Fresh Dirt Muddies Malaysia’s Judges

New allegations have been raised against Malaysia’s embattled judiciary involving evidence against some of the country’s top legal figures and governmental officials. The charges are being made by the brother of a prominent lawyer embroiled in a recent scandal over judicial appointments.

Opposition party lawyers held a press conference Sunday to say that police ignored reports made by Kadar Vellupillai that his brother, VK Lingam, had made improper payments of money and gifts to Malayian judges and their wives. Lingnam was the lawyer in a controversial video clip made public in September that apparently shows an attempt to fix judicial appointments.

Why the brothers fell out, or how, is a matter of conjecture. But in any case, apparently the police reports were never followed up, according to Wee Choo Keong, a lawyer for the opposition Democratic Action Party. The allegations involve some of the country’s most important judicial and law enforcement figures including former Chief Justice Eusoff Chin, former Attorney General Mohtar Abdullah, former Inspector of Police Rahim Noor, and judges Mohtar Sidin, Low Hop Bing, and K.L Rekraj.

Among the allegations are claims of huge transfers of money to accounts in London following an insider tip-off about an anti-corruption agency raid.

The new revelations are closely entwined in a controversy with at least some of Malaysia’s royals, who appeared earlier to have risked the role of the monarchy on judicial reform. They have put themselves in what may well be an unwinnable judicial controversy. There is a kerfuffle, for instance, over whether they did or did not put insert themselves into an opposition controversy over election reform.

Some royals opted out of the messy affair over the weekend, with the Sultan of Pahang, the daughter of the Sultan of Kedah, and the Sultan of Terengganu, who serves as the current king, issuing public statements saying they did not approve of a massive demonstration demanding electoral reform on Nov. 10. Later, Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, the Sultan of Kedah, added that it was "imperative" to preserve unity in the country.

First a statement was issued by a palace official saying that Mizan Zainal Abidin, the Sultan of Terengganu, “expressed regret” over any impression that the king had approved or supported the rally, the biggest in at least a decade, which drew some 40,000 people and culminated with the leaders of three opposition parties handing over a memorandum to an official of the Istana Negara, or National Palace, calling for electoral reform.

Then Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz, the daughter of the Sultan of Kedah, said royal institutions should remain apolitical at all costs. "I support Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin who has made his stand very clearly that he and the palace did not support the illegal rally," the princess said on Friday.

Also Saturday, Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang, issued a statement saying that Malay rulers will not get involved in politics or support illegal rallies. Ahmad Shah described as baseless claims that the royalty had supported the protest and urged his subjects not to get involved.

But it’s questionable how united the royals are. They have been involved in their own confrontation with the government over judicial appointments, blocking Abdullah Badawi’s candidate for Chief Judge of Malaya, the judiciary’s third-ranking position, which was vacated when the previous occupant retired earlier this year.

Certainly, Malaysia’s judiciary has given plenty of reason for alarm, particularly since Sept. 20, when a scandal burst into the open with the publication of a video clip purporting to show Vellupillai’s brother, Lingam in a telephone conversation with Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, who was later elevated to become chief justice of what was then called the Supreme Court and is now called the Federal Court, discussing the appointment of politically malleable judges.

Both Fairuz and Lingam have denied they were parties to the conversation. A half-hearted independent panel has taken evidence, but mainly appeared to be concerned about who made the videotape rather than who was on it or who said what. Ultimately, however, the government was forced to agree to the creation of an independent Royal Commission to examine the evidence.

The latest allegations are certain to add fuel to the fire, especially since Malaysia’s anti-corruption authorities appear to have ignored them altogether.

In particular, Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak, one of the country’ s most respected figures, previously created a stir in Malaysia with an almost unprecedented speech hitting out at the country’s tainted judicial system. “We must be ever mindful that written constitutions are mere parchment pieces,” he told a law conference in Kuala Lumpur on October 29. “Without a reputable judiciary ‑ a judiciary endowed and equipped with all the attributes of real independence ‑ there cannot be the rule of law,” he said.

Since the country won independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, the sultans, known as the Conference of Rulers, have mostly stayed out of politics. Whatever power they had was largely taken away from them by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in a series of actions in the in the 1980s, leaving them with only the power to appoint judges. In 1983, backed by a strong parliamentary majority, he forced the sultans to surrender their right to refuse assent to laws passed in parliament.

The question over the Nov. 10 march is whether the palace actually accepted the memorandum. The sultan quickly absented himself and was said to be in Terengganu, on Malaysia’s northeast coast, when the marchers arrived. Nonetheless, a palace official did take the document.

Related Stories: