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Sunday December 2, 2007

About Malaysia, for all Malaysians

The First 50 Years 1957-2007
Edited by Andrew Harding and H.P. Lee
Publisher: LexisNexis; 332 pages
(ISBN: 978-9679628197) 

A BOOK on the Constitution is not something that would appear on any Malaysian bestsellers list. The fact that 1,000 of its initial print run of 2,000 copies were sold directly to the Bar Council to sell to lawyers is in itself an indication of the book’s niche market. 

Which is a shame, really, for this book is definitely for all Malaysians. Although some of the chapters are rather technical and full of legal jargon, quite a few chapters are written in a manner that would appeal to the ordinary reader. 

Anyone who appreciates legal thrillers by authors like John Grisham, for example, would find, in these chapters, tales of suspense and intrigue as the protagonists have it out in the courtroom, in Parliament, or in the court of public opinion. 

But, as can be seen in the early years of nationhood, it is often left to the judges – still wearing wigs in those days – to make some of the most profound rulings that have stood the test of time. 

Many Malaysians today may not be aware, for example, that back in 1963, Kelantan challenged the Malaysia Agreement barely six days before Malaysia was to be declared. The gist of the matter was that Kelantan wanted the court to rule that it had to be consulted before new states could be added to the federation. 

The chapter on The Kelantan Challenge by Johan Shamsuddin Sabaruddin reconstructs how the landmark decision came about that laid the foundations for federal-state relationships to this day. 

Chief Justice Thompson, who handed down his judgment barely 30 hours before Malaysia was to be declared, remarked, “Never, I think, has a judge to pronounce on an issue of such magnitude on so little notice and with so little time for consideration.” 

Thompson, who became the first Lord President of Malaysia (1963-1966), ruled against Kelantan but many scholars wonder if the decision might have been different if he had more time. 

Malaysians may equally be unaware of the constitutional implications resulting from the Stephen Kalong Ningkan saga, also in that same period, when the Chief Minister of Sarawak was dismissed.  

H.P. Lee, one of the editors of this book, wrote this chapter and the significance of this issue can be seen by the fact that to this day, the Privy Council’s decision on this matter continues to be cited. 

There is no denying the treasure trove of information in this book. All 17 authors have done a remarkable job painting the constitutional landscape of our nation over the past 50 years. 

The opening chapter, The Road to Merdeka, by Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, sets the pace for the rest of the book as the historical perspective makes it clear why our nation chose this form of governance, wherein the supremacy of the Constitution is a critical pillar for our nation.  

Contemporary readers who may think the historical events are no longer relevant will be able to identify with the more current issues with regard The 1988 Judiciary Crisis and its Aftermath (Visu Sinnudurai), The 1983 Constitutional Crisis (H.P. Lee), The Sabah Constitutional Cases 1985-1986 (Philip Koh), The 1993 Constitutional Crisis: A Redefinition of the Monarchy’s Role and Position (Abdul Aziz Bari), and The Saga of Anwar Ibrahim (Jesse Wu Min Aun). 

Philip Koh’s chapter on the Sabah case is particularly interesting as he was one of the lawyers involved in the courtroom battle that followed the power struggle in the state following the election.  

Apart from an academic analysis, Koh is able to share with readers many personal insights as well as courtroom exchanges between judge and counsel. 

Sinnadurai, a former judge and one of the foremost legal scholars in this country, wrote an extremely interesting, and poignant, chapter on the judicial crisis of 1988, made more relevant because of the current disquiet. 

Harding and Lee conclude that, by and large, the essence of the 1957 Constitution has been successfully defended, albeit with a number of distressing casualties. 

It is their hope that the next 50 years will see both the survival of the essential underpinnings of a constitutional state in Malaysia and significant improvements in all areas.  

But, there must be constant vigilance. And this is what the book is all about.  


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