everything connected to national security and safety, but the phrase “official secrets” could mean anything from an act of espionage to an act of wanton kleptocracy.”

“Secrecy is the badge of fraud,” observed Sir John Chadwick, and it is a travesty to the freedom of expression and opinion without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the media regardless of frontiers, according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. But, who cares?

While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive as PKR vide-president Rafizi Ramli realised when he was sentenced to 18 months’ jail for releasing the auditor-general’s report on the 1MDB scandal declared by the BN government as protected under the OSA 1972. It seems kleptocracy can be protected under our federal laws.

The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon for a democracy should be the weapon of openness. Things that have been classified as “official secrets” in Malaysia include Air Pollution Index readings, highway and water concession agreements, and sex crime statistics.

It is most certainly true of inside information, details, particulars and data on the winners of mega-projects often linked to political persuasions, threats, promises, favours and loyalties.

Politicians should plan to meet the rakyat at monthly town-hall meetings where voters and constituents get to greet and meet and treat one another to news concerning the government’s policies that are at work for the betterment and advancement of the rakyat.

Town-hall meetings will most certainly dissuade and discourage secrecy as everything concerning government policies is in the open for discussion except for matters that genuinely require privacy and confidentiality.

The discerning rakyat must remember that secrecy, the dream of tyrants, once adopted can become a dangerous addiction.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.