On 8th May 2017, I attended the International Symposium on Preservation and Access: Southeast Asia’s Documentary Heritage in the Digital Age at MaTiC, Kuala Lumpur. It was a very fruitful session and it is very interesting to know that not only in Malaysia but at the international level, practitioners of librarianship and archivists are promoting the preservation of historical documents and its access for the general public.
I am very interested in the issue of Accessibility. In this International Forum, we have participants from all around the world and for Malaysia, some of the key authorities in the field were represented which includes the National Archives of Malaysia, the National Library and the Language and Literacy Agency Malaysia (in Malay – Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka! – I didn’t know this is their official name in English!)
Despite the high interest in promoting preservation of documents and its access, I stood up during one of the Q&A sessions and highlighted to the panelists and the audiences that based on my personal experiences, there is a law in Malaysia that prevents access to certain documents. To elaborate this, I highlghted my own experience.
I am a researcher – a genealogist. I was blacklisted twice by the National Archives of Malaysia for requesting (insisting and demanding access) personal files of my own great grandfather. I was made to understand by the officer then, for personal files, only 5 types of persons are allowed to access the file:
1) the person himself (my great grandfather died a long-long time ago…)
2) the person’s parents (obviously, they would have been dead by now)
3) the person’s spouses (all are dead)
4) the person’s siblings (all are dead)
5) the person’s children (the last surviving child died in 1985!)
With this kind of ridiculous regulation, how can I or any other family historians in Malaysia can access those files!? I am a direct descendant of the person. If the officer wants proof of lineage, who do they think they are to proof my lineage? The National Archives is not the authority to proof my lineage.
If the archives feel that it is an issue of national security or invasion of privacy, tell me – in what way am I a threat to the national security if I have access to my own great grandfather’s personal file? Even worse, talking about privacy, as a direct descendant, there is no such invasion of privacy!
My question to the panelists, what are the remedial steps taken by the authorities like National Archives of Malaysia to ensure such laws does not prevent the effort in promoting access to archival documents in the near future.
When I was in the UK, I did a research on the life of Richard Olaf Winstedt and a was able to have access to his personal file, including making a copy of both his birth and death certificates with no fuss at all! For the record, I have no blood relations whatsoever with Winstedt.
The panelists were silent. The moderator proposed to KIV the answer and to get people from the National Archives to provide an answer to me. When I sat down, to my surprise, I was seated amongst officers of the National Archives of Malaysia! No one dared to answer in public, but after I sat down, the officer sitting next to me said – “Patutnya boleh tu!”
I don’t want to hear “patutnya”s because this is the “ISO” policy of most government agencies – Ikut Suka Officer policy. Different officer will give you a different answer on the same topic. And then, another officer sitting in front of me said “Encik buat surat sikit, hantar kat kami”. WTF – I don’t write letters to you mate…it is YOU – the agency, must answer to me!
This incident was on Monday, 8th May 2017 and the time of writing this article, it is already 8.00pm in the evening of Friday 12th May 2017. For one whole week, they couldn’t be bothered to answer my question. At least, have the courtesy of email me for further details. Not knowing my contact details is a reason which is UNACCEPTABLE because I have introduced myself publicly, and the organisers have my details.
Let’s see how long will the National Archives of Malaysia or the organisers of the International Symposium to get back to me after the publication of this article. Let’s measure the “efficiency” of our officers…time ticking…