SINGAPORE — The Government has agreed to declassify and release documents in Dr Goh Keng Swee’s “famous Albatross file”, Dr Janil Puthucheary, Minister of State for Communications and Information, said.

This is a file that the late deputy prime minister, who is considered one of modern Singapore’s founding fathers, kept in the run-up to the nation’s separation from Malaysia in August 1965.

Some of the contents of the Albatross file have been made public in various historical accounts over the years, including in the book The Singapore Story, which is the first volume of the memoirs of the country’s late first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Parts of the file has also been exhibited before at the National Museum.

The process of declassification began “some time ago” and took some time given the complexity of the material, he added.

“A subset of the material was part of a public exhibition, and a larger set of declassified documents will be released in a book on separation to be published later this year.”

This will include Cabinet papers, as well as Dr Goh’s notes of his conversations with Malaysian leaders.

Dr Goh was finance minister before Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, and helmed various government ministries afterwards, rising to the position of deputy prime minister in 1973. He retired from politics owing to ill health in 1984 and died in May 2010, aged 91.

What is the albatross file?

Based on information published by the National Library Board, the Albatross file is a secret file that offered insights into the negotiations leading up to the separation from Malaysia in 1965.

The negotiations, which also involved Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and then-Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, culminated in the decision for Singapore to leave the Federation of Malaysia on Aug 9,1965. Singapore had been part of the federation since 1963.

The first time that the existence of the file was revealed to the public was in an interview in 1980, where Dr Goh stated that the “Albatross” referred to Malaysia.

Dr Goh said then: “By that time, the great expectation that we foolishly had — that Malaysia would bring prosperity, common market, peace, harmony, all that — we were quickly disillusioned. And it became an albatross round our necks.”

The Ministry of Communications and Information began the pilot phase of declassifying files under its purview in late 2013 with a team of researchers, which included retired senior public officers. This was the first-ever systematic declassification project undertaken in Singapore.

In 2015, parts of the top-secret document were showcased at the National Museum of Singapore.

Declassification of records an ongoing process

Responding to a question by He Ting Ru, Sengkang Group Representation Constituency Member of Parliament (MP), on whether archival material can be made more accessible, Dr Puthucheary said that the National Archives of Singapore has been working with government agencies to declassify and make available more government records.

Metadata of around 780,000 records are publicly accessible on archives online, and this has been increasing over the years, he added.

“In addition, since 2016, government agencies have reviewed more than 7,000 government records that were not yet declassified.”

This was in response to more than 2,130 requests by members of the public.

In all, 83 per cent of these records have been approved for access. In total, about 68,000 file records have been declassified and made accessible to the public.

“We are committed to ensuring greater access to government records, so that they can be a reference for the public to research and obtain information on Singapore,” Dr Puthucheary said.

Speaking in Parliament, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh praised the move to release the Albatross file.

Referring to a commentary published by TODAY about Singapore’s founding fathers, Singh said: “I think the release of these documents… is important for the nation, as it is part of the nation-building process.”

On classified information for research purposes

Singh also asked if the Government were prepared to release classified information that had already been extended for research purposes to all sitting MPs.

Dr Puthucheary said that Singh’s question was pointing to his request to an agency where the information sought had yet to be transferred to the National Archives of Singapore for preservation.

“To be clear, the file in question is not available for public access and remains classified,” Dr Puthucheary clarified.

This is distinct from public archives, which are public records that have been transferred to the National Archives of Singapore and can be requested for inspection by any person for the purposes of reference or research.

He added that for records that remain classified and are not part of the public archives, agencies may grant access to specific information for specific purposes, such as writing a book.

This will be subject to conditions such as complying with the Official Secrets Act and submitting the information to be quoted for vetting before release, he added.

“As a matter of policy, the Government does provide researchers access to information for legitimate research purposes, but doing so does not mean that the entire record has been declassified, nor that it is generally available to the public,” Dr Puthucheary said.

“If someone has a specific reason to access closed records, a request can be made and the request will be assessed by the Government on its merits.”

He also said that if Singh would like more information on background thinking or the rationale behind the government policy, there are several routes he may take.

One would be to approach the relevant government ministry to give more details and clarification.

Singh and other MPs also have the option to file a parliamentary question and receive a formal reply from the government, Dr Puthucheary said.