No country will open its national archives completely for researchers and the public because of national security, defence and diplomatic concerns, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim told Parliament yesterday.
These concerns are also taken into account every time the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) evaluates a request for archival material, he said. But he added that it is the Government's goal to release documents as much as possible, and for those that are non-sensitive, "we will release them online".
He was replying to Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC), who had asked whether documents in the archives can be made more accessible. Dr Yaacob noted that many non-sensitive documents, from maps to oral history recordings, are easily available, with archival material tapped for more than 80 public service broadcast programmes, and more than 100 exhibitions and 120 books last year. NAS received about 60 requests last year to view old government files. In most cases, it agreed, he said.
Government records are deemed part of the public archives after 25 years. NAS is the custodian of such public records. Requests for archival material are usually made by researchers for projects like writing books, Dr Yaacob said, citing historian Loh Kah Seng's 2013 book on the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961, and last year's biography of Tan Siak Kew, who founded the then-Nanyang University in 1956.
Mr Low suggested the Government introduce an information declassification system that would automatically declassify documents marked "restricted" or "confidential" after 25 years, with material marked "secret" still having to be requested for and needing the approval of the relevant minister.
Dr Yaacob said archives across the world, including the United States, are governed by national security and defence concerns. Even if there was a freedom of information Act, "let us not pretend... everything can be released, because there are concerns which every nation has to preserve", he said.
This article was first published on March 11, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.