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Secrets’ societies

Sunshine is the greatest disinfectant.

– Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, US Supreme Court (1916-1939)

Politicians gloat about the need for transparency, responsibility, accountability as they wield power to classify, or declassify, certain documents deemed surreptitiously secret. The media frenzy over this issue in the USA is on overdrive while most Americans forget the 1971 Pentagon Papers case wherein the US Supreme Court authorised the publishing of classified documents concerning the Vietnam war.

President John F Kennedy once remarked that “the very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.” His assassination remains a mystery well hidden in a dark secret.

The Sixth Schedule of our Federal Constitution (FC), enshrined in Article 43(6), requires an oath of secrecy to “solemnly swear (or affirm) 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 as . . . except as may be required for the due discharge of my duties or as may be specially permitted by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.” The missing comma after the words ‘my duties’ is most revealing. So, if a minister wishes to release a secret, he or she has to first obtain the Yang di-Pertuan’s permission? That does not resonate well for the royal prerogative given the vagaries of semantics, semiology and linguistics.

Article 43(6) FC is mischievously painted by a very broad brush on a huge canvas. Where does one draw a line as to what constitutes a secret? An Opposition MP could not invoke parliamentary immunities in 1980 when he revealed the purchase of the Malaysian Navy’s four fast-strike craft that resulted in his chastisement by a court of law which unsurprisingly failed to consider whether the purchase and procurement procedures, or the actual existence of the hardware, were to be shrouded in secrecy, or both.

“Everything secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity,” observed Lord Acton echoing the truism that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Secrecy associated ...


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