Six MPs have submitted questions for Monday’s Parliament sitting regarding the implementation of the Do Not Call registry. Unfortunately, none of the questions directly address the fact that the government changed the regulations at the last minute without any public consultation. To recap, the government announced in 2011 that it would finally be introducing Data Protection legislation, some 22 years after the government first created a committee to study the issue. A Do Not Call (DNC) registry was to be included in the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) and three rounds of public consultation were held before the Act was passed by parliament in 2012. The DNC registry opened for registration on 2 Dec 2013, but one week before the DNC rules were due to come into effect on 2 Jan 2014, the government announced an exemption that would allow businesses to SMS and fax existing customers. Telemarketers cheered but individuals were shocked and dismayed by the sudden weakening of a long-anticipated law that Singaporeans had hoped would protect them from junk calls and messages.
We can argue over whether the exemption is in fact “pragmatic” and “reasonable” or similar to other country’s rules, but the fact is that the government changed the rules at the last minute, without warning and without any public consultation, in stark contrast to the far more open and transparent manner in which the PDPA and DNC rules were originally drafted. Three rounds of public consultation were held, and unless the commenter requested otherwise, all comments were published on the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), now Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), website. It was very much the open, transparent, consultative approach to policy making associated with the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) and which Singaporeans hoped to see more of.
Yet once the rubber hit the road, the government fell back to its old, familiar method of formulating and implementing public policy. The government decided what was best for us behind closed doors and that was that. In other words, it’s the Population White Paper all over again. Just as the government views us as economic digits in calculating its target population for Singapore, the PDPC refers to us as “consumers” rather than as “individuals”. But of course, to be “consumers”, we have to consume and companies have to have a way to sell to us. The PDPC’s repeated claims that the exemption was made in the interests of consumers is at best paternalistic and at worst an attempt to turn black into white, just as they initially claimed that businesses never raised the issue of existing customers until after the close of public consultations. Ironically, one of the members of the PDPC had suggested that a public message board be created to take in ideas, views and comments as part of the National Conversation. In Arun Mahizhnan‘s words, “Such transparency will go a long way to pacify the widespread perception that the government is selective in its hearing and self-serving in its sharing. After decades of careful orchestration of what the public says or hears in public, the completely transparent modus operandi on the part of the government will be refreshing and reassuring.” He goes on to say, “If the government explains its rationale for selecting only certain ideas for further consideration clearly and carefully, the fallout should be manageable.”. While not completely open, the Data Protection public consultations held in 2011-2012 were fairly close to this ideal. In contrast, the process by which the existing customer exemption was created in 2013 was policy-reversal by fait accompli. The PDPC only grudgingly acknowledged there was even a policy reversal at all, let alone give a rationale for making the change. We most certainly were not given any chance to present counter-arguments against the exemption.
We have seen in 2013 two contrasting faces of the PAP. There was the PAP of the White Paper – arrogant, paternalistic, top-down – and the PAP of the OSC – open, consultative, touchy-feely. Much as the DNC exemption is, on the scale of things, a storm in a teacup, we can again see both sides of the government. During the initial public consultations for the Data Protection Act, we saw the open, consultative PAP of the OSC but when the DNC exemption was inserted without prior warning, we saw again the old arrogant, paternalistic, top-down and secretive PAP . So which is the real PAP ? Come 2016, which PAP will be voting for ?