Malaysia’s Lawyers Demand Probe of Judicial Favoritism

Shouting “We want justice” and waving placards saying that Malaysia’s judiciary “has gone to the dogs,” some 2,000 defiant lawyers marched through the country’s suburban administrative capital Wednesday over allegations that a well-connected lawyer connived in 2002 with the then-chief judge to select pliant members of the bar as judges.

Over the objections of the police and the discomfort of heavy rain, the lawyers, wearing their judicial black robes, and members of two opposition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the Democratic Action Party, marched from the Palace of Justice to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad’s office in Putrajaya, as the grandiose government complex is known, where four representatives handed over a memo demanding that a royal commission look into the allegations.

Seven buses of lawyers and their supporters were stopped by police from entering the Putrajaya complex, but they alit and walked in. * It was only the third time lawyers had taken to the streets since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad fired the then lord president of the Supreme Court, Tun Salleh Abbas, and two other supreme court judges. Despite the fact that Malaysia’s government appears to have a plateful of embarrassment before it at all times, it now appears that it has a full-blown scandal on its hands and one that is being pursued energetically by the opposition – with which the bulk of Malaysia’s lawyers are aligned.

As Asia Sentinel reported on September 20, the videoclip purported to show the politically well-connected lawyer V K Lingam purportedly in a telephone conversation with Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, who was later elevated to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, discussing the appointments. Fairuz has denied being a party to the conversation.

Even before the march began, the government had already bent to pressure to announce that it was setting up a special independent panel to investigate the authenticity of the video recording. However, Ambiga Sreenavasan, the feisty president of the Malaysian Bar Council, told reporters that the inquiry "can only be the first step. They can't force the presentation of witnesses or documents. The royal commission is a better option."

According to media reports, Sreenavasan described the heavy security, which included anti-riot police and a police helicopter, as "an act of intimidation." She added that the council also submitted a separate memorandum urging the government to establish an independent commission for the appointment of judges. "We call for an independent judiciary and more transparency in the appointment of judges. We are also asking for a meeting with the prime minister," she said. "What are we walking for? We are walking for justice. We are walking because we want judicial reforms."

The country’s embattled judiciary has faced a long series of allegations over its independence. Several recent cases, including the summary release of tycoon Eric Chia, a crony of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, on charges of fraud; the refusal to hear the case of a woman named Lina Joy, who wanted to change her religion from Islam to Christianity; and especially serious and continuing irregularities in the murder prosecution of three men closely tied to the Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak for in the execution of a Mongolian translator, have thrown the concerns into high relief. The Conference of Rulers, made up of the country’s nine sultans, is blocking the appointment of a new chief judge over concerns that the prime minister is showing favoritism by elevating his candidate over several senior ones.

Despite the currency of all of those issues, nobody has seriously regarded the courts as independent in the near two decades that have elapsed since Mahathir, angered by a series of decisions that went against the government, fired the supreme court officials and engineered the appointment of judges more to his liking. The former lord president Salleh has vainly been seeking a review of the judicial misconduct that led to his firing since Mahathir left office.

From the time of the firing forward, all of Malaysia’s courts have pretty much bent to the government’s wishes. When Abdullah Ahmad Badawi succeeded Mahathir as prime minister in 2003, he made combating corruption a cornerstone of his administration, but he is widely regarded as weak and out of touch, and his administration continues to be unable to overcome issues concerning either the independence of the Parliament or the judiciary.

The videotaped conversation, which was apparently filmed with a cellular telephone, was made public a week ago by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim of Parti Keadilan. In it, Lingam makes 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.

{mosloadposition youtube}

*Note: Story corrected from original, which said it was the first time lawyers had taken to the streets since 1988.

Below is a verbatim transcript of the conversation, which Asia Sentinel printed with the typed verbatim transcript of Lingham’s side of the conversation which occasionally lapses into Malay language, follows:

Draft Transcript between Lawyer VK Lingam with Tun Ahmad Fairuz (then Datuk Fairuz and Chief Judge of Malaya – No 3 in the hierarchy):

“The Chief Justice said he is relative to now Agong, so he wants to stay on to 68, so, Tengku Adnan (Mansour), I told Tengku Adnan, yesterday I had a meeting with him.

He said Prime minister (Mahathir) is already very angry with him, he said no problem he is going to make you…confirm your position as PCA, working very hard then working very hard to get Tan Sri Mokhtar as Chief Justice of Malaya.

Ah, we just keep it confidential. I am working very hard on it. Then there is a letter, according to Tengku, I am going to see him tomorrow, there is a letter sent to Chief Justice, I mean Tan Sri Dzaiddin, that Datuk Heliliah, Datuk Ramli, Datuk Ramli and Datuk Ma'roop be made judges, and he rejected Dr Andrew Chui and apa itu Zainuddin Ismail lah. Because Zainuddin Ismail condemned your appointment and Tan Sri Mokhtar's appointment.

