Malaysia: A New Low for the Judiciary


James Chin

Most lawyers in Malaysia will tell you that the judiciary never really recovered from the sacking of Lord President (chief justice) and two other Supreme Court judges in 1988. There is little doubt that the whole process was politically motivated because the then Mahathir government was worried about independently-minded judges. The reputation of the Malaysian judiciary was further sullied when Anwar was jailed after another politically-charged trail. Since then there is a general consensus that some key judicial appointments are made on political grounds. The Bar Council has repeatedly called for a reform of the whole judiciary and the establishment of a judicial commission on appointments and promotions. The government has been able to ignore all the pressures as nobody has been able to provide any proof of high level corruption on the bench.

All changed last month when Anwar Ibrahim released a video clip showing a senior lawyer, VK Lingam, talking on a phone discussing the appointment of senior judges. The conversation took place in 2002 and Lingam told the other party that he was going to lobby for him to be appointed the chief justice of the Supreme Court, in part because he has been "loyal" to the government. It is widely believed that the person Lingam was talking to was Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim, who duly became the Chief Justice.

The video clip unleashed a political storm in Malaysia and caused the Bar Council to organise a public march by lawyers to the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya. The government's reaction was to establish a three-man panel to investigate the video clip. Rather than trying to identify the person talking to Lingam and the veracity of judicial fixing, the panel and the police seem more interested in who secretly recorded the conversation. It did not help that the minister in charge of legal affairs accused the Bar Council and lawyers of siding with the opposition. The Bar Council, NGOs and the opposition want nothing less than a royal commission to investigate the allegations.

The controversy has eclipsed the government's plan to create a "feel good" atmosphere ahead of the general elections which is likely to be held at the end of the year. The video clip has even replaced news of Malaysia's first astronaut as the main topic of conversation. Some of the government's own supporters are worried that the whole affair could permanently damaged public confidence in the justice system. In recent years the judiciary have been awash with rumours that certain lawyers could "pick and choose" judges to hear their case. The courts have also been accused of siding with Islamic Syriah Courts on issues of Islamic conversions, causing a lot of apprehension in the non-Muslim community.

For ordinary Malaysians, the whole episode is another reminder that another key institution has been compromised by vested interests during the Mahathir era. For foreign investors, the allegations are a reminder that in Malaysia, everything is connected to politics, even the judiciary.

WATCHPOINT: Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi can regain support if he moves decisively and establish a judicial commission. He may even win over the Bar Council and NGOs if a Royal Commission was to be established, something that is highly unlikely. If the government continues to side-track the issue, it will almost certainly cost its votes in the coming election. Either way the whole affair is a major victory for Anwar Ibrahim and the opposition.


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