KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 13 — Normally a low-key affair, the Bar Council election this year has become sharply political with the appearance of a “menu” of preferred candidates with mostly conservative ideologies.

A few posters with the title “Your Voice in Bar Council” featuring 10 candidates — some of whom oppose the ratification of a United Nations treaty called ICERD that prohibits racial discrimination — have been distributed on social media, similar to menus or “cai dan” in party elections in PKR and Umno. (Cai dan is Chinese for “menu”).

The 10 lawyers are part of a whopping 30 candidates running for 12 positions on the Bar Council, the Malaysian Bar’s leadership body that has always taken a liberal stance on civil rights and religious issues.

Outgoing Malaysian Bar president George Varughese, in fact, issued a statement last Friday saying that the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) would not contradict Article 153 of the Federal Constitution that states the “special position” of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak.

The number of candidates contesting the Bar Council’s 2019/2020 election is more than double that of the 13 candidates who ran last year. In 2009, 32 lawyers ran for the Bar Council, but fewer contenders ran in subsequent years.

The 10 lawyers featured in the “menu” are Yusfarizal Yusoff, Salim Bashir, Muhammad Rafique Rashid Ali, R. Jayabalan, Hendon Mohamed, Datuk Sulaiman Abdullah, Roger Chan Weng Keng, Fariz Irwan Mustafa, Lukman Sheriff Alias, and Mohamad Ezri Abdul Wahab.

Sulaiman, a veteran lawyer who was recently appointed lead prosecutor in ex-prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s corruption trial over RM42 million linked to a former 1MDB subsidiary, had represented Islamic agencies in cases like Lina Joy, the ban of the word “Allah” in the Catholic Church’s newsletter Herald, Negri Sembilan transgenders’ challenge of an anti-crossdressing Shariah law, and a Johor couple fighting the “bin Abdullah” tag to their son’s name.

Bar Council candidate Yusfarizal said last Friday that ICERD will affect the Shariah judiciary and fatwa (religious edicts), claiming that the committee behind the UN treaty questioned Qatar’s dual civil and Shariah legal system.

Datuk Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, president of the conservative Malaysian Muslim Lawyers Association, has endorsed the “menu” of candidates.

“My friends and I have discussed and decided to promote these candidates to be members of the Bar Council. We call on our esteemed colleagues, advocates and solicitors, to vote for these candidates. We can also collect your ballot papers and send them to the Bar Council,” he wrote.

Malay Mail could not reach Zainul Rijal for comment outside business hours.

Andrew Khoo, who is also running for Bar Council, wrote on Facebook that some of his more conservative or right-wing rivals were more nationalist and populist, preferring domestic standards of human rights to universal norms.

“They oppose signing up to international treaties and conventions that would safeguard minorities, end racial discrimination, practise religious freedom and promote civil and political equality,” he said.

“Friends, it is important that these folks do NOT get elected. If they do, the voice of the independent Bar in strong support of fundamental liberties, the rule of law and importance of human rights will be weakened. They would shrink the voice of the Malaysian Bar by not speaking up and out for racial, religious, gender and other minorities.”

When contacted, Khoo declined to name names.

Khoo told Malay Mail his campaign was focused on “strengthening the rule of law and the administration of justice, betterment of the legal profession, service to society to promote justice with equity for all, and the protection of fundamental liberties.”

Some of those named on the “menu” like Lukman Sheriff, Salim, and Chan declined to comment when contacted by Malay Mail. Both Lukman and Chan denied knowledge about the “menu”.

"My only comment is that poster and list were floated around without my knowledge," Chan told Malay Mail.

When asked if the “menu” violated campaign rules, outgoing president George told Malay Mail: “There are no campaign rules”.

This year’s race, which is conducted via postal ballot for 18,000 members of the Malaysian Bar and ends on November 30, has also seen several candidates release campaign posters.

New Sin Yew, who is the youngest candidate at 31 with seven years of practice, said he was running to promote greater representation of young lawyers in the Bar Council and its committees.

“A lot of the policies and decisions made by the Bar Council affect young lawyers the most. Issues such as publicity rules (lawyers are severely restricted from advertising), group legal practice, introduction of legal technology (virtual office, matching platforms), and minimum remuneration of pupils are issues which affect the way we practice, especially young lawyers starting out in their career, but decided with a lack of representation by young lawyers,” New told Malay Mail.

Nizam Bashir said he was campaigning on the use of IT in practice, as well as improving the e-Filing system and how guidelines for lawyers issued by court registrars can be updated more efficiently.

“I feel over and above, whatever issues that the Bar is working on, maybe it ought to look at bread and butter issues, meaning to say, issues that relate to interests of the members,” Nizam told Malay Mail.

“I’m not saying things like constitutional issues are not important, but I think we have gotten a bit distracted and not sort of worked on these issues.”

Norliza Rasool Khan pushed for an independent judiciary, children’s rights, and gender equality.

“To achieve equality and diversity in legal practice, I strongly believe there must be equal opportunity for young members male or female to excel in the legal profession and to achieve greater heights,” the Bar Council candidate posted on Facebook.