2014: Legal year in review

We are at the cusp of a new year. Once again, it is time to look back at the year and revisit the events that dominated the headlines, from a legal perspective. Yes, it is time again for the legal year that was.

The past year will surely be known as the year of living dangerously. Freedom of speech and expression took a beating in 2014. Its bruised and battered body will survive, but barely, into the New Year.

The main culprit is, of course, the Sedition Act. Say what you want about how important it is for harmony, unity and the Malaysian way, the fact of the matter is that the increased use of the Sedition Act had a chilling effect on the populace.

In 2014, the Sedition Act was used on all sorts of people - politicians, activists, lawyers, lecturers, reporters and even a kid who liked the wrong Facebook page. No one was spared, unless you talk about burning holy books, that is.

After two years of keeping us guessing, in 2014, the Government finally announced that the Sedition Act will stay and that it will be strengthened. The only surprising thing about the decision is how long it took for the announcement to be made.

This was also the year of hudud. Hudud is one of those issues that will crop up every so often. But this year, things took a more serious turn when the Kelantan government announced that hudud will be implemented in Kelantan. Cue intense debate and discussion, including the constitutionality of it all. It all went quiet for a few months and we thought it is all over, but the issue has come up again now.

There is a saying, “the devil is in the details”, but until now, details of how exactly hudud will be implemented in Kelantan remains elusive. Even PAS’ own central committee appears to be in the dark over the Kelantan government’s plans.

This year, two states underwent changes in their respective leadership. Both changes were accompanied by drama and suspense, rivalling anything you can hope to see on television.

The actual change of mentri besar in Terengganu was a smooth transition. It was only after the new mentri besar was installed that drama unfolded; the former mentri besar announced his resignation from Umno and he took a couple of state assemblymen with him. It came to a point that the ruling Barisan Nasional became a minority government when it had fewer representatives than the Opposition. As the Terengganu government then hung by a thread, the position of the Terengganu  government posed a legal question which many wanted answered, and legal eagles duly complied.

But the drama lasted only about 24 hours, the assemblymen who left returned to Umno’s fold and all is well again in the state of Terengganu. There was even a wedding in the end.

The drama in Selangor lasted for much, much longer. Too long, in fact. It was a spectacular falling out between PKR and Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, someone who used to be the party’s poster boy for “clean’ governance”. Essentially, it was a political crisis but many legal issues emerged out of the crisis. How do you get rid of a mentri besar who did not wish to go quietly into the night? What happens to a mentri besar who has been sacked by his party? Can a mentri besar sack his executive councillors? Can a state government function with only four exco members? How do you determine whether a Mentri Besar has the support of the majority? How do to determine who should be the mentri besar?

These were just some of the legal issues in relation to the Selangor mentri besar crisis and it seemed that anyone with a law degree, and even some without, had their own opinions on the issue and were more than happy to generously share them with the nation.

Just like the Terengganu crisis, the Selangor drama has also been resolved. The state has a new mentri besar and for now, everyone is happy. Including the former mentri besar, one suspects.

We also witnessed some interesting proceedings in court in 2014. The one that gripped the nation the most was at the appeal at the Federal Court by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim against his sodomy conviction. Lurid details of alleged sexual acts dominated the news, again. The eyes of the world were on our judiciary, again. Yet this time, there was live coverage of the proceedings via social media. We take it for granted now, but just a few years ago, we actually had to wait until it was reported by the media. Now, we can know what the top lawyers in the case argue on while pretending to do work at the office.

The Herald case saw its conclusion in 2014. The Catholic Church’s application for leave to appeal to the Federal Court was denied by the Federal Court in a majority 4-3 decision. Which basically means that the Court of Appeal decision still stands and is the law of the land, including the finding that the Word (you know which Word!) is exclusive to Muslims, much to the bewilderment of Muslims in other countries.

The year will also be remembered as the year in which the Court of Appeal found not one, but two, legislative provisions to be unconstitutional. The first is Section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act, so that the State could longer charge and punish organisers of peaceful assemblies who failed to give 10 days notice to the police. That did not stop the Public Prosecutor from charging people under the same provision. It is as if they pretended that the law was still valid and constitutional.

The second unconstitutional provision is Section 66 of the Syariah Criminal Enactment of Negri Sembilan, which criminalises male persons who wear women’s clothes. A group of maknyah succeeded on the basis that the law violated their constitutional rights as sufferers of gender identity disorder. Predictably, criticisms followed, some of which were laced with hellfire and brimstone. But if there is a lesson to be learned in the Negri Sembilan case, its probably this; do not counter medical reports with a fatwa, like what the Negri Sembilan government did.

These are just some of the interesting legal events of the past year. Who would have thought that 2014 would be more interesting than an eventful 2013? But we should not be surprised really, after all we live in interesting times here in Malaysia.

This writer, for one, cannot wait to see what 2015 has in store for us.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own

> The writer is lawyer.

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