The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi reiterated yesterday that he would concentrate on five initiatives he wanted to see through in his final five months in office, viz: to table three bills in Parliament to strengthen:
(i) the judiciary; and
(ii) the anti-corruption enforcement;
(iii) increase the effectiveness and integrity of enforcement agencies;
(iv) to enlarge the social safety net to ensure aid to all who needed it; and
(v) to hold a Barisan Nasional convention to improve inter-racial and inter-religious relations.
Abdullah must be realistic enough to know that the overwhelming majority of Malaysians are skeptical that he could accomplish any meaningful institutional reform in his last five months in office when he was helpless and impotent in the past five years.
The outgoing Prime Minister does not have the luxury of time – as he could be put to the test whether he has found the resolve to implement reforms he promised two days ago in a matter of a week, particularly on judicial reform.
In fact, Abdullah should be forewarned not to plunge the nation into a new era of judicial crisis which could erupt in a week’s time if an Umno Chief Justice is appointed for the first time in the nation’s 51-year history.
The present Chief Justice Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad is set for compulsory retirement on 18 Oct 2008.
The Conference of Rulers will be meeting in Kuala Terengganu on October 15 and 16, 2008.
Article 122B of the Constitution provides that the Chief Justice shall be appointed by the Yang di Pertuan Agong, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister, after consulting the Conference of Rulers.
Will the new Chief Justice be appointed after the Kuala Terengganu Conference of Rulers?
For the past two decades, the country had been plunged into prolonged judicial darkness, rocking from one judicial scandal to another, making the Malaysian judiciary an international laughing stock.
One of the reform pledges of Abdullah when he became Prime Minister five years ago was to restore national and international confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the Malaysian judiciary to pre-1988 era.
However, nothing was done until the March 8 “political tsunami” when he appointed Datuk Zaid Ibrahim as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department with the specific task to implement judicial reforms.
But Zaid resigned as Minister after less than six months in office in disgust and protest not only over the abuse of the Internal Security Act but also at the resistance he faced in the Cabinet when pushing for reforms to the judiciary especially the setting up of a meaningful Judicial Appointments Commission.
So far, the only “accomplishment” in the judicial field is the ex gratia payment to the former Lord President, Tun Salleh Abas and four former Supreme Court judges who were victims of the “mother of all judicial crisis” of 1988 – the Mahathir sacking of Salleh Abas and two Supreme Court judges, Datuk George Seah and the late Tan Sri Wan Suleiman Pawanteh.
However, the country has not been able to fully turn the corner to start the arduous process to restore national and international confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary because of ongoing judicial blots and scandals like the still unresolved Lingam Videotape scandal, the selective and malicious prosecution/victimization of Opposition leaders and the fast-track appointment of a long-standing Umno activist, Tan Sri Zaki Tun Azmi to the bench – firstly, the triple jump to become Federal Court judge in September last year without ever being High Court or Court of Appeal judge and then the quadruple jump three months later up the judicial hierarchy to become the Court of Appeal President.
Will Zaki make quintuple jump to be appointed Chief Justice of Malaysia after a year’s elevation to the bench when Abdul Hamid retires from the topmost judicial post in eight days’ on Oct. 18?
It is this possibility which holds the seeds of plunging the country into a new judicial scandal and crisis. Will this be the valedictory scandal of the Abdullah premiership?
This is why the Bar Council President Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan has said that it is imperative that the new Chief Justice to be appointed should have the necessary qualities to set the tone of the Judiciary and guide its direction.
I endorse her statement when she said:
“This is all the more critical at this time when the nation faces many political challenges. An independent judiciary stands above the fray, giving the nation’s citizens a sense of security and stability that justice will continue to be administered in accordance with the rule of law, no matter what the circumstances.”
The Bar Council President’s advice should be given full consideration by the Prime Minister in the appointment of the new Chief Justice, especially as a Judicial Appointments Commission has not been set up in violation of an implicit undertaking that the new Chief Justice would be appointed under the new regime of judicial reform.
Article 127 of the Constitution restricted parliamentary discussion of conduct of judges when it stipulates that “The conduct of a judge of the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal or a High Court shall not be discussed in either House of Parliament except on a substantive motion of which notice has been given by not less than one quarter of the total number of members of that House, and shall not be discussed in the Legislative Assembly of any state”.
If next week, the new Chief Justice or new acting Chief Justice is Zaki Azmi, then this constitutional provisional is likely to be invoked for a full parliamentary debate on a substantive motion into his suitability and qualification based on a scrutiny of his conduct and public record particularly as Umno legal adviser, chairman of the Umno’s election committee and deputy chairman of Umno disciplinary board of appeal.