20 November, 2007

Another open letter to PM

Prime Minister,

When you first assumed the post of prime minister, you appealed to the citizens of this country to work with you and not for you. Your tenure as the leader of this country has seen a greater openness and transparency in the workings of the government and in the media, although certainly falling short of what would be expected in a modern democracy celebrating 50 years of independence.

Your administration may be commended for being prepared to tread where previous administrations have been wary of doing so, such as in the setting up of the royal commission on the police force. It is perhaps for this reason that you were given a massive vote of confidence by the electorate in the last general election.

The time has now come to look into a once great and internationally-respected institution, the judiciary. The recent controversy surrounding a video purporting to show a lawyer brokering judicial appointments has once again raised questions about the integrity of our judiciary and whether it is facing a crisis of confidence. A police report lodged by the brother of the lawyer is shocking, not so much for the revelations it contains but for the fact that they are unlikely to surprise any of the stakeholders in the administration of justice.

It is commendable that the government has now agreed to set up a royal commission to investigate this saga on the video. However, its terms of reference must be wider than just investigating the video. It must look into the areas of judicial appointments, judicial corruption (both actual and perceived), backlog of cases, delayed judgments and ways in which the independence of the institution can be strengthened.

In short, the proposed royal commission must ensure that confidence in the judiciary is restored. If the government is serious about returning the Malaysian judiciary to its glory days, then it must also look into the remuneration of judges and their working conditions so that the very best will be prepared to accept an appointment to the bench.

The recent march by lawyers in Putrajaya appears to have irked both yourself and at least one of your cabinet colleagues. The issue ought not to be about the march but the message it intended to convey. As the president of the Malaysian Bar Council said, “When lawyers march, there must be something very wrong.”

If there are reservations as to the message that the lawyers were intending to convey, perhaps it is time that the voice of the judges be heard. There are enough good and courageous judges, past and present, who this country needs if it is to be a proponent of good governance, judicial impartiality, separation of powers and the rule of law.

Consider the words of the former lord president, the late Suffian Hashim, who in the aftermath of the 1988 judicial crisis said: “While there are judges whose integrity and impartiality have never wavered, the public perception is that the judiciary as a whole can no longer be trusted to honour their oath of office. When I am asked what I thought, my usual reply is that I wouldn’t like to be tried by today’s judges, especially if I am innocent.”

Consider also the words of former Court of Appeal judge Shaik Daud Ismail from a 2001 speech: “All along, people were confident the last place they could get justice is in the courts but in the light of certain cases before the courts and certain on-goings in some courts, they realised that the courts have let them down miserably. It used to be said that the tinting of judges’ cars was for security but now I say it is to hide my embarrassment.”

Also, consider what the late Suffian was heard saying during the 1988 judicial crisis: “For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to be Malaysian.”

The establishment of the royal commission is only a first step in restoring the credibility of our judiciary. It is therefore vital that its terms of reference are wide enough to cover every aspect of the way justice is administered in this country and for its recommendations to be implemented without delay. There must now be a will and an impetus for thorough reform.

If, as leader of this country you do the right thing, be assured that the entire nation will stand with you. If as a Malaysian, you do the right thing, be assured that no one will ever again say, “I am ashamed to be Malaysian.”

That, prime minister, will be your legacy.

- Colin A Pereira
(Letter to the Editor-Malaysiakini)

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