Malaysian Bar ‘apolitical’, but here’s why outgoing president happy Pakatan won GE14

Varughese stressed that the Malaysian Bar has always been apolitical and did not favour any political party. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Varughese stressed that the Malaysian Bar has always been apolitical and did not favour any political party. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 — The Malaysian Bar is not biased towards any political party, outgoing president George Varughese maintains, but he is delighted that Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the 2018 election.

This is because if Barisan Nasional (BN) had retained government, George believes the once long-ruling coalition would have pushed through amendments to the Legal Profession Act 1976 to strip the independence of the peninsular legal body that speaks up for justice and rule of law.

“It was my greatest fear that if on May 9, if the old government had retained power, I believe the Legal [Profession Act] would have been amended where the independence of the Bar would have been diluted. That would not be good for the Bar. It would not be good for the nation,” George told Malay Mail in a joint interview with Sin