THE landmark determination by a seven-member Federal Court panel that the Prime Minister, Cabinet ministers and other members of the nation’s top administration are public officials is perhaps the most significant step towards affirming the sanctity of the people’s trust.
This decision makes all these highest officials accountable, answerable and aware of their heavy responsibility to conduct themselves in a lawful, logical and level-headed manner.
As stated in the judgment, “minsters are no less holders of public office in the context of misfeasance in public office. They derive their salary from the public purse and carry out their functions with a public purpose.”
Whatever power and discretion they have is conferred on them to act in consonance with the laws and public good.
That power and discretion itself is well defined in a famous judgment of the late Acting Chief Justice Raja (as he was then) Azlan Shah who had ruled ( MLJ 135) in September 1978 that: “Unfettered discretion is a contradiction in terms” and, further that “Every legal power must have legal limits, otherwise there is dictatorship. In particular, it is a stringent requirement that a discretion should be exercised for a proper purpose, and that it should not be exercised unreasonably. In other words every discretion cannot be free from legal restraint; where it is wrongly exercised it becomes the duty of the courts to intervene.”
We should consider this latest decision of the Federal Court as excellent, epochal and even of existential significance.
I say existential significance as people elect governments in the belief that the government will safeguard the nation’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interest by protecting the public good and enhancing social equality and justice. It is also pertinent that the instant judgment specifically refers to the duty of the courts to intervene.
High-level elected officials and appointees should uphold high standards of personal conduct and integrity, as theirs is a trusteeship of the highest order.
Sultan Azlan Shah’s judgment is particularly pertinent today when alleged corruption and misconduct at the highest levels of the government in recent years has become publicly known.
Every individual, whether he draws a salary, allowance, pension or payment from the public purse or not, has an obligation to be watchful and alert the highest possible authority when there is strong suspicion of a gross act of impropriety or corruption. It is not so much about snitching on someone but about safeguarding our national assets, natural heritage and harmony.
DATUK M. SANTHANANABAN