Hiding in plain sight


[photo from https://rangerrick.org/ranger_rick_jr/hiding-in-plain-sight/]

In the Inconvenient Questions interview done by Viswa Sadasivan (recorded 3rd July 2020, and released 5th July 2020, i.e., during the campaign period), I mention that there are lots of information that we, as citizens, need to have access to so that we can understand better and productively contribute for the future good of Singapore. But they are kept just out of reach – hiding in plain sight.

One of those that are hidden in plain sight is the one below:

govt-financial-statement-cover

A search of the agd.gov.sg does not produce anything.

Yet, this document does exist. It is available only as a hardcopy and is, apparently, given to each MP.  The Accountant-General also makes at least one copy available to the National Library, which has it in the Reference Section.

I did get to see the document – which is published annually – in the reference section in September last year. It cannot be checked out and if you want to make copies of it at the photocopy station, the Library only allows up to 10% because of “copyright”.

This is a document that details the financial status of the government – it is about public funds that comprises taxes, expenditures etc. This document is hidden in plain sight behind an “copyright” suggests to me that there is deliberate throwing of glass in the path for anyone trying to understand the finances of the Singapore government.

Many issues here. Let me mention two.

First, why would this information not be available in a machine readable format say on data.gov.sg? Even a PDF would be acceptable – the data can be extracted out to do analysis.

Second, why is there a copyright on it? This is public information and ideally it should be in the public domain, failing which, put it out on a  Creative Commons Share Alike, No Derivative copyright. This is 2020 and for all the chest beating about being a Smart Nation, the actions don’t show it.

I am also finding out that lots of other financial reports, previously available on CPF‘s site are either not viewable or have to be requested for individually. I would like to assume that it is all above board, but the only way is by verifying for myself.

I did also try to get historical CPF Board Accounts statements. Searching the National Archives (www.nas.gov.sg) which leads me to this:

Screenshot from 2020-07-19 21-32-40

These are historical documents and they need written permission and 10-12 weeks to process. Would this not be best be digitized and placed online? What’s with the “written permission” to look at historical data? Could something be hidden somewhere?

Getting back to the Government Financial Statements report. I wrote in to the AGD in December last year and here’s the email thread (with appropriate removal of AGD email IDs):

Date: 17 December 2019

To: AGD_QSM@agd.gov.sg

Subject: Financial Statements document

Hi. I am looking for the soft copy (an RSS feed or even a data.gov.sg link) to the Financial Statements document that is put out by the AGD annually. Appreciate a reply.

Thanks.

Harish

I got a reply two days later:

From: [AGD person]

Date: 19 December 2019

Dear Mr Harish

You are very welcome.  The annual Budget statements published by the Ministry of Finance provides revenue and expenditure data of the Government over a longer time period (i.e. three financial years) as compared to the financial statements prepared by AGD.  In addition, the Budget statements also contain useful qualitative information such as an overview of each Ministry’s budget performance, with supporting explanations for variations, each Ministry’s key performance indicators and establishment list, as well as descriptions for the individual programmes under each Ministry.

Thank you.

Best regards

[Name and designation removed]

I replied immediately:

[Name removed] –

Thank you for replying.

> You are very welcome.  The annual Budget statements published by the Ministry of Finance provides revenue and expenditure data of the Government over a longer time period (i.e. three financial years) as compared to the financial statements prepared by AGD.  In addition, the Budget statements also contain useful qualitative information such as an overview of each Ministry’s budget performance, with supporting explanations for variations, each Ministry’s key performance indicators and establishment list, as well as descriptions for the individual programmes under each Ministry.

That is helpful, thanks.

I did a check with the National Library and found that they do indeed have a copy of the Government Financial Statement going all the back to 1955 but only available in the library’s reference section. It is somewhat baffling to me as to why such an important document is only available in the reference section and not available for general use – something that I have asked the library about. I am hoping that
they’ll reply soon.

In the meantime, is there any possibility that I can get a copy of the same document from AGD?

Thanks.

Harish

It has been 7 months now, and there are no replies. I don’t expect one.

I did contact the company that printed the hardcopies and they told me that they have none for purchase and that I should ask the AGD for copies.

So, while I would like to think that the system we have is above board and that there is nothing that is being kept away from citizens, I cannot but sense that there is something that is not quite what it seems.

I am reminded of the reply given to President Ong Teng Cheong that it will take “52 man years” to get information about what our national assets are. Safeguarding the reserves is why we have an elected president. How would the EP safeguard if the EP has no idea what the reserves are?

So, to reiterate, it seems that even though we have an elected presidency whose primary task is to ensure that the reserves are safeguarded, there is currently no way to know how much there is. And despite that, the current (s)elected president has granted permission to draw down almost S$100 billion [CORRECTION: Apparently it is S$52 billion and the rest from a “loan”] as part of the need to manage the economy being cratered by COVID-19. I’ve no issue in the amount drawn down to manage the collapse, but the hiding of the data is not acceptable at all.

Transparency and accountability are paramount to building trust. The General Elections of 2020 have shown that trust in the majority party has eroded significantly. Singaporeans deserve an answer, an answer that is not handwaving and not brushed off by “what is the point of the question” (at 1:07) said with a condescending & smug smile.

If Parliamentarians can’t get answers in Parliament, where should it be gotten from? The cockiness of the reply is shocking. Really disappointingly that he got re-elected into parliament but glad that it was only about 63% – yeah, my team and I played a part to reduce it.

I am glad that the Progress Singapore Party and the Worker’s Party will be in the new Parliament.

Here are SEVEN actions I will want to see happen in the next 2-3 years:

a) Freedom of Information Act – it is not enough to have data.gov.sg, but we should be able to get to anything that the government has. Here’s an example from the UK.

b) A Digital Bill of Rights – this will be a consolidation of all of the rights we have as citizens and added to it all of the rights that we need to live in a digitalized world. This Bill should consider the possibility of “right to be forgotten“, “right to know where my data is stored” and so on. Lots of work to do to craft the DBOR, but it is important work that will define Singapore for the future.

c) Removal of POFMA – this serves no purpose other than for the ruling party to continue to supress free speech and abuse their power. This was clearly evident in the just concluded General Elections.

d) Repeal of 377A – this is an archaic, Victorian-era law introduced by the then British colonisers of Singapore. Asian civilisations and cultures never had issues with homosexuality and since the Singapore government has said that even though the law is on the books, they will not enforce it, why then keep it?

e) Either defaulting to Public Domain (CC0) or Creative Commons licensing of all government documents. All of the information collected (like the maps of Singapore done by the Singapore Land Authority shown on the ELD website) are paid by tax dollars. These should be automatically be on either a public domain or CC license. Anything created by the expenditure of public monies have to be put out, by default, on a public domain/CC license and only by exception items related to defense and security.

f) Automatic release of all government documents after 30 years. We need to have some element of historical base-lining of government policies and the way decisions were made. By releasing all documents 30 years or older on 1st January of every year, we have an opportunity to gain significant insights on many aspects of the functioning of government so that we, as a society, are better informed to act for the future.

g) Removal of the PAP logo in the PCF kindergartens. The use of the PAP logo in the PCF kindergartens is a subtle form of brainwashing of young minds. This has to be removed immediately.

There are many more issues to be brought up such as breaking the link between the People’s Association and the ruling party, proper election of the Secretary General of the National Trades Union Congress (instead of it be airdropped by the ruling party), just to name two.

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