Any reform of an institution or an institutional nature will require political will. As we have learnt, the Barisan Nasional federal government is impervious to public opinion. Were it otherwise, we would not have heard the kind of rhetoric we did these past few years and that we continue to hear. Like all bullies, the Barisan responds to aggression and power. Until March 8th, when Malaysians coalesced into the phalanx that drove the Barisan out of five states and denied it the traditional two-thirds majority it had become accustomed to, there was no power that could match that of the Barisan. Safe in its control of key institutions and agencies, it had sat back and thumbed its nose at everyone else.
The slap it received on March 8th made the Barisan reel. But even as it took one, maybe two, steps back, it quickly steadied itself and clung to whatever it could, notably government. And despite seeming efforts to bridge the gap between it and Malaysians through the trumpeting of the need for reforms, the Barisan has thus far governed pretty much as it had prior to March 8th. We have in the short time since the elections heard about threats to racial harmony, seen the race and religious card played, heard the usual excuses over non-performance and, as expected, heard of how the opposition is the cause of all ills in the nation. Business, as such, is pretty much as usual, perhaps more so for the fact that the internal power struggle in UMNO is eclipsing all else on the list of priorities. Governance, it would seem, has once again fallen second to politics.
In this climate, it is apparent that Malaysians can only reasonably expect to see reforms where these reforms intersect with the political agenda of key players within UMNO. For all purposes and intents, more so than before in light of their dismal performance at the polls, the MCA and the MIC are largely irrelevant.
This setting makes me wonder how to perceive these wonderful promises of judicial reform. I know Zaid Ibrahim and I think he is doing a good job at trying to push for reforms. His efforts strike me as being sincere and aimed more at nation building than politics. If he were the only factor in the mix, I would be heartened and would view the situation optimistically.
However, Zaid is not the only factor nor he is the only player. Neither is the Prime Minister, assuming that he is solidly behind the push for reform. There are those on the cabinet who, in many ways, represent the old guard and for that reason alone may choose to oppose any measure involving acknowledgments of wrongdoing, tacit or otherwise. I note the Deputy Prime Minister’s emphatic rejection of the suggestion that the gesture made by the Government to those judges who were victimized in 1988, was not, repeat, not an apology. This refutation is manifestly inconsistent with Prime Minister’s declaration of a need to make amends. This and the presence on the cabinet of other senior UMNO members who may be nervous about crossing Tun Mahathir, who in these politically treacherous times is now openly acknowledged as being the principal cause of the downfall of the Judiciary, hints worryingly at the possibility that the reform proposals may not gain traction.
The ex-gratia payment and the speech delivered by the Prime Minister fell short of the full vindication that the affected judges, so well versed in the parceling of fault, are deserving off. The payment and speech go someway to beginning a necessary process of truth and reconciliation not only the victims of 1988 but for the Judiciary and the nation. We must credit Zaid and the Prime Minister for that.
Having said that, it must be recognized however that no matter how we characterize the gesture, it in itself does not go far in reforming the Judiciary. Zaid had declared that there were three key aspects to the reform package he was offering Malaysia; the apology, the establishment of a judicial appointments commission and reinstating Article 121(1) of the Federal Constitution to ensure the separation of powers. Of the three, as thing stand, only the first has to an extent become a reality.
The Prime Minister’s declaration that the government proposes the establishment of a judicial appointments commission does not quite hit the mark where the second is concerned, in part because it is for the government to take steps and not to propose. His explanation that this will involve some time as the process has to be worked out is not reassuring in light of the split in ranks within the cabinet. The Prime Minister had in 2005 similarly reassured Malaysians that the IPCMC would be established. We have yet to see it, largely due to resistance from within. The establishment of the National Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) took some seven years. If that is what is meant when the Prime Minister says that the process will take time, I am not inspired. I do not know whether Malaysia can take another seven years of the Judiciary in its current state.
The avoidance of any discussion of Article 121(1) in the speech is similarly worrying. The reinstatement of the article as it was prior to 1988 is a crucial step in re-entrenching the separation of powers and re-establishing the judiciary as a bulwark against totalitarian arbitrariness. The Barisan government has time and time again shown us why Malaysians cannot afford to lose the right to seek judicial review. We are largely where we are because the courts felt themselves unable to intervene or, if permitted, were unwilling. The absence of any reference to this key aspect of the discussion further undermines my belief that the Government will actually take concrete steps forward.
Seen from this perspective, it is glaringly evident that the nation is currently caught up in a huge public relations exercise that the Barisan has hinged on the promise of judicial reforms. The public relation campaign does not necessarily of itself lead to the implementation of reforms.
It is for this reason that civil society must keep on pressuring the Government to act and to act decisively. The Pakatan Rakyat should consider tabling a private members bill for the establishment of an adequately empowered judicial appointments commission. All possible avenues to create awareness and force accountability must be explored. The battle has not been won, it has just begun.
Which is why I find the overwhelmingly supportive reaction of the Malaysian Bar somewhat surprising. The Bar has always been at the vanguard of rule of law issues. It has been steadfast in its condemnation of the events of 1988 and the subsequent decline in the quality and integrity of the Judiciary. Nothing less than a full apology and a reinstatement of all benefits of the judges who were wrongly attacked should have warranted the standing ovation given to the Prime Minister. But there was a standing ovation, and that at a dinner hosted by the Bar but paid for by the Government, something I never thought I would see in my lifetime as a lawyer.
The Bar needs to be wary of accommodating, or being perceived as accommodating, the politics of the Executive. It is however veering dangerously close to doing just that and compromising itself in a manner that will rob it of its credibility.
When, and if, the proposal for a judicial appointments commission comes to fruition, the Bar will be the primary voice of civil society to ensure that the commission is established as it should be. In all likelihood, the appointments mechanism will not satisfy the criteria of an independent appointments commission. At that point in time, the Bar must ensure that it is in a position to live up to its responsibilities. Positions it takes now will limit its freedom to react appropriately. Regrettably, the extent of support shown to the Government, from the hosting of the dinner to the adulatory speeches, may have already had their impact.
Commending the Prime Minister for the step taken was the proper thing to do, but to offer, as the media reports suggest, congratulations for the loosening up of controls over the freedom of expression, is to ignore the very real and very painful suppression of the numerous demonstrations of 2007 by force. The shots fired in Pantai Batu Burok still ring out, as do the cries of peaceful marchers and demonstrators as they were tear gassed and attacked with water cannons. The Prime Minister was responsible for all that and more.
I appreciate that activism will require tactical concessions. I also understand that it is better to seize what gains one can when one can rather than not making any progress at all. However, gains should not be taken at the risk of principle. The rule of law cannot be built on compromise.