Raja Aziz – A legal mandarin’s sad last days

By Terence Netto
Jul 14, 11 | MalaysiaKini

Raja Aziz Addruse, for all his ultimate eminence as a lawyer, must have felt himself a marginal man, especially in the last decades before his death on Tuesday from lymphatic cancer at the age of 75.

Nothing exemplified this peripheral stature than the refusal of the Federal Court to grant him consideration when questions on the constitutional monarchy were referred to it in a dispute on the royal succession in Kelantan last year that pitted the former sultan against his successor, the regent.

The former sultan had retained an ailing Raja Aziz as counsel when he challenged the constitutionality of the succession.

Raja Aziz had applied for sitting dates that did not clash with his medical treatment in Singapore, a courtesy de rigueur in the circumstances.

The court declined to grant, in derogation of Raja Aziz’s stature and legal etiquette. The matter was withdrawn as a result.

At this Raja Aziz must have felt the same pained befuddlement that at one stage led him, during the trial of Anwar Ibrahim on corruption charges in late 1998, to plead plaintively before judge Augustine Paul: “I just don’t know what is relevant any more.”

The late justice Paul, employing the mincing semantics of an expert at procedural rules, had ruled out several questions as “not relevant”, to the exasperation of senior defence counsel.
Rules impart rigor to the judicial procedure, but too mincing an interpretation runs the risk of the law succumbing to rigor mortis.

‘Kamikaze’ approach

No small irony resided in the fact that in Raja Aziz’s career, he had experience of the opposite tendency – taking too broad an interpretation with the same mortifying results.

This happened in the case when Umno was declared illegal in late 1987. Raja Aziz appeared for the plaintiffs who had sought to declare the crucial party election of earlier that year void because 13 illegal branches had participated in the electoral process.

High Court judge, the late Harun Hashim, was asked to declare the election results tainted as a consequence of the illegal branches’ participation.

Instead, justice Harun declared the whole party illegal, accepting what Raja Aziz had described as the “kamikaze” approach of the Umno lawyers in the case.

The episode was a critical juncture in the story of the judiciary’s decline, as the case went on appeal to the country’s highest court where the Lord President Salleh Abas ordered a full sitting of the bench.

But before the court could sit, Salleh was suspended by the king, a move that triggered a concatenation in which episodes like the Ayer Molek case, Anwar’s corruption and sodomy trials, the VK Lingam video tape controversy, came to be etched in judicial infamy.

An endangered species

Raja Aziz’s career straddled this extraordinary period of strife.

In all that time he was the preeminent representative of a social type that has come to be something of an endangered species in Malaysia – an eminent lawyer who lent his advocacy to public concerns over human rights and custodial deaths; a legal professional whose comportment highlighted the necessity for combat in our adversarial system and the courtesy that should properly attend it.

In the end, he must have come to feel despondent by what had befallen the judicial estate, feelings not unlike those of his fellow legal luminary from Perak, former Lord President Mohamed Suffian, whose end was also melancholic.

In a sense, both men were similar in the way they sought through the prism of the law to make some sense of the human condition – a sense of the best that social life could offer without perhaps a hardheaded enough feel for the worst things that humans beings can do to each other; a vision of the possibilities of change for the better without a sufficient grasp of the forces weighing for and against those possibilities.

In other words, theirs is the position of the ‘soft’ liberal, decent votaries with an insufficient grasp of the terrors of this world and inadequate insulation against its dispiriting surprises.

  1. No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.