Why more information is better

First published in theSun here, on 25 July 2014.

WHAT both MH370 and MH17 have shown us is that accurate and timely information being provided to the public is absolutely crucial, and this is surely a lesson that must be extended beyond moments of crisis.

The MH370 incident took the world by storm in March. And our government suffered the consequences of not having responded with immediacy as well as providing inconsistent press statements. Having learnt from the past, credit should be given to Malaysia Airlines for releasing the MH17 cargo manifest in under a week, after this second tragedy in just four months.

That said, in the recent incident, fingers have quickly pointed to Russia, followed by calls for sanctions and other punitive measures against them. The problem with this situation is that it is taking place in a region with a geo-political environment that is highly complex, has a history few of us in Southeast Asia truly understand, and again, even when information is provided can be equally inconsistent.

Information is gold because of its ability to shape people’s decisions and therefore their actions. Equally powerful is the lack of information, and dictators have in the past exercised their discretion to withhold information from citizens for personal gain. Most dangerous is false information, and the belief in it. Millions were spent on search and rescue teams in the wrong areas during MH370.

So in the face of two consecutive bizarre catastrophes that have deeply and directly impacted Malaysia, how we react is a result of the information we have access to, and the filters used by the media we are exposed to. That media shapes the way we see the world is not new. But when it has an impact on what we choose to do with our lives is when it matters.

There is of course the need for individual responsibility when dealing with multiple sources of information. An additional challenge for those providing the information is the speed with which news moves today, with social media demanding 24/7 monitoring and responding to.

The lack of accurate, timely information on a global scale renders people helpless and frustrated. But within Malaysia itself, there are multiple incidents that have gone unanswered, and yet we are a lot more forgiving (and forgetting). Numerous cases that probably should have been investigated, people charged and convicted, but that are conveniently forgotten and pushed into the shadows.

Where is the information on the number of cases that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has processed? Why did these cases not lead to convictions by the Attorney-General’s Office? Why were the MACC officers who were in charge of the late Teoh Beng Hock’s interrogation (that led to his death by a fall in 2009) cleared of misconduct, and when did this actually happen?

These are just a fraction of the questions that can be asked. In the MH370 and MH17 cases, people feel immobilised, almost paralysed, by the lack of knowledge of what is really taking place “out there”. In the same way, we often feel that sense of powerlessness when government withholds information from us. And similarly, a void in information gives rise to distrust, speculation, and the perception war is quickly lost.

Our prime minister once said that “The era of ‘government knows best’ is over”, and what a strong statement that was. It had the potential to draw dissenters in, charming them with the skill of a statesman. Several years later, we ought to honestly ask ourselves whether the administration has demonstrated as much.

The two plane crashes were truly tragic and something quite beyond the control of any of us. But managing trust in government is certainly something that can be changed. And it must start with a leadership and administration serious about promoting an open government.

Transparency is all the buzz these days, and leaders need to ask themselves why it is a popular demand – not just because it attracts international investors. It is because information empowers people, alters the way we see things, changes how we choose to act, and ultimately shapes our lives and futures. Access to easily understandable information about education policy, public procurement, or electoral boundaries that are soon to be changed – all this makes people feel like they matter, and that they belong.

This is why tools like the Freedom of Information Act are important to have. There is also an international platform, the Open Government Partnership (which has 64 participating countries today), which Malaysia ought to consider signing up to. You do not need to wait for another crisis to tell you that more information being given to the public is better than less. And now is the time to exercise such wisdom.

There is little our government can do to resolve the plane incidents, but there is a lot it can do for everything else it governs within the country itself.

Dedicated to the families and friends of the MH370 and MH17 victims, and remembering Teoh Beng Hock who died on July 16, 2009. 

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