THE proceedings at the High Courts are conducted mostly in English, as it is a language that many of our senior lawyers and judges, regardless of their race, are accustomed to.
In almost all cases, lawyers would begin their presentation in Bahasa Malaysia and then apply to the judge to continue in English.
Any practising lawyer who still attends court, or even reporters covering the beat, will vouch for this.
“Dengan izin, Yang Arif, saya mohon untuk meneruskan hujah saya dalam Bahasa Inggeris,” is commonly heard in our courts.
The court’s rule on the the choice of language in our houses of justice is clear, which stipulates that “all proceedings (other than the giving of evidence by a witness) in the Federal Court, Court of Appeal, High Court or any subordinate court shall be in the national language.”
Provided that the court may either, in its own motion or on the application of any party to any proceedings, and after considering the interests of justice in those proceedings, order that the proceedings (other than the giving of evidence by a witness) shall be partly in the national language and partly in the English language.
Our officers of the court are known to be practical and flexible in the use of both English and Bahasa Malaysia.
Of course, it is a different situation at the magistrate’s courts, where Bahasa Malaysia is used almost entirely because junior lawyers, many fresh out of university or only a few years in practice, are proficient in it.
Highbrow English, often used by older lawyers, can elude some magistrates. Just ask the lawyers and reporters in attendance, if this seems strange.
So, there is no reason for a controversy or dispute if Attorney General Tommy Thomas sought for Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s corruption trial to be conducted in English. This is a non-issue by all counts because the rule is clear.
Thomas, who is acting as public prosecutor, made the request to judge Datuk Zainal Abidin Kamarudin at the Sessions Court last Wednesday after the charges were read out in Bahasa Malaysia.
Najib has been charged at the KL Sessions Court with three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of using his position for gratification.
It doesn’t matter that Thomas admitted he has a weak command of Bahasa Malaysia when taking up the post last month to replace Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali.
Tan Sri Dr Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Najib’s lawyer, conducted the proceedings mainly in English, and likewise the judge.
Najib, who has a chance to clear himself of these charges, would likely be more comfortable if English was used during the hearing.
The technical financial terms are going to come thick and fast when the trial begins. In the interest of accuracy and comprehension, most stakeholders would prefer for proceedings to be in English, too.
This storm in a tea cup only transpired when a group of rowdy Najib supporters began chanting “Bahasa Malaysia” when Thomas spoke in English at a media conference at the Kuala Lumpur Court Complex. It grew so loud that he had to abandon his media conference.
Cries of “Melayu” and “Hidup Melayu”, a cheer championing Malays, the country’s dominant race, as well as chants for Najib’s release, were reportedly heard.
Apparently, the agitated crowd drowned out the public prosecutor’s voice, forcing him to eventually be escorted away for his safety.
The supporters were on sound ground to voice their grievances, but no brownie points were earned from Malaysians for this exercise. Many of our people found their uncouth behaviour and attempt to stir a hornet’s nest with racial sentiments unacceptable.
True, it is their democratic right to express their unhappiness over Najib’s arrest, which they strongly believe is politically motivated. And caught in the heat of the moment, their display of emotions should be expected. Sadly though, it has degenerated into a side show.
Ironically, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor was said to have consoled the gathered faithful – who were seen waving placards with the words “Solidarity Najib Tun Razak” in English and Chinese – in English.
And when the defence fund was launched, it was curiously labelled #freenajib, and not #bebasnajib.
Even Shafee conducts his media conference in English at the court complex.
The main issue here is whether Thomas is competent enough to lead the prosecution in a case against a former prime minister.
For those of us with short memories, in 2001 and 2010, Thomas represented PAS-led Terengganu and Kelantan governments in two separate lawsuits against Petronas over its failure to pay state oil royalty.
Bahasa Malaysia-speaking PAS leaders had no problems with their lawyer speaking entirely in English in the courts to fight their case. The two predominantly Malay states never expected Thomas to converse in Bahasa Malaysia
Weighing in on the debate of national language use, respectable journalist and CEO of Karangkraf Media Group Datuk Hussamuddin Yaacub shared on social media; “Bahasa kebangsaan jika digunakan secara tidak lunak untuk memaki hamun, mengutuk, menghina dan menghukumi pihak lain secara tidak adil, seolah-olah kitalah saja yang betul dan sempurna tiada gunanya. Memalukan bangsa dan agama saja.”
This effectively translates to; the national language, if used inappropriately to chastise, criticise, degrade and punish someone unfairly, making it seem like only we are in the right and perfect, does not serve any purpose. This will only be a disgrace to the race and religion.
Of course, most of us agree with Tan Sri Rais Yatim – a consistent advocate of the national language and preservation of Malay culture – that Thomas, along with politicians and leaders, should be speaking more Bahasa Malaysia, rather than English, at official events.
“I would suggest that the leaders in the country show some love for our country by speaking in our national language. If we Malaysians don’t do it, who will?”
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia member Rais called for all preliminary statements to be delivered in Bahasa Malaysia. Not every word has to be in the language, but at least the general phrases.
This challenge can’t be beyond Thomas since all he needs to do is read off a prepared script for his preamble. Practice makes perfect, after all.
Thomas is 66 years old and the product of the Pasar Road English School and Victoria Institution. He is from the generation of English-medium schools, just like Najib, who is from St John's Institution.
He studied law at the University of Manchester in 1972 before obtaining his master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics in 1975. Much of his career has been in corporate law, making him the ideal choice to handle the charges against Najib.
His career in and around the courts has obviously not allowed him to use much Bahasa Malaysia. Neither has his interaction with the legal fraternity or his circle of friends (presumably of his age, interest, intellect and surely English speaking, if not Anglophile outright).
Having worked at the AG’s Chambers, let’s hope his “rusty Bahasa Malaysia” will now be honed when practising with the predominantly Malay deputy public prosecutors at his office.
Bahasa Malaysia remains the official language, but surely there is nothing wrong with Thomas using English in the serving of justice.
* The writer studied Malay Literature and Islamic History for his Sixth Form examination before enrolling at the Malay Letters Department, as a subject, while studying politics at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.