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Call for a nation-wide campaign to petition for a Royal Commission of Inquiry on judicial reforms to restore public confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary, including revisiting the 1988 judicial crisis and subsequent judicial scandals
(Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, Monday) : Seventeen years ago in October 1989, a year after the 1988 judicial crisis, Tun Suffian, former Lord President, said when launching the book, May Day for Justice:
“What happened to Tun Salleh and our Supreme Court Judges has shown that what took generations to build up can be destroyed in one day and will take many generations to rebuild.’
More than a decade later, when speaking in honour of the late Justice Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman (one of the victims of the 1988 Judicial Crisis) on 10th March 2000, Tun Suffian said:
“I had predicted that our judiciary would take a whole generation to recover from the assault. Now that more than 12 years have elapsed, I doubt if the judiciary would recover in a generation from today.”
The question we have to ponder tonight is whether we want Tun Suffian to be right where the country has to wait for another generation before we can see the full restoration of public confidence in the independence, impartiality, accountability and integrity of the system of justice or whether we should take immediate action now to re-establish a truly independent judiciary and a just rule of law and not wait for another generation.
Although former Lord President Tun Salleh Abas and former Supreme Court judges Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman and Datuk George Seah were the three major victims of 1988 judicial crisis, they were not the only ones as the Malaysian people and country were also the casualties of the injustices perpetrated in the 1988 judicial crisis.
The three judges suffered personal wrongs and dishonours which should be put right, but the country suffered the destruction of an independent institution which was one of the three pillars of the doctrine of separation of powers for good democratic governance.
The issues before us are not just questions of personal integrity and honour but also concern fundamental principles of good governance; judicial independence, impartiality and integrity; public confidence in the system of justice and the doctrine of the separation of powers to check arbitrary and authoritarian rule.
There is considerable unanimity in the view that Malaysia’s crisis of confidence in the system of justice started only in the latter part of the 80s as the nation had a very independent judiciary in the first three decades of independent nationhood under the first three Prime Ministers, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein Onn – who clearly had a greater appreciation of the importance of an independent judiciary.
I am reminded of this comment by former Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Musa Hitam in his speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong in 1988:
“[The Prime Minister] was continually upset with the judiciary. One of his favourite slogans, privately to cabinet ministers, the [political party Umno’s] Supreme Council members: “Hang the lawyers, hang the judges”. Believe it or not, he has been saying this for years..and it became quite a joke. But underlying that joke is a state of mind, of frustration and anger with the judiciary. Again, I remember telling him that either you have an independent judiciary or you don’t…]
We do not have to refer to the first international indictment of the system of justice put out by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in its 1989 report entitled “Malaysia: Assault on the Judiciary”, which documented the government attacks on judicial independence from 1986-1989, culminating in the travesties of the two kangaroo-tribunals over the Lord President and five Supreme Court judges, ending in the sacking of the Lord President and two Supreme Court judges.
We need only refer to the Cabinet colleague of Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, who is a panelist at this public forum. I am referring of course to Datuk Dr. Rais Yatim, one of his predecessors in charge of the portfolio of law and justice, and his 1995 book “Freedom under Executive Power in Malaysia – A Study of Executive Supremacy”.
Rais’ conclusion in his book was that former Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad had in the 1988 judicial crisis, destroyed the independence of the judiciary which he described as “merely illusory”, “reduced to being a mere namesake” and the doctrine of separation of powers “perfunctory”.
The 1988 judicial crisis, and the injustices done to Tun Salleh Abas, the late Tan Sri Wan Suleiman and Datuk George Seah must be rectified. Even more important, the maiming and mangling of the system of justice which started from that date, claiming many victims in the ensuing decade and more – like Param Cumaraswamy, Lim Guan Eng, Irene Fernandez, Anwar Ibrahim and Mohd Ezam – must be ended.
In 2000, the Malaysian judiciary was again the subject of another scathing international indictment in the report “Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000”, tracing the relentless deterioration of the system of justice and the marginalization of the fundamental rights of Malaysians.
Let me give two personal accounts to throw light on the second judicial crisis of confidence which plunged the Malaysian judiciary from being acknowledged as among the world’s most prestigious systems to that of a “rogue” status, where judges felt why to identify themselves as coming from Malaysia in international conferences:
The present government continues to suffer from a serious denial syndrome in refusing to acknowledge of the continuing crisis of confidence in the system of justice in the country.
When Tun Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah became Chief Justice in December 2000, he admitted the "unpalatable fact that public confidence in the judiciary has eroded in the last few years" and declared his mission was to "bring the judiciary back to its past glories" .
Dzaiddin stopped the rot in the system of justice of the past 14 years but he was unable to bring the judiciary “back to its past glories” through judicial reforms involving structural and institutional changes such as concerning judicial appointments and promotions, meritocracy, integrity, a meaningful Judges Code of Conduct involving post-retirement appointments, reversion to the original Article 121 of the Constitution to restore the inherent judicial powers of the judiciary, etc.to undo the ravages of the past 14 years and fully restore public confidence in the judiciary.
The time has come for putting the system of justice back on its proper footing again, not only to restore the judiciary to its pre-1988 position, but also to address the institutional defects highlighted by the 14-year judicial crises of confidence so that there could be no repetition of the judicial “black holes” of the past.
The government should break from its denial complex and acknowledge
that there is urgent need for far-reaching judicial reforms to fully restore public confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.
In the alternative, there should be a nation-wide campaign to petition for a Royal Commission of Inquiry on judicial reforms to restore public confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary, founded on revisiting the 1988 judicial crisis and subsequent judicial scandals.
Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic
Planning Commission Chairman