Judicial decisions and public responses


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In their response to a recent Federal Court verdict that found online newspaper Malaysiakini.com guilty of contempt of court, some leading politicians, many civil society groups, and a segment of society displayed an utter lack of appreciation for the ethical foundation of the right of free speech. With very little regard for the contemptuous and offensive remarks published by the newspaper concerned – remarks which Malaysiakini itself admitted were offensive – these public figures and others rallied to the portal’s defence.

To defend the exercise of the freedom of expression without considering the content and the issue at hand is foolhardy. Freedom of expression is not the freedom to abuse and to smear an institution – in this instance the judiciary – that is fundamental to the rights of the people and the democratic structure of governance.

The scurrilous and baseless allegations levelled at the judiciary had to be refuted in a firm and effective manner, which is why the judges imposed a hefty fine upon the newspaper. In fact, in a situation like this the people themselves should take a stand against those who appear to condone the misuse of free speech especially if they are leaders.

Instead, what happened, as we have witnessed, was the opposite. A segment of society, presumably educated and well-heeled, including political leaders, joined hands and within the twinkling of an eye mobilised the half a million ringgit to settle Malaysiakini’s fine set by the Federal Court. What does this counter-move by a segment of the citizenry imply? Does it mean that even when a wrongdoing is so evident and the arguments against the wrongdoer have been so lucidly presented, for some of our citizens the wrongdoer is still the aggrieved party and therefore deserves support and sympathy?

Is this because the wrongdoer enjoys an affinity of sorts with a segment of society which may be related to the political and social dichotomies of a communally divided society like ours? Conversely, is the negative reaction to the court’s verdict yet another manifestation of an erroneous view subscribed to by a portion of the non-Malay, non-Muslim populace that the judiciary is a Malay institution?

It is doubtful if the communal factor is the main reason for negative reactions to important court decisions in each and every instance. Three episodes in the last few decades show that other forces may be at work.

When a popular Mentri Besar who was also the national youth leader of Umno, the ruling party, was found guilty of corruption by a learned, respected judge from the same Malay community, a sizeable section of the Mentri Besar’s mainly Malay supporters refused to accept the verdict. They maintained without an iota of evidence that the sentence against Harun Idris pronounced by Raja Azlan Shah (later His Highness Sultan of Perak) was politically motivated.

In April 1999, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, a former Deputy Prime Minister, was jailed for corruption and while in prison he was sentenced to another nine-year concurrent prison term in August 2000 for sodomy. He was freed in 2004 and then jailed again by the Federal Court in 2015 also for sodomy. On both occasions Anwar’s supporters argued that he was a victim of political chicanery. Because he had a cult-like following, some of Anwar’s supporters to this day refuse to believe that he had indulged in the alleged sexual misdemeanours.

We now have the case of former Prime Minister Datul Seri Najib Razak convicted of abuse of power, breach of trust and money laundering by a High Court in July 2020. His diehard supporters refuse to accept the verdict and remain convinced of his innocence. Najib has taken his case to the Court of Appeal.

Whatever the outcome of Najib’s appeal, it is obvious from all three instances that allegiance to the leader overrides the validity of court decisions. It is the triumph of politics and power over law and morality. Underlying it is perhaps a certain neo-feudal reverence for leadership. These are attitudes that have hampered and hindered the development of a strong sense of right and wrong within the political arena.

It affects the non-Malay communities too. Blind loyalty to certain leaders which sometimes ignores their moral lapses is not uncommon in non-Malay politics today.

It is because it is an attitude that has become pervasive that a clear instance of contempt of court that defiles and denigrates the judiciary does not evoke the response it should from the educated stratum of society. On the contrary, the wrongdoing is feted in the name of free speech and the wrongdoer elicits material and moral support from the people. It is irrefutable proof – if proof is needed – that ethical principles are weak within the educated stratum of Malaysian society and the Malaysian populace at large.

CHANDRA MUZAFFAR

Kuala Lumpur

Note: Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the president of the International Movement for a Just World. He has been writing on issues in Malaysian society for five decades.

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legal system , free speech , judiciary

   

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