And then you also, you seem to wrote a letter for the remaining five be confirmed as judges. As per our memo I discuss with Tun Eusoff Chin and we sent the same memo to PM. I just want to get a copy letter that that has been done.

And then Tan Sri Dzaiddin said he is going to recommend six people for the court of appeal, but until today the letter hasn't come to PM. He never discussed, but neither he has sent the letter to PM. Yes he has not sent. I know it is under the constitution for judges all that is your job Datuk to send, but we don't want to make it an issue now.

Ah. Ok Actually I told Tengku Adnan to inform PM, PM to call you for a meeting. I organize it so that Tengku Adnan will call you directly. And then I got your number, I will tell him to call you directly to for you to meet PM lah. So should be ok, then ar.. correct correct, it is very important that the key players must be there.

Correct correct. Correct. You know that the same problem that Tun Eusoff Chin has. He tried to do all this and yet he has run out of soldiers. He couldn't do it because many are from the other camp. Last time was unfortunate because Tun Daim was doing everything sabotaging, otherwise how are things with you - everything is ok?. No, don't worry. You know sometimes Tan Sri Vincent that half the time they are talking about judiciary rather than doing the work. But if I don't do this part my work will be useless.

Ha ha ha. Ah yes. Correct correct correct correct. correct. Ah right susah. You see he has now up for six court of appeal judges, so that he can put his men before he retires.

Correct correct correct, ah and then ah, correct. But never-mind, I will do this, I will get Tengku Adnan to arrange for PM to call you and Tan Sri Vincent Tan for PM to call you. And you know why, actually, I am very grateful with Tan Sri Vincent Tan you know why, I brainwash you so much even I quarrel with him. One day I went to Vincent Tan house, I fire him at the night in his house. I said very hell if you don't do this who will do it?

All these people Tun Eusoff Chin, Datuk Ahmad Fairuz, Tan Sri Zainon all fought for that. Then he called Tengku Adnan. Tengku Adnan he said, saya bukan Perdana Menteri Malaysia lah, you know. If the old man doesn't want to listen to me, go to hell.

He quarreled with me. I said never mind, never mind, you talk to PM again tomorrow morning to put Datuk Ahmad Fairuz to CJM. So next day morning he went and he called me back 9.30 that he said PM has already agreed. So I said never mind, we hope for the best. So I said no harm trying, the worst that it can happen is that you lose. Being the old man, (Mahathir) is 76 years old, he gets whispers everywhere, and then you don't whisper, he get taken away by the other side. But, now PM is very alert because every time he gets letters from Tan Sri Zaidin, he called Tengku Adnan, he said discuss with Vincent, come and discuss.

Yes yes, ya. Correct correct, ya, but you see although I know PM, I am a lawyer in practice my views are.. I go through them, I go through them lah. Ah ah ah ah.

And then Zaidin will call them telling that you went saw PM and you make a big issue out of it. Oh ya, I think so, I think so.

Ok, fine fine fine fine ok ok ok ok

Ah ah correct correct. Now I heard Raja Aziz, Raja Aziz huh, spoke to my lawyer Thayalan, and another lawyer Ailan, in the high court, they have a case each other. So, Thayalan and Ailan asked Raja Aziz, how is Tan Sri Wan Adnan?

He said he is on his way down. But you know what is the shocking thing he said? Datuk Fairuz became CJM. He overruled everybody, in three months time, he is going be made VCA, and 6 months time he is going to be CJ. He said he cant think he shocked. He told us.

Ha, it seems that they are going to organize a campaign to run you down. But you just keep quite don't say anything. Even the press asked, you said I leave it to God, that's all. Don't say. I really like your message. You said you work very hard, what can I do? I leave it to God. That's the best answer datuk that you can ever be.

Ah… I will also get Tan Sri to remind PM to put a Tan Sri ship this year lah. This will elevate you, you know.

Oh yes yes yes yes. ha. XX got so fast, Tan Sri Chong waited for whole year to get Tan Sri Ship.

Ah.. My god that's why, ah. Correct ya ya ya ya right right right correct correct

Don't worry, we organize this. If Tan Sri Vincent and Tengku Adnan want to meet you privately, they will, I will call you. We organize in a private arrangement, in a very unusual place.

No don't worry, Datuk, I know how much you suffer for Tun Eusoff Chin. And Tun said Datuk Ahmad Fairuz 110% loyalty. We want to make sure our friends are there for the sake of the PM and the sake of the country.

Not for our own interest, not for our own interest. We want to make sure the country comes first. Well, you suffered so well, so much you have done. For the election, Wee Choo Keong, everything. How much, no body would have done all these.

Yes, you know. Good lah. Don't worry. I am constantly working on this.

Ya ya, don't worry don’t worry. We work hard on this. And Datuk, and then if Tan Sri Vincent and Tengku Adnan want to see you, I will organize it in such a confidential place.

Ok Datuk very best. God bless you and your family.

Ok. Thank you thank you. Bye.