Malaysia’s Judicial Tango

Malaysian authorities are in a complicated dance with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, with the basic steps seemingly designed to obscure the reasons for the dance.

Officers of the country’s Anti-Corruption Agency last week announced they might arrest Anwar for protecting an anonymous whistle-blower who gave him a 14-minute videotape purporting to show a prominent, well-connected Kuala Lumpur lawyer in conversation with the current chief justice of the supreme court, allegedly fixing judicial appointments. The month-old search for the whistle-blower has largely diverted attention away from the allegations made in the videotape itself.

Anwar made eight minutes of the tape public in September, refusing to release the other six minutes because it contained the identify of the person who made it. The release of the truncated version set off a firestorm of criticism and demands for a royal commission to investigate the allegations. At one point, 2,000 lawyers marched on Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital, to push for the probe.

Almost immediately, at least in Malaysia’s largely docile press, the focus changed from the allegations arising from the tape, to the identity of the person who made it. Nonetheless, the government has been unable to control the bloggers who have posted the video clip numerous times, including on YouTube. In addition, it appeared on the homepage of the Malaysian Bar Council.

In any case, the matter culminated Thursday with a deadline from the corruption agency to turn over the tape or officers would visit Anwar’s office, possibly to take him into custody. The officers, however, put off their meeting and called back later to say they would choose another day. Later, Anwar himself held a press conference to announce that he would cooperate with officials and turn over the videotape.

"We don't want to give the impression that we are not giving cooperation," he told a packed press conference, then added that his lawyers were filing a legal challenge to the ACA's demands.

Observers in Malaysia say they doubt if the ACA will actually try to jail the former deputy prime minister. But, they say, the squabble over the tape could take weeks to play out, further obscuring the reason for the scandal in the first place.

In an impassioned opinion article published in the October 22 Wall Street Journal-Asia, Anwar wrote that “Political parties from the opposition including the Justice Party (Keadilan) as well as a few hardy voices from within the government, have demanded that an independent Royal Commission be established to investigate this scandal. Other independent bodies, such as Transparency International, have joined the chorus for a full and transparent inquiry. Yet the government's response has been uninspiring. Prime Minister Badawi came to power in 2003 promising to clean up corruption and depoliticize the judiciary. His lack of action since the video's release demonstrates how little he has accomplished on both fronts. He has rejected demands to establish the Royal Commission and instead has spent more than a month calling for verification of the authenticity of the video ‑ a task that requires no more than a few hours of laboratory work.”

The tape was made in 2002. In the conversation, Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, then the third-ranking judicial official and in charge of the senior judges in Peninsular Malaysia , and lawyer V K Lingam make it clear that Mahathir Mohamad, then the prime minister, was closely involved in the appointment of senior judges, along with some of Mahathir’s closest cronies, particularly gaming tycoon Vincent Tan. Fairuz later became chief justice of the supreme court.

Concerning one appointment, Lingam is heard to say to Fairuz: “Don’t worry. We organize this. If Tan Sri Vincent (Tan) and Tengku Adnan (Mansour, the minister of tourism and a powerful figure in the United Malays National Organisation) want to meet you privately, they will, I will call you. We organize in a very private arrangement, in a very unusual place.”

Lingam and Fairuz have refused all comment about the matter. Amid the rising clamor for a royal commission, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced that the government would establish a three-member panel to discover if the videotape was authentic.

The panel has no ability to compel witnesses to testify or interview those implicated in although it is questionable how far the probe would go in any case. As Asia Sentinel pointed out on October 5, the leader of the panel is Haider Mohd Noor, a former chief judge, now chairman of the Bumiputra-Commerce Bank Bhd, which is controlled by Najib’s brother Nasir. Haider is also a trustee of the Perdana Leadership Foundation, which is used by Mahathir to continue his political activities. Indeed, so far, beyond demanding that Anwar turn over the tape, the panel has produced no results and has called neither Lingam nor Fairuz.

Anwar is no stranger to Malaysia’s penal system. After falling out with Mahathir, he was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption 1999; in 2000 an additional nine years was tacked on for sodomy in trials that were widely held to be spurious. He was finally released in 2004, after Mahathir left office and a three-judge panel overturned the sodomy conviction. The corruption conviction remains on the books, however, barring him from running for political office until April 2008.

Malaysia’s judiciary has faced a long series of allegations and is under attack by the Conference of Rulers, the country’s nine sultans, who are blocking the appointment of a new chief judge on charges of favoritism. The independence of the court was severely undermined in 1988 when Mahathir sacked the country’s Lord President, Tun Salleh Abbas, and two and ended its autonomy from the government. The system largely remained under Mahathir’s thumb until he left power.