Former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mahadev Shankar, who says his ‘cradle’ was the Supreme Court building, salutes judges about whom there was no whisper of corruption.
FORMER Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mahadev Shankar recalls that when the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941, he and his brother helped their father to carry all the law reports from the court library in Kuala Lumpur and to hide them in the garret of their home.
His father, T. V. Mahadevan, served as private secretary to all the Chief Justices from 1931 until 1958 – including during the Japanese occupation. After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the family brought the documents down and restored them to their shelves.
Shankar, now 81, remembers the huge influence his father had on his life and his choice of career.
Last Saturday, he became the third person to receive the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award.
In his citation, former Court of Appeal judge Tan Sri V.C. George said Shankar “epitomises what a great judge should be”.
George listed Shankar’s achievements but quipped, “the greater feather in his cap is not having been given the recognition he so much deserved, by the Chief Justices and the Government of that time in their bypassing him when it came to promotion to the apex court, an indication of recognition of the independent spirit of the man since it could not have been a lack of merit!”
Shankar traces his passion for the law to his father. “My cradle, my playpen and my kindergarten was the Supreme Court building,” he says.
He roamed around the corridors above his father’s chambers during the weekends and listened when his father brought home judgments to correct and edit, discussing them with a friend.
In 1957, Viscount Kilmuir, Lord High Chancellor of the United Kingdom, attended the ceremonial opening of the Supreme Court of Malaya.
Shankar’s father arranged an official photograph of all the judges in their full-bottomed wigs.
“The Viscount told my father he had a greater right to be in the photo than ‘any one of us’,” he recalls, which Shankar sees as “due recognition of his services to the judiciary”.
From exploring the building, he knew all of those Supreme Court judges and stresses that “these were judges about whom there was not even a whisper of corruption”.
Kilmuir’s speech covered the role of the Bar and the Bench and what they needed to do to ensure democracy.
Shankar summarises it in one word: integrity – moral, intellectual and fiscal.
“If you don’t have these things, you have nothing,” Shankar says. “You have a shell of an institution which pretends to be carrying out its functions but the core is painfully missing.”
Shankar was called to the Malaysian Bar in 1956 and started out as a legal assistant in Shearn Delamore and Co. By 1961, at the age of 29, he became a partner in the firm.
He remembers a “highly placed gentleman” from Singapore who asked, in 1969, whether he would come to work in a “judicial capacity”.
Shankar replied that he would not leave, because he loved his country. The man asked, “What do you do if your country doesn’t love you?”
Shankar responded, “It does not in the least matter. I love my country and am needed here. Here I will stay.”
Since then, he has often wondered where he might have ended up in Singapore’s judicial hierarchy but, he laughs, “That is a parlour game!”
He was appointed a High Court judge in 1983. His first posting was in Johor and his father accompanied him as he entered his chambers for the first time.
“I told him: ‘All your working life you sat on this side of the table. Today, before I sit in that chair, I want you to sit in it and sanctify it for me.’”
His father did, and later wrote to him, “This is the summum bonum, the finest present you could ever have given me.”
Shankar also served in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. In 1994, he was elevated to the Court of Appeal where he remained until retiring in 1997.
Shankar was appointed for the first two-year term of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) in 2000 and was then nominated advisory jurist to the Asia Pacific Forum until 2006.
He served on the Royal Commission on Law Reform of the Laws of Marriage and Divorce back in 1971 and, more recently, the Royal Commisions of Inquiry into the injuries sustained by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 and the V.K. Lingam Video Clip in 2007.
The latter, he notes, recommended creating a Judicial Appointments Commission. When this was done the following year, he says, “it went some way to allaying public disquiet about the way in which persons were selected for judicial appointment”.
Shankar was a legal consultant with Zaid Ibrahim & Co until 2011 and is a registered member of the Kuala Lumpur Regional Centre for Arbitration and the Singapore International Arbitration Centre.
Today, he is as independent as ever.
“The judiciary must have the confidence of the community,” he says, speaking slowly and choosing each word with care.
“It is not just a question of actual bias. It is also the perception of bias. If judges are not so myopic that they cannot see that their judgments do not have the confidence of the community, they must surely ask themselves what is wrong.”
He quotes the words of British churchman and historian Thomas Fuller, “Be you never so high, the law is above you”.
If judges are not perceived to be the benchmark by which the community is to decide what is wrong and what is right, he argues, “the law would have failed to serve its fundamental purpose, namely to be a deterrent against potential wrongdoers. If powerful people do not fear the law, where are the checks and balances?”
Shankar is “dismayed” that some Malaysian laws still include the ouster clause, “the decision of the Minister shall not be questioned in any court”.
“If they are not to be questioned in any court, where are they to be questioned at all?” he asks.
“We need to think about this because even powerful people need the protection of the law so that they do not exceed themselves.”
Citation for Datuk Mahadev Shankar