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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Deal With The Rot, Not The Tape

If Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz has any sense of personal honor and professional integrity left, he should resign immediately. If Prime Minister Abdullah has even the slightest responsibility for leadership and moral duty to the citizens, he should not extend the Chief Justice’s contract due to expire this October. If the Malaysian Bar Council has any credible principle of societal obligation and self-policing ethics of a profession, it would disbar the lawyer making that phone call shown in the infamous video clip exposed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Alas, judging from past performances, expect none of these. That is the unfortunate reality of Malaysia today. What remains then would be for the King to withhold consent for extending Feiruz’s contract, thereby precipitating an unnecessary and distracting constitutional crisis the nation could ill bear.

The Bar Council had an Emergency Meeting on the issue, but instead of initiating the necessary disciplinary proceedings on the involved lawyer (which would definitely be within its power) it decided instead to march at Putrajaya and hand a petition to the Prime Minister demanding for a Royal Commission. Next those lawyers would be demonstrating on the streets. So Third World, a la Pakistan! I would have thought that those smart lawyers would have concocted some novel legal theory on which to sue the government into action.

Meanwhile Abdullah Badawi was “disappointed,” not at the explosive contents of the video but the fact that it was released. Wake up, Mr. Prime Minister! The rot is the Malaysian judiciary, not the taping. If Abdullah does perk up from his slumber, he would probably order the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim!

Chief Justice Feiruz, taking a leaf from the Prime Minister’s notorious “elegant silence,” issued a terse, “No comment!” It was neither elegant nor silent; instead it was ugly and spoke volumes.

Motive for Taping

The quality of the recording is such that it is unlikely to be a fake. With today’s forensic capabilities, it would be foolish for anyone to even attempt doctoring the tape. The lawyer concerned was speaking on his cell phone, meaning, there will be the inerasable digital trail. My monthly cell phone bill details my outgoing and incoming calls. Because of the quality, the video could not have been shot surreptitiously as with a cell phone a la the earlier “nude ear squat” episode. Besides, such a device was probably unavailable back in 2002.

The intriguing question then is why the taping was made in the first place. Dispensing with the most common and obvious reason – stupidity – I posit a few.

One is that basic human emotion: vanity. The bragging rights of accumulating the next million after you have already acquired a few declines very rapidly. You need some other trophies, like an embellished royal title or additional wives (for Muslims). If you already have those, or cannot acquire them, then the next intoxicating fantasy is to be kingmaker, or fancying yourself as one.

For a lawyer to be able to brag that you could “handle” senior judges must be the ultimate high. It also considerably enhances your ability as rainmaker. Years later in your old age, your skeptical grandchildren might attribute your boasts to nothing more than the rambling of a senile mind, unless of course you have the video to prove it!

Closely related to vanity is arrogance. Humility is when you could manipulate the nation’s judiciary and have the quiet satisfaction; arrogance is when you flaunt it. This lawyer Lingam was certainly flaunting it!

Alternatively, I do not put it below this shyster to put on this monologue with an imagined targeted senior judge at the other end, a la Lat’s old cartoon, and then purposely “leaked” the tape out. It would certainly be a headline grabber. As for a motive, rogues are known to do this to each other when they have a falling out. There is one quick way to check this: examine the tape to determine when it was manufactured.

The last possibility is that this could be an insider’s job, perhaps an employee’s scheme to get even with his or her boss just in case he would get nasty in future. Knowing how law firms’ employees are treated in Malaysia, this is a real possibility.

Judicial Commission No Remedy to The Rot

After much delay and amidst speculations, Abdullah finally appointed, apparently at the Rulers’ insistence, Justice Hamid Mohamed as President of the Court of Appeal, and Justice Alauddin Sherif as Chief Justice of Malaya. The two are highly regarded for their integrity as well as for being apolitical and independent minded. No wonder they were not Abdullah’s initial choice!

Abdullah also appointed a private lawyer Zaki Azmi directly to the Appeals Court. He was on UMNO’s “Money Politics” disciplinary board. Lately he was known more for dumping his young Thai bride (his second, third, fourth?) and then asking her to burn their wedding certificate that was issued in Southern Thailand. Such personal integrity! The surprise is that the Council of Rulers consented to the appointment.

Perhaps Zaki Azmi was Abdulalh’s ideal choice for a future Chief Justice. In which case, Zaki would accurately reflect Abdullah’s character.

The rot in the judiciary predates Abdullah. However, he had the opportunity to reverse the trend or at least stem the decline with these new appointments, but as with the massive electoral mandate he received in 2004, he squandered it.

Many are advocating for an independent Judicial Commission to deal with judges’ appointments and promotions. I disagree. Judges and the judiciary generally must be accountable to the public. While I would not have judges be elected, as in some jurisdictions in America, the current system with judges appointed by the Prime Minister and consented to by the Council of Rulers is a good substitute. There is no point wasting time and effort tinkering with the current system.

What is needed instead is for the Prime Minister to be wise in his appointments and to open the field as wide as possible. In America, federal judges are nominated by the President and then consented to by the Senate, after a public confirmation hearing. If the president were stupid enough to nominate someone equally stupid, the Senate would not hesitate to deny the confirmation, after the appropriate public humiliation of the hearings. Additionally, the Bar Associations, legal scholars, and editorial boards would never shy from voicing their opinions.

The Prime Minister cannot abdicate his responsibility in selecting judges. If Abdullah needs guidance (he obviously does!), I suggest that he reads Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs. If he finds the volumes too thick and tedious, I can help Abdullah by referring him to the relevant few pages.

Elsewhere I commented on the intellectual and experiential insularity of Malaysian judges. They are almost exclusively drawn from the civil service, with minimal or no outside experience in academia, private sector, or elsewhere. They follow directives only too well.

I was stunned that Chief Justice Feiruz, when confronted with the evidence that he had promoted judges who had been delinquent with their written judgments, would write to the Prime Minister instead of handling the issue himself. Presumably Feiruz was awaiting arahan (directive) from the Prime Minister. So much for his appreciation and understanding of the concept of separation of powers!

That more than anything reflects the caliber of Feiruz. Don’t get me started on the quality of his legal writings and commentaries!

In the end it does not matter what system you have if those responsible for selecting our judges do not do the job responsibly. The rot in our judiciary is not with the system but with the personnel. The system has produced such judicial luminaries as Tun Suffian and Raja Azlan Shah. It could do it again.


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