KUALA LUMPUR, March 25 — Christopher Leong. His is not a household name like Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan’s who was president of the Malaysian Bar from 2007 to 2009 but Leong, who was elected last year to head the Bar, has created quite a stir in the legal fraternity.
He has spoken up on a slew of issues, sparking threats and even calls for an alternative Bar Council, which is the executive body of the Malaysian Bar that represents over 12,000 lawyers in peninsular Malaysia.
“It is not that we set out to target the government,” Leong told The Malay Mail Online in a recent interview at the Bar Council’s headquarters here.
“It may appear on occasion that the Bar is critical of the authorities. But that is only because when the Bar speaks out against abuse of power, it invariably refers to people who have power and therefore by definition, the people who are in a position of power to abuse such power, unfortunately, is the government of the day,” added the Malaysian Bar president.
Last September, various Barisan Nasional (BN) lawmakers called for an alternative body to the Bar Council, while a Muslim lawyer group even threatened the Bar Council last November and warned it against supporting the Catholic Church’s court appeal for the right to call God “Allah.”
Leong takes such threats in his stride, saying: “The role of the Bar is to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour.”
Looking at Leong’s numerous press statements on issues like death in custody, electoral fraud, detention without trial, the Court of Appeal ruling on the Herald’s “Allah” case, freedom of assembly, and press freedom, it would appear as if he was born to do law and human rights.
But the 51-year-old corporate and commercial lawyer used to be a band manager for a rock band in school.
“I couldn’t sing to save my life, nor play a musical instrument for public consumption,” said Leong.
He also dabbled in acting at Monash University, where he studied economics and philosophy.
“I co-directed and acted in a play based on the Mahabharata, which is a Sanskrit epic, when I was at Monash. And most of us in the cast came down with chickenpox after that as we shared the theatre make-up kit and, unknown to us, someone had chickenpox,” he said.
“After my experience with the make-up kit, I decided acting may not be for me, so on the next occasion, I volunteered as the stage manager for a drama when I was reading law at the University of Nottingham,” Leong added.
When asked why he decided to be a lawyer, Leong said: “Because I didn’t want to be an economist.”
But Leong, who has been in practice for 24 years, paints an almost virtuous, heroic picture of the legal profession.
“Society expects the lawyer to give more than his professional services as a lawyer. They expect the lawyer to be the voice of society on public interest issues.
“However, they do not have the same view or expectation of other professions, for example, an accountant. They look at accountants only in terms of them providing their professional services as an accountant. There’s never this added dimension,” he said.
Lawyers are like superheroes, then?
“I wouldn’t say like a superhero, but I suppose, as crusaders, soldiers and advocates for society,” said Leong.
His favourite lawyer joke also includes accountants.
“What's the difference between an accountant and a lawyer? The accountant knows that he's boring,” Leong said with a straight face.
“But I was told that there’s no such thing as lawyer jokes, because they’re all true stories,” he continues.
Onto more serious issues like the ongoing trial of the Malaysian couple in Sweden who are accused of hitting their children, Leong said that corporal punishment should be banned in Malaysia, including in prisons, schools and homes.
Whipping a criminal until the flesh is torn crosses the line from punishment to “torture”, he said.
Leong also related how as a child, he was caned by his father only on very rare occasions. At such times, his father would tell him what he did wrong, why it was wrong, and made him repeat the explanation.
“I dreaded that more than the cane itself. It is very difficult to get yourself to admit your own wrongdoing. I just prefer to take the punishment in the belief that I didn’t do anything wrong.
“I also appreciate that I came to learn much later that how my father did it was extremely rare, that most parents do not take the time or energy, therefore invariably, when a parent canes or hits a child, it is conveying violence. That is why corporal punishment for children at homes or in schools should not be allowed,” said Leong.
He ended the interview by urging Putrajaya to uphold the rights of minority groups -- ethnic, religious and sexual minorities -- and to ratify the core United Nations (UN) human rights treaties that have yet to be ratified, like on civil and political rights, torture, and migrant workers’ rights.
“One should bear in mind that when one speaks of a developed nation, it is not and cannot merely be a reference to impressive infrastructure and skyscrapers, and economic wealth. It must necessarily also refer to the values and principles that that nation embraces,” said Leong.