Putrajaya seeks to curb Malaysian Bar with government appointees

Malaysian Bar president Steven Thiru said the proposed amendments include having the minister in charge of legal affairs appoint two members of the Bar Council, the decision-making body of the Malaysian Bar, to represent the government. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Malaysian Bar president Steven Thiru said the proposed amendments include having the minister in charge of legal affairs appoint two members of the Bar Council, the decision-making body of the Malaysian Bar, to represent the government. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 27 — Putrajaya appears to be aiming to control the Malaysian Bar by seeking significant amendments to the Legal Profession Act 1976, including having a minister appoint two members of the Bar Council to represent the government.

A circular to members of the peninsular legal body by Malaysian Bar president Steven Thiru said the proposed amendments scheduled to be tabled in the next parliamentary meeting in October also includes hiking up the quorum requirement for the Malaysian Bar’s general meetings from 500 members to 25 per cent of the membership, or 4,000 members.

The Malaysian Bar currently has 17,000 members.

“The Bar Council has neither sought these proposed amendments, nor has there been any resolution by members of the Malaysian Bar for these amendments,” Steven said in the circular dated today sighted by Malay Mail Online.

“In its wide sweep, the proposed amendments pose a serious threat to the independence of the Malaysian Bar, and are an unwarranted interference into the self-regulation and internal management of the Malaysian Bar.

“There is presently no cogent or justifiable basis for these proposed amendments, and its underlying objective is unclear. It has been observed that ‘[t]he independence of the Bar from the state in all of its pervasive manifestations is one of the hallmarks of a free society’,” he added.

The proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act come even as the Bar Council has openly criticised various government policies and legislation for violating human rights, including the Sedition Act 1948.

The Malaysian Bar also approved a motion at its AGM last March that called on Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali to step down as Attorney-General over his handling of cases involving state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that is under several international investigations around the world.

According to Steven, the proposed amendments include having the minister in charge of legal affairs appoint two members of the Bar Council, the decision-making body of the Malaysian Bar, to represent the government. But these two members will not be eligible to contest any office bearer position, namely the president, vice-president, secretary or treasurer.

The government is also seeking to abolish the annual election by postal ballot — currently for 12 members of the Bar Council — by Malaysian Bar members, and will instead have the Bar Council elected at the state Bar level once every two years.

“Three members from each State Bar — the Chairmen of the State Bar Committees, and two State Bar Representatives — would be elected directly to the Bar Council by secret ballot at the State Bar’s Annual General Meeting. One of the State Bar Representatives must be a member with more than 10 years in practice, and the other must have less than 10 years in practice.  

“As there are 12 State Bars, this process would result in the election of 12 State Bar Committee Chairmen and 24 State Bar Representatives as members of the Bar Council, totalling 36 members,” said Steven.

“The remaining four members of the Bar Council would consist of the immediate past President and immediate past Vice-President of the Bar, and the two members of the Bar appointed by the minister in charge of legal affairs to represent the government,” he added.

The government is also proposing to increase the size of the Bar Council from 38 to 40 members.

Malay Mail Online understands that the abolition of elections via postal ballot would mean that outspoken members of the Bar Council like Hendon Mohamed, Andrew Khoo, Edmund Bon, Ravi Nekoo, Roger Chan, Honey Tan and Richard Wee, all of whom are from the KL Bar, would have to vie for one position as KL Bar representative of more than 10 years’ seniority, when they were elected previously through the postal ballot.

Besides increasing the quorum requirement for the Malaysian Bar’s annual or extraordinary general meetings, the proposed amendments to the Legal Profession Act also include raising the quorum requirement for each State Bar from five to 25 per cent of its membership.

Putrajaya is seeking to abolish the annual election of the office bearers of the Malaysian Bar — conducted by secret ballot at the first Bar Council meeting of each term, held at the conclusion of the Bar’s AGM — by members of the Bar Council.

“Instead, the office bearers would be elected directly by members of the Bar, at the Annual General Meeting of the Bar or at the premises of the State Bar Committees.  

“Only the 24 members elected as State Bar Representatives at the annual general meetings of the State Bars are eligible to be elected as office bearers. The immediate past president, immediate past vice-president, and 12 chairmen of the State Bar Committees are expressly precluded from contesting any office bearer position,” said Steven.

The proposed amendments include having the Malaysian Bar’s office bearers and Bar Council members serve for a fixed term of two years, instead of the current one-year term.

The minister in charge of legal affairs will also be empowered to make rules and regulations on the conduct of the elections to the Bar Council and of the office bearers of the Bar.

“The Bar Council has expressed grave reservations to the proposed amendments.  We have submitted a preliminary memorandum to the Attorney General’s Chambers, setting out our concerns. We have also informed the Attorney General’s Chambers that we intend to consult Members of the Bar, and to submit a further memorandum,” said Steven. 

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