Political Crony Writes Malaysian Judicial Decision
|Our Correspondent||Feb 14, 2008|
In an astonishing display of the corruption of Malaysia’s legal system, a legal secretary testified Tuesday that a plaintiff’s lawyer in 1994 wrote an entire judgment to be read by a presiding judge who awarded RM10 million in defamation damages to a crony of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad against a journalist and six other defendants.
The story revolves around V K Lingam, one of Malaysia’s best-connected lawyers, who in September 2006 became the star player in a continuing legal scandal when a videotape was made public of a telephone conversation he was having with Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, then the country’s third-ranking judge, who was in charge of the appointment of most senior judges. The videotape appeared to show that some of Mahathir’s closest associates, particularly gaming tycoon Vincent Tan, were involved in the appointments of politically malleable judges.
Tuesday, a royal commission appointed to probe the allegations was told by G. Jayanthi, then a legal secretary to Lingam, that Lingam had written the judgment for the controversial case, in which Vincent Tan was awarded MR10 million in damages over four articles written about him in the now-defunct Malaysian Industry magazine. The judgment was transferred to a computer disk and delivered to High Court Judge Mokhtar Sidin, who read it in court. In the offending articles, Pillai, who faced RM2 million in damages, wrote that Tan was using his own newspaper to favor his business interests.
The hearing was adjourned yesterday until Friday to hear applications to disqualify commissioners Mahadev Shankar and Khoo Kay Kim.
Mokhtar presided over the 1994 defamation case, in which Tan was also awarded legal fees and 8 percent annual interest on the total damages until they were fully paid. Pillai has since died. In 2000, he told the International Herald Tribune, “In my 40 years as a journalist I have not earned 2 million ringgit. They are welcome to take the money I don't have."
The record damages set a standard for subsequent defamation cases, in which Malaysian business and political figures have used libel suits as a bludgeon to limit critical reporting.
It is not the first time the charge has been made against Lingam. Raphael Pura, a correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal who himself was sued by Lingam, made the same charge in 1999, alleging that the judgment, by Mokhtar, “written in part by the plaintiff's counsel, Datuk V.K. Lingam" was typed by "Lingam's secretaries one Jayanthi and Sumanthi.”
The leader of the panel looking into the charges against Lingam is Haidar Mohd Noor, a former chief judge. Haidar ruled in 2000 against allowing Pura’s allegations against Lingam into evidence. In the current series of events, he allowed Jayanthi’s testimony to be admitted into the record.
That has raised suspicions that the commission is actually allowing into evidence mostly information that would reflect badly on former Prime Minister Mahathir. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who made the original videotape public in September, charged in a press conference in Hong Kong Wednesday that the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is seeking to neutralize Mahathir in advance of elections which have been called for March 13. Mahaathir has called for Abdullah Badawi to step down as prime minister to be replaced by Najib Tun Razak.
“I don’t think anyone seriously expects anything to happen in this commission,” Anwar said. “I only think it is meant to put Dr Mahathir in check.”
Certainly prior to the current round of hearings, the tendency in Malaysia’s government-controlled press has been to play down allegations of wrongdoing in the judiciary. The panel itself is regarded as having little power and little inclination to use what it does have. Despite repeated requests to testify, Anwar has been ignored. At one point, the panel threatened to arrest Anwar if he didn’t come up with the name of the anonymous person who had videotaped the conversation between Lingam and Ahmad Fairuz.
Jayanthi, 45, also testified to the commission Tuesday that she had been given money by Lingam to deliver to other judges. In the case involving Pillai, she said that at some time between November and early December 1994, she and two other secretaries had been asked to do some "confidential typing," which turned out to be the judgment in Tan’s favor.
"I soon discovered that this (confidential typing) was about preparing and typing the judgment in relation to civil suit number S5-23-23-94 between Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun vs Hassan Hamzah, Soh Eng Lim, MGG Pillai and four others," Jayanti testified in a written statement. "Datuk Lingam was dictating from some handwritten notes the draft judgment for Sumanti to type. "Every now and then, he would order me to get various reported cases in the library to be incorporated in the judgment. He completed dictating the full judgment at about 3am."
In 2000, the case took on additional controversy when the appeal by Pillai was denied by a three-judge Supreme Court panel headed by then-chief justice Eusoff Chin after Chin came under public scrutiny for spending part of his overseas vacation in New Zealand with V K Lingam after he had argued the case.
Lingam later denied allegations that the New Zealand holiday had been paid for by Lingam, and that they had merely met on the flight. Nonetheless, in 2000, Eusoff was criticized by a government minister charged with legal affairs for behavior “"not in keeping with the proper behavior of a judicial personality."
In her statement, most of which was written, Jayanthi said that that Lingam was assisted by his brother, another lawyer and the former head of Malaysia’s Industrial Court. She told the court that she had given her handwritten corrections of the draft judgment along with the judgment itself to her lawyer, Muhammad Shafee Abdullah.
Jayanthi worked with Lingam for 13 months before resigning, she said, after being accused of stealing 1 million of Lingam’s shares in Berjaya Group. Although the shares were later found and she was asked to come back, she refused, she told the panel.
Lingam, she said, “corrected the draft judgment in red ink on certain pages. Sumanti then did the corrections accordingly and made a copy of the draft judgment in a floppy disk which was to be given by Datuk Lingam to Justice Datuk Mokhtar Sidin. I later discovered that the judgment as was written by Lingam was fully incorporated as the official judgment of the said judge."
The charges by Jayanthi are the latest in a series of commission hearings that at times have threatened to envelop the entire judiciary in allegations of deceit, corruption and factionalism, with the would-be reformers of the Malaysian Bar Association coming under fire as well for asking Lingam for help in securing appointments. Lingam at one point accused Robert Lazar, a lawyer representing the Malaysia Bar Council, of seeking Lingam’s help to become an appellate court judge, bypassing the lower courts. Lazar denied the charge.
In one tape made public by the commission, Dzaiddin Abdullah, who served as chief justice between 2000 and 2003, was implicated for accepting gifts and payments from Lingam. In addition, as an example of the factionalism in the court, Dzaiddin was asked to explain yet another videotape, in which Lingam claimed that he hated his predecessor, Eusoff Chin, and that Chin had blocked his chances to become a candidate for state honors.