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Reforming the Malaysian Judicial Services

The Malaysian judiciary has long been criticised of corruption, and also for being less-than expeditious in its process. Earlier this year, de facto Law Minister, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, promised to bring changes to Malaysia's legal system, beginning with the judiciary. While he was in office, Zaid set up a committee to get reforms underway.

However, Zaid resigned from his position in protest to the detentions without trial of a journalist, a blogger and an opposition MP, all of whom were detained within a one-day time frame. Now, it is unclear if judicial reforms will take place, or even if they do, how effective the reforms will be.

This comes hot on the heals of Tan Sri Zaki Azmi as the new Chief Justice of Malaysia. According to blogger Shamsul Iskandar:

Agak menyedihkan bagi seorang Perdana Menteri yang akan menghabiskan sisa-sisa perkhidmatannya pada Mac 2009 kerana masih lagi gagal untuk memahami dan memenuhi kehendak rakyat supaya badan penting seperti Badan Kehakiman ini ‘dibersihkan’ tanpa sebarang keraguan. Umum mengetahui bahawa sebelum Tan Sri Zaki Tun Azmi dilantik sebagai Hakim Mahkamah Persekutuan, beliau merupakan seorang tokoh korporat yang rapat dengan Parti Umno malah mengetuai salahsatu jawatankuasa di bawah parti berkenaan.

It is sad that a Prime Minister, who intends to end his service by March 2009, to fail to understand the and fulfill the needs of the citizens, so that an important organ like the judiciary is ‘cleaned’ without any undue concern. It is generally known that before Tan Sri Zaki Tun Azmi was chosen as the new Chief Justice of the Federal Court, he was a corporate figure who was close to the UMNO party [major component party in the ruling coalition], even heading a committee under the mentioned political party.

The need for judicial reform in Malaysia is considered crucial by many Malaysians. From the 1988 judicial crisis, which saw the sacking of six prominent judges by the Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, followed by what has been called as “two decades of judicial darkness“, including poison pen letters alleging judicial corruption in 1996 and culmination of the crisis in the recent “Lingam Tapes” scandal.

According to Screenshots, the Lingam tape purportedly shows a veteran lawyer, VK Lingam, in a phone conversation with current Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, allegedly fixing the appointment of ‘friendly’ senior judges.

The outrage of the clip caused the government to form a Royal Commission of Inquiry into its contents. Most tellingly, the Commission found that the judicial appointments is open to manipulation by the Executive and private citizens, and that prominent personalities, including former Malaysian premier, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, were involved in an ”insidious movement” to fix the appointment of judges.

The Malaysian judiciary has not ever recovered from the Lingam scandal, and Malaysians looked with favour on Zaid's proposals on judicial reform. However, since his resignation and its aftermath, which included an open letter to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah on the detentions without trial, and now with the appointment of Tan Sri Zaki Azmi, things are not optimistic. Din Merican stated:

…I am aghast at this latest news coming out Kuala Lumpur today that the appointment of UMNO’s Zaki Tun Azmi as the new Chief Justice of our country has been accepted by Majlis Di Raja (Council of Rulers). Zaki is the pick of our reform minded Badawi government in its dying days, despite the fact that some 25,000 Malaysians had signed the petition appealing to our Duli Yang Maha Yang DiPertuan (our King) to stop this appointment.

This is no doubt a huge blow to judicial reform and one can only hope the Parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle will in good conscience and as provided under Article 127 of the Federal Constitution debate this appointment. As it is, Malaysia’s image abroad is severely impaired and with this latest development, political observers and analysts will wonder why Prime Minister Badawi who promised to push his reform agenda in his remaining months in office should be making such retrogressive move.

While Guansin says:

It is common knowledge that the Judiciary of Malaysia has rotten over the years, culminating in the Lingam tape scandal in 2007, much to the wrath of the rakyat of Malaysia. But reading the specifics of how some judges have rotten in the Judiciary would allow us to expose and shame the judges concerned. We should not just let them off easily.

Meanwhile, current politician and son of former premier, Tun Dr Mahathir, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, recently stated that Zaid’s efforts to make the judicial appointments system more transparent would not play much of a role in the nation’s progress, asserting that judicial reform issues, if not implemented, would not cause the nation to crumble, adding that Malaysians had lived all this while without them.

This, along with the appointment of Tan Sri Zaki, has caused much disquiet among netizens. Malik Imtiaz stated on his blog:

Matters of judicial competence and integrity impact across the board; they are neither race nor political-party specific. Bad or skewed decisions hurt the wider legal profession and the nation as a whole as much as the litigants involved. One of the biggest difficulties practicing law at the present is the lack of certainty in the law, in part for there being a slew of decisions that have been adjudged without due regard to principle or precedent. In becoming precedents themselves, these decisions have undermined the foundations of not only the legal system but also the system of commerce that it supports. Commerce being wholly dependent on the certainty that only an effectively functioning legal system can provide, the current state of affairs is anathema.

In addition, the public has recently been reminded of the slow and arduous journey of the Malaysian justice system, with the appeal of human rights activist, Irene Fernandez beginning this month. The case is said to be Malaysia's longest-running case in Malaysia, littered with postponements, missing court documents and ‘incomprehensible’ judicial notes.

However, new Chief Justice Tan Sri Zaki Azmi has begun his term with what has been described as a “hard-hitting” speech. He said that he will not hesitate to take stern and drastic action against errant judges, who have tarnished the image of the judiciary. According to news reports, Tan Sri Zaki is already planning reforms, with the blessing of the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has stepped back into his former position as the minister in charge of legal affairs, in replacement of Zaid Ibrahim. Nazri has done some good work with the legal affairs portfolio, like pushing forward the Witness Protection Bill. However, Zaid has stated that in his time he faced much opposition in Parliament. The jury is out if Nazri, together with Tan Sri Zaki, will be able to come through with effective judicial reforms.

[note: Tan Sri, Tun, Datuk Seri and Datuk are honourifics given to Malaysians]

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