May God be with Malaysia
©The Straits Times, Singapore (Used by permission)
by Leslie Lopez, South-east Asia Correspondent
FIGHTING back stiff opposition from his own Cabinet and administration, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is set to unveil major reforms to the country's much-maligned judiciary.The reforms will include the setting up of a Judicial Commission that will be responsible for the selection and the promotion of judges. It will also feature changes to the Federal Constitution that will restore greater independence to the judiciary, senior government officials and lawyers said.
The reform agenda, which will be announced at a special dinner hosted jointly by the government and the country's Bar Council tonight, will also see Datuk Seri Abdullah make an expression of regret over the 1988 judicial saga that led to the sacking of the country's top judge.
The government's effort to make amends to the jurists disgraced by the events in 1988 will also include some form of financial compensation, one senior government official involved in the judicial reform plan told The Straits Times on condition of anonymity.
'The amounts are being worked out,' he said without elaborating. Malaysia's once-robust judiciary was dealt a severe blow when it clashed with former premier Mahathir Mohamad in the late 1980s.
That face-off led to the suspension of six Supreme Court judges and the subsequent removal of three of them, including the head of the judiciary at the time, Tun Salleh Abas.
The sackings damaged the integrity of the judiciary, which came under fresh attack again 10 years later during the controversial corruption trials of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.
Shortly after taking office in November 2003, Datuk Seri Abdullah declared that he would push for reforms in the judiciary.
But those efforts were often stymied by his own Cabinet colleagues, who served under Tun Dr Mahathir and were not keen on reforms that could embarrass the former premier, senior government officials and lawyers say.
Even the Prime Minister's move to establish a Royal Commission late last year to investigate a damning video-recording that implicated a prominent lawyer allegedly attempting to broker the promotion of judges was privately criticised by senior members of his own ruling United Malays National Organisation Party.
But last month's stunning election results, which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional lose its two-thirds majority and control of five states, changed everything, close aides of Datuk Seri Abdullah say.
The Prime Minister signalled that judicial reform was his key priority when he appointed prominent lawyer Datuk Zaid Ibrahim to his new Cabinet to push his agenda.
Lawyers and government officials credit Datuk Zaid for convincing the government to bring closure to the controversial events in 1988 and to establish a more transparent system of selecting and promoting judges.
Under the current practice, the country's Chief Judge recommends candidates to the Prime Minister and in the case of senior judicial appointments, the Chief Judge's recommendation must by approved by the Conference of Rulers.
But Datuk Zaid had to fight hard during Cabinet meetings, say senior government officials. There is also some unease among senior judges over Datuk Seri Abdullah's efforts.
Still, lawyers say that tonight's event could boost his battered public standing.
Sources say that the Prime Minister insisted that the six judges who were disgraced by the events in 1988 be present at the dinner where he will deliver a short address titled Delivering Justice, Renewing Trust.
Government officials say that former chief judge Tun Salleh Abas, his three other colleagues in the Supreme Court at the time - Datuk George Seah, Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin and Tan Sri Wan Hamzah - have confirmed their attendance.
The two other Supreme Court jurists - the late Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman and the late Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader - will be represented by their families, the government officials say.
Bar Council sources say that opposition leader Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ibrahim, who is Datuk Seri Anwar's wife, and Mr Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, will also attend tonight's event.
'We hope this will bring closure to the 1988 judicial crisis,' said a senior government official involved in the judicial reform plan.
But to some Malaysians it may not be enough.
'An apology or expression of regret would be sweeping everything that happened 20 years ago under the carpet,' said Datuk V. C. George, a former Court of Appeal jurist. 'We need an investigation into the events of 1988 and to expose the conspiracy and its conspirators.'
TIME TO SHOW LEADERSHIP
'There are more important things than private peeves and settling scores. Neither the brewing crisis over soaring food prices nor other major issues are going to wait for Umno to put its own house in order. Now is the time for the grand old party to move on, do the things its leaders have promised and show that it still has what it takes to lead the nation.'
MALAYSIA'S NEW STRAITS TIMES in a front-page editorial yesterda