Mixed reaction to reform package

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  • Friday, 25 Apr 2008

Twenty years ago, a crisis started a rot within Malaysia's Judiciary. The perceived damage never healed until a week ago when some bold steps were taken to put things right. Many were happy with the news but some chose to remain sceptical.

WHEN the Prime Minister announced the judicial reforms on Thursday night, he was greeted with a spontaneous standing ovation and continuous rounds of applause.

The electrifying reaction is understandable since this was the biggest announcement ever made by someone from the Executive side about restoring the integrity of the judiciary.

Former Court of Appeal judge Datuk N.H. Chan – who is famous for his quote “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” in the scandalous Ayer Molek case – is certain that things would be moving very soon.

Thank you: Former Lord President Tun Salleh Abas and Abdullahshaking hands after the Prime Minister made his speech on Thursdaynight.

Other retired judges had only positive words and phrases to describe the news – fantastic, wonderful and prayers answered.

Now that the initial euphoria has settled down, some quarters are saying that they welcome the news with caution.

Suaram is one such body that made such a careful stand about the proposal to set up a Judicial Appointment Commission.

According to its executive director, Yap Swee Seng, the stand was taken because Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had yet to state the powers and criteria of selection of the members of the commission.

“The assurance by the Prime Minister that the establishment of the Judicial Appointment Commission will be done with consultation of all stakeholders is encouraging,” said Yap.

He, however, noted that the crucial restoration of the doctrine of separation of powers seemed to be missing from the reform package offered on Thursday.

He said there was also no news about the restoration of the inherent powers of the court which had been taken away via amendments to Article 121 of the Federal Constitution in 1988 and had exposed the judiciary to possible legislative abuses of powers and curtailed the independence of the judiciary as a third pillar of the state.

The other flaw in the reform package, he said, is that the head of the Executive still retains the prerogative in naming judges to the King.

“Does that mean that the judicial commission is just an advisory body which will only have the powers to submit names to the Prime Minister who will ultimately decide the names to be proposed to the King?

“If this is true, then the role of the judicial commission is very limited and may be undermined by the prerogative powers of the prime minister,” Yap said, calling on the Government to ensure that the judicial commission is constituted with the powers to recommend judges to the King directly.

On the acknowledgement of the suffering went through by the six judges who were either sacked or suspended during the 1988 crisis, Yap said it would be more meaningful to set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the judicial crisis in 1988 and determine whether there was any abuse of powers.

Others have made the same calls with some equating the payment gesture as trying to sweep things from 20 years ago under the carpet.

The initial response from some family members of those affected in the crisis was that they would not accept the payment as all they want was a simple apology to clear the names of their loved ones.

Veteran lawyer Manjeet Singh Dhillon felt that the Government also owed him at least a handshake for the “suffering” which he had gone through during the crisis.

“When the crisis started, I was the Bar’s secretary. By the time it came to its peak, I had become the president.

“I was prosecuted by the then Attorney-General for alleging in an affidavit that the then Acting Lord President had tried to interfere with the administration of justice over the Tun Salleh matter,” he said, adding that he was later found guilty and fined by the court.

“I think if they go around shaking hands with the affected judges, they owe me a handshake as well,” said Manjeet Singh.

However, there are others who opined that the Prime Minister had done the best he could.

They thought what Abdullah had announced was the best package he could afford to offer, as he, too, had his fair share of restraints.

They are of the view that the Government should at least be given some time to move the proposals and not be attacked with scepticism before the chicks are even hatched.

De facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim while addressing the dinner crowd had quoted from the movie Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, which uncannily summed up the crux of the premier’s speech.

But Love Story was not the only evocative reminiscence from the 1970s that made its presence that night. On the stage, there were a few musicians minding their own business playing a rendition from the era.

One haunting tune - The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More – was played as the who’s who of the legal and judiciary fraternity went round congratulating and giving each other a pat on the back following the announcement.

Maybe time stood still for a moment that night.

Perhaps yesterday will come back once more for the judiciary to restore itself to its glorious past. No one really knows, only time will tell.

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