Mahathir and the Malaysian judiciary



Charles Hector
12:49pm Fri Oct 31st, 2003

The 22 years of Dr Mahathir Mohamad's reign as prime minister of Malaysia come to an end today.

It would be apt to review the impact that this has had on the Malaysian judiciary and on the doctrine of separation of powers, which is essential for good government and to prevent an over-concentration of power on any one of the three bodies of government - the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

After obtaining independence from the British in 1957 until the mid-1980s, the Malaysian judiciary built a reputation of being independent and impartial and was held in high public esteem.

There was, it seems, no accusation of judicial improprieties, corruption, bias and/or judicial misconduct during this period. After Independence, one still had a right of appeal to the Privy Council if one was aggrieved with the decision of the Federal Court.

But as time passed fewer and fewer appeals were taken up to the Privy Council and this can be taken only as an indication of the public satisfaction and appreciation of the competency of the Malaysian Judiciary.

Finally, it was decided towards the end of the 1970s that this right of appeal to the Privy Council be discontinued. The Federal Court in the early 1980s became the final Court of Appeal in Malaysia, and was renamed the Supreme Court.

When Mahathir became the prime minister - he was the first person without a legal background to assume this position - he too apparently did have a rather high regard for the Malaysian judiciary.

At the advent of his premiership, in a speech made at the opening ceremony of the Asean Law Association General Assembly on 26 October 1982, he had this to say about the Malaysian Judiciary:

"I will always respect the judiciary. We do not expect the courts to be pro- or anti-government, only pro the Constitution and pro the law. The government always considers the constitution and the law carefully before we do anything so we expect the judiciary to be free to judge our alleged trespasses without fear or favour, but in accordance with the law, in accordance with the law of evidence and procedure justly and fairly. We shall always respect their judgments..."

Onslaught begins

But just several years later, Mahathir's feelings about the judiciary changed. This was intensified with the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Berthelsen v Director of Immigration, Malaysia & Ors.

In brief, the director-general (DG) of immigration served a notice cancelling the two-year employment pass of a staff correspondent attached to the Kuala Lumpur office of the Asian Wall Street Journal.

The Supreme Court came to a decision that since Berthelsen had not been given the opportunity to make a representation regarding the cancellation of his employment pass, the requirement of natural justice had not been satisfied. Accordingly, the court quashed the cancellation decision of the DG.

Commenting on the role of the courts, Mahathir was reported in the Nov 24, 1986 issue of Time magazine, as saying:

"The judiciary says, 'Although you passed a law with certain thing in mind, we think that your mind is wrong , and we want to give our interpretation’. If we disagree, the courts say, 'We will interpret your disagreement'. If we go along, we are going to lose our power of legislation. We know exactly what we want to do, but once we do it, it is interpreted in a different way, and we have no means to interpret it our way. If we find that a court always throws us out on its own interpretation, if it interprets contrary to why we made the law, then we will have to find a way of producing a law that will have to be interpreted according to our wish."

This passage sparked off a contempt of court action instituted by opposition politician Lim Kit Siang against the prime minister. The High Court and thereafter the Supreme Court dismissed this action.

This was followed by the UEM case decision at the Supreme Court, which was a victory to the government, but only by a majority decision with two judges dissenting.

During this time, there was a crisis in Umno following the contest for the presidency in 1987. Mahathir, who was challenged by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, (photo) won by a very slim majority of 43 votes.

Eleven Umno members then challenged the validity of this elections, which resulted in the High Court declaring Umno an unlawful society.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, and the appeal was fixed to be heard on June 13, 1988 by a full bench of nine Supreme Court Judges. What was at stake was the political survival of Umno, the dominant party in Barisan Nasional (BN) and, of course, Mahathir himself.

1988 judicial crisis

It was also around this time that not being able to endure 'the various comments and accusations made by the prime minister against the judiciary not only outside but within Parliament, then Lord President Salleh Abas (photo) following a meeting with about 20 judges, including Tun Hamid Omar, decided to sent a letter to the King and (state) Rulers on March 26, 1988.

Following this letter, Mahathir reacted and this led to the removal of Salleh Abas as Lord President on Aug 8, 1988 by the King based on the recommendation of the tribunal chaired by then Chief Justice Hamid Omar. It is good to note that the Umno appeal was also heard on the same day and dismissed the following day.

Subsequently, based on the recommendations of a second tribunal chaired by Edgar Joseph Jr, which was set up to look into the conduct of five suspended Supreme Court judges, the King on Oct 4, 1988 ordered the dismissal of Supreme Court judges Tan Sri Wan Suleiman and Datuk George Seah.

In the criminal case of PP v Dato Yap Peng, the Supreme Court came to the decision that section 418A was unconstitutional on the ground that it violated Article 121(1) of the Constitution, which then provided that the judicial power of the federation was vested in the two high courts and such inferior courts as might be provided by federal law.

The Supreme Court in that case had amongst others this to say: "...judicial power to transfer cases from a subordinate court of competent jurisdiction as presently provided by section 418A cannot be conferred to any organ of government other than the judiciary..."

Judicial power broadly defined means "the power every sovereign authority must of necessity have to decide controversies between the subjects, of between itself and its subjects whether the right relates to life, liberty or property", and this power rightly should and must be vested in the third arm of the government, the judiciary.

But alas, the BN, which had more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament and in the Senate was very easily able to amend Article 121 of the Federal Constitution, removing the judicial power vested in the courts.

Thereafter, the high courts have such jurisdiction and powers as may be conferred by or under federal law. This means that the court's jurisdiction can now be determined no longer by the courts themselves, but by the legislature.

The amendment has the effect of allowing Parliament to enact legislation limiting or prohibiting judicial review - and over the past 22 years, there have, been many such amendments to laws that prevent the court from reviewing ministerial and/or government decisions.

Hamid Omar and Eusoff Chin

Hamid Omar, who chaired the first tribunal that recommended the removal of Salleh Abas, then became Lord President on Nov 10, 1988.

It is interesting to note that Hamid was apparently at the meeting of judges that decided on the sending of the letter to the King and Rulers. He was followed by Eusoff Chin, who sat in the second tribunal, being appointed as the head of the Malaysian judiciary.

During this period, there were many controversies:

  • the infamous Ayer Molek case;
  • the ‘poison pen letter’ in early 1996 which contained 112 allegations comprising 39 charges of corruption, 21 of abuse of power and 52 of misconduct, immoral and other indiscretions;
  • the Chief Justice holidaying with a lawyer;
  • the disclosure by a high court judge that he had received direction (or was that advice?) about a case before him by the Chief Justice; and
  • the much discussed cases of Lim Guan Eng and Anwar Ibrahim.

After the 1988 crisis, the judiciary rather than attempting to regain its loss in stature and independence wrongly focused its attacks on the Malaysian Bar and lawyers.

The Bar, which had been steadfast in its struggle to restore public confidence and independence of the judiciary throughout the crisis and after, became the focus of attack during this period.

First, there was Bar Council secretary Manjeet Singh Dillon, who was cited for contempt for an affidavit he affirmed on behalf of the council. Subsequently, many lawyers were threatened with contempt and/or cited for contempt in the courts.

Hope fades under Dzaiddin

Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah was then appointed the head of the judiciary and there was hope that under his leadership, the judiciary would travel the road to regain the quality and stature it once had in the period before 1988.

But those hopes were shattered bit by bit. One of the Practice Directions issued towards the end of his term had the effect of further eroding the right of access to a lawyer.

After retirement, almost immediately, he joined a law firm in the first half of 2003 - this sparked public discussion and debate as to whether this was proper and on consequence to the public perception of the independence of the judiciary.

The Bar felt that there should be a ‘cooling-off period’ at the very least, whilst some even felt that retired senior members of the judiciary (especially heads) should not take up positions in law firms and/or other companies.

The government's response was to look into amending the Judges Code of Ethics 1994 to include possibly post-retirement conduct of judges. Despite the public controversy, Dzaiddin has continued as consultant in that law firm.

Now Malaysia has a new Chief Justice (formerly known as Lord President) - Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim - but it would be premature to judge him one way or the other.

Post-1988 appointments

Article 125 of the Federal Constitution also gives the power to the prime minister to initiate proceedings for the removal of judges.

If the prime minister represents to the King that a judge ought to be removed, "...then the (King) shall appoint a tribunal.." which will make recommendation to remove or not to remove a particular judge.

By the usage of the word "shall" it seems that the King has no choice in the matter but to set up a tribunal.

Mahathir, by removing the head of the judiciary and two Supreme Court judges, had sent a clear message to the judiciary that could be simply stated as ‘...if you do not do things according to my will, then you too will be removed’.

The removal of judges in 1988 clearly showed that it was not just a possibility and/or a threat but could become a reality if they did not behave as they should. The upheaval in 1988 has left a deep-seated fear in many of our judges.

Over the years since, we have seen that only a few have been able to surmount that fear and have decided judiciously without fear and favour especially in cases involving the government and/or personalities and companies with links to the government.

Prior to the 1988 judicial crisis, the chairperson of the Malaysian Bar and other senior lawyers were consulted informally by the Lord President on the suitability of candidates before he made recommendation for appointment as judges. After the crisis, this practice stopped.

In 1994 the Federal Constitution was amended to allow for the appointment of Judicial Commissioners (sort of 'probationary judges') who had all the powers of the judge but without the security of tenure, which is a safeguard required to protect and ensure the independence of the judiciary.

Judicial Commissioners are appointed on contract for an initial term of two years, and if found 'satisfactory', the recommendation is made by the Chief Justice to the prime minister.

In the July 2003 issue of the Malaysian Bar's newsletter, Infoline, senior lawyer - and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers - Param Cumaraswamy (photo) said the recent "...promotions of Augustine Paul, Arifin Jaka and Pajan Sungh Gill will be perceived by the public as a reward for having 'delivered'".

Likewise, the earlier appointments of Hamid Omar and later Eusoff Chin as heads of the judiciary were also possibly perceived by the public as a reward.

An extraordinary general meeting of the Malaysian Bar was called on Oct 4, 2003 to discuss this important aspect of judicial appointments and other related matters, but could not be held for lack of quorum.

Mahathir's impact

In my opinion, Mahathir believed that the executive must lead and all others should follow. He seems to have not grasped the importance of the doctrine of separation of powers and/or the need for a strong and independent judiciary.

Similarly as the head of Umno, Mahathir effectively also had control of the legislature via the two-thirds majority held by BN in Parliament.

During his time as prime minister, Mahathir has successfully removed and/or weakened all possible checks and balances including the King and the judiciary.

There has been an erosion in the powers of the judiciary, particularly with the 1988 constitutional amendment, which withdrew power previously expressly vested in the hands of the judiciary.

From Independence until the 1988 judicial crisis, the stature, quality and independence of the judiciary was highly acclaimed. But since then, there has been an erosion, in reality or at least from the perception of the person-in-street.

Public confidence in the judiciary has been on a decline to the extent that many a person who may have had a legitimate cause of action against the government and/or persons, bodies and companies associated with certain personalities in the executive have not gone to the courts to pursue their claims.

The prime minister, as provided for in the Federal Constitution plays a very important role in the appointment of the Chief Justice and in the appointment of the other judges.

Over his tenure, Mahathir has naturally had an effect on the judiciary be it in terms of the membership and composition of the judiciary. After all, all judges are appointed by the King acting on the advice of the prime minister.

Other than in the appointment of the Chief Justice, the prime minister has a duty to consult the Chief Justice and/or the heads of the different courts depending on the court for which the judge is appointed.

All the prime minister has to do is consult, but the King - apparently from the words used - has no choice but to act on the advice of the prime minister.

He chose the ‘suitable’ ones, but then some of these judges proudly from time to time demonstrated rare courage through their decisions - alas, they may now be considered ‘unsuitable’ in the eyes of the prime minister.

Judges’ duties

But then, the judiciary is also to be blamed. Judges ought to uphold justice without fear or favour. They must not be pro- or anti-government, only pro the Constitution and pro the law.

They must not be pro the big companies or pro the small man in the street, only pro justice, pro human rights. They must not bother about tomorrow, about possible repercussions from the powerful, about their chances of elevation to higher courts and judicial office.

They must never forget the oath that they have taken which includes "...I will faithfully discharge my judicial duties in that office, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to Malaysia (not the prime minister, not the executive, not the government), and will preserve, protect and defend its Constitution...."

The words of recommendation in the ‘Justice In Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000' report prepared by an international mission led by the International Bar Association must be heeded by the judiciary:

It said: "We recommend that the judiciary does all in its power, in the wider interest of justice, to counter the harshness of repressive legislation and overbearing action on the part of the executive.

"That is the role of the judiciary when faced with repression no matter where it comes from...In the present situation and in light of the experiences of 1988, this will require great courage. Even still, we consider it essential if the reputation of the judicial system in Malaysia is to be restored to what it was and what it should be."

We citizens are also to be blamed for what has happened to our judiciary for we have gone election after election to the ballot box and returned the BN government with more than two-thirds majority, thus enabling it to amend the Federal Constitution.

Over the Mahathir era, some of these amendments have contributed to the state of the Malaysian judiciary today.

CHARLES HECTOR is a human rights activist and a lawyer in Malaysia.




MELI, 29.1.2004, KHAMIS, 8.48PM


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