Want to know what’s wrong with or missing from Malaysia’s laws?

In 1958, two American law professors, Lon Fuller and H.L.A. Hart, debated their differing ideas about law and morality through a series of articles in the Harvard Law Review journal. That series “was one of the most compelling intellectual engagements in the field of jurisprudence and led to significant changes in how we view the role of law in our society”, says Leeroy Ting Kah Sing.

Ting is hoping that the new University Of Malaya Law Review journal will host similar intellectual engagements one day. He is the journal’s founder and was its editor-in-chief until recently; he is now one of its editorial advisors.

The journal is certainly off to a good start: Barely a month after the inaugural issue was launched on July 31, more than half of the 400 copies printed were sold. At RM20 for students (and RM30 for the public), the 179-page publication is a steal.

“There were also positive comments from legal practitioners,” says Dr Sarah Tan, a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaya’s Law Faculty and also one of the journal’s editorial advisors.

Exclusively produced by students of UM’s Law Faculty, with the support of the university’s Law Society, the Law Review’s primary purpose is to annually publish the best works of law students on subjects ranging from the study of jurisprudence and in-depth research on and analysis of legal issues to discussions about current legal developments.

The journal was a challenge by law dean Assoc Prof Dr Johan Shamsuddin Sabaruddin to the students, says Ting, explaining how it came to be produced.

The third year law student says plans are underway to publish the second issue, and that authors from other universities have shown interest in contributing as well.

To ensure quality control, Dr Tan says that relevant faculty members critique the students’ articles.

“This ensures that each article’s legal integrity and accuracy is assured. The entire manuscript is then sent to an external international reviewer and copy editor. Apart from this, all other work is done completely by the students themselves.”

University Of Malaya Law Review journal
The inaugural issue of the student-produced University Of Malaya Law Review journal.

Why a law journal?

Civil society wants to realise societal aspirations of the law but it needs to know the current status of laws and judicial decisions to do so. The UM Law Review’s editorial board seems to be trying to satisfy this need with a student-run journal.

But does the publication have complete independence? Can UM veto any article, for instance?

According to Dr Tan, the board has “general editorial independence” and “university administration does not have a role in the selection of articles or content for publication”.

But would critical comments about cases involving UM, the Government, or Islamic religious authorities see the light of day?

Ting believes that academics should be politically neutral.

“As students, we learn the law, we learn to be critical of the law, and we learn to consider new ideas and possible reforms to improve areas of the law that require it.

“We do not shy away from critical views, and as long as those critical views are legally substantiated, well-researched, and argued in a civil and constructive manner, we will certainly consider publishing them.

“The same criteria apply to all articles regardless of their political, social, religious, or cultural persuasion.

“We hope to incentivise more legal practitioners and law students to be more critical of the law and do in-depth research on their stances, which they will have to present and defend,” says Ting, who has passed the editor-in-chief reins to fellow student Hanan Khaleeda.

There are similar articles in legal database LexisNexis and the occasional journal put out by Suhakam (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia) but calls for changes in laws often seem to fall on deaf ears.

Ting says that, while the Review serves as a means for law students to hone their writing skills, that is not mutually exclusive with contributing to public discourse and influencing policymaking.

“And I disagree that our politicians are deaf to the aspirations of Malaysians and the legal fraternity. The Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017 was a result of the Government listening to the cries of the legal fraternity and civil society.

“Most interestingly, the initial push can be mainly attributed to R.AGE, the young journalists section of The Star. This shows the power of youth in creating change,” he points out, adding that he hopes the Law Review will dispel negative stereotypes about today’s generation being ignorant or complacent about the law.

“Critical mass is important in order to be heard and taken seriously. With the formation of the University Of Malaya Law Review, we hope to contribute towards this critical mass in pushing for change,” Ting says.

When asked whether the editorial board would publish opinions that disagree with a previously published article, Ting replies with a firm “yes”, adding, “as long as they are constructive and equally well researched” and referencing the Hart-Fuller debate.

University Of Malaya Law Review journal
Ting (left) handing over a copy of the journal to Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh. Photo: Filepic

An important resource?

The Law Review was a year in the making; however, its online supplement, Lex: In Breve (Law: In Brief) has been publishing articles at umlawreview.com/lex-in-breve from October 2016 – and doing so in good time. For instance, its first article discussed the importance of getting free, informed, and prior consent before giving logging permits for orang asli land just one month after the orang asli of Kg Sg Kiol, Pahang, protested outside the Jerantut Forestry Department.

It was the same with the article this March on international laws relevant to the hostage crisis between Malaysia and North Korea. The site has been quiet since then but was a good precursor to the Law Review.

As for the Law Review, its first issue contains contributions by retired Federal Court judge Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram, Emeritus Prof Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi who is also Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor of Law at UM (and a columnist in The Star), and Selangor State Legislative Assembly Speaker Hannah Yeoh.

While Gopal discusses the impact of new court rules on the status of local standi in public interest litigation, Dr Shad and Yeoh write about how to make legislatures more effective.

Articles by others ranged from comments and notes on amendments to the Companies Act; the development of plea bargaining; Islamic banking; Muslim polygamous marriages; children in foster care; rape; suicide; weaknesses in the Persons With Disabilities (PWD) Act 2008; and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mechanism in Sarawak.

Among the questions raised or discussed in these articles was one on the PWD Act – there was a lot of fanfare when it was passed in 2008 but there’s no redress mechanism even if discrimination is proven. How does that help persons with disabilities? Another important question: How efficient is an EIA in Sarawak if there is no obligation to include the public in the process?

If the next few issues carry on in the same vein as the first, the Law Review can be a good platform for critiques of existing laws and policies and become an important resource for policymakers and activists.

That would certainly be a legacy to be proud of.

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