PAP Govt committed to ensuring greater access to records for research

The PAP Government typically provides declassified information to researchers. The National Archives of Singapore (NAS) also continually works together with other Government agencies to declassify records; some 780,000 documents are currently available online.

Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Mr Janil Puthucheary detailed this ongoing effort in response to questions which Opposition MPs raised during Day 2 of the 2023 Committee of Supply debates (Feb 28). 

An excerpt from Minister Puthucheary’s clarification follows.

Public archives vs classified information

There is research that contributes to knowledge and appreciation of our history and heritage to inform who we are as a nation and a society. Government records are a key part of such research.

Mr. Pritam Singh asked if the Government is prepared to release classified information that has already been extended for research purposes to all sitting Members of Parliament. This is with reference to his request to an agency where the information sought had yet to be transferred to the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) for preservation.

To be clear, the file in question is not available for public access and remains classified.

This is distinct from public archives that are public records that have been transferred to NAS and can be requested for inspection by any person for the purpose of reference or research as set out in Section 18.2 of the National Library Board Act.

For records that remain classified and are not part of the public archives, agencies may grant access to specific information for specific purposes, such as to write a book — and subject to conditions such as complying with the Official Secrets Act and submitting the information to be quoted for vetting prior to release.

In this particular instance, the agency had allowed the researcher access to relevant information from the record with the understanding that the researcher would only publish and cite specific information with the agency’s permission.

Govt will assess requests to access closed records

As a matter of policy, the Government does provide researchers access to information for legitimate research purposes. But doing so does not mean that the entire record has been declassified. Nor that it is generally available to the public.

If someone has a specific reason to access closed records, a request can be made and the request will be assessed by the Government on its merits.

If Mr. Singh would like more information on background thinking — or the rationale behind the Government policy — there are several routes you can take.

One way is to approach the relevant Ministry to provide further details and clarification.

In addition, Mr. Singh and members of this House also have the option to file a Parliamentary Question and receive a formal reply from the Government.

There is a separate process, where Ministries and agencies transfer their classified records to the NAS for long term preservation and declassification when it is in the public interest to do so. This is pertinent to the question He Ting Ru asked about making archival material more accessible. NAS has been working with Government agencies to declassify and make available more Government records.

Over 4 in 5 requests for declassification get approved

The metadata of around 780,000 records are publicly accessible on archives online, and this has been increasing over the years. In addition, since 2016, Government agencies have reviewed more than 7000 Government records that were not yet declassified. This was in response to 2130 requests by members of the public — 83 per cent of these records have been approved for access.

In total, some 68,000 file records have been declassified and made accessible to the public. In one example, the government had agreed to declassify and release documents in Dr Goh Keng Swee’s famous Albatross file.

This is a file that Dr Goh Keng Swee kept in the run-up to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. The process of declassification began some time ago. And took some time given the complexity of the material. A subset of the material was part of a public exhibition, and a larger set of declassified Albatross documents will be released in a book on Separation to be published later this year.

They will include Cabinet papers, and Dr. Goh’s notes of his conversations with Malaysian leaders. We are committed to ensuring greater access to Government records so that they can be a reference for the public to research and obtain information on Singapore.


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