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Signs of hope for Malaysia’s judiciary

Anwar's acquittal gives hope that independence is returning to the country's courts

  • Joy Wilson Appukuttan, Kuala Lumpur
  • Malaysia
  • January 16, 2012
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Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s recent acquittal took everyone by surprise. Though this one case does not by any means prove that the judiciary in Malaysia is independent, we are seeing some progress. In recent years, in fact, the judiciary has been improving its image, which had been badly tarnished since 1988.

That year saw one of the worst developments in Malaysian history. Lord President of the supreme court Salleh Abbas and two other supreme court judges were sacked under the administration of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The country’s judiciary since independence from Britain in 1957 and through 1988 was one of the most respected in the world. Within the country, too, it was one of the most credible institutions. There was separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. With the 1988 incident, however, it would take a lifetime to rebuild confidence.

The executive cannot interfere with the judiciary, which has to be a separate and independent body. The judiciary is one institution that cannot be touched, because people need to believe that it is a place they can go to obtain justice. If it is tainted or adulterated, people will lose faith in the nation and the door will be opened to anarchy.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) government dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) could change the constitution because they had more than two-thirds majority of seats in parliament. The ruling government had  more than a two-thirds majority in parliament until the 2008 general election, when it lost its two-thirds but retained a simple majority. Furthermore, lawmakers in Malaysia do not vote in parliament independently but vote according to party lines.

After 1988, a series of legal cases cast doubt on the independence of the judiciary, including Anwar Ibrahim’s first trial for sodomy and corruption in 1998.  He was convicted and given a nine-year sentence. But this verdict was overturned in 2004 and Anwar was released in the era of Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Badawi.

Anwar’s second sodomy trial that started in 2008 should never have taken place. The allegations were questionable and evidence for the alleged crime was obviously lacking. It seemed to have been a political action. Moreover, many irrelevant and nonsensical issues were brought up.

Nevertheless, Anwar’s acquittal on January 9 was a surprise. It has restored some confidence in the judiciary. Though it remains to be seen whether the judiciary is really free and fair, there is hope that we’re going in the right direction.

So far, improvements in the judiciary have been mainly in matters of efficiency of administration, such as expediting cases. For example, when a case is filed now, it has to be completed within six months. Independence of the judges is another matter, however. We hope that progress in judicial reform will extend to judicial independence.

And this cannot come at a better time. In the age of the Internet and new media, people are becoming more aware and alert about what’s happening. With better access to information, young people in particular know their rights, and they want to see change.

The current government and those who one day might want to be in government would do well to take heed.

Joy Wilson Appukuttan is president of the Catholic Lawyers Society of Malaysia.
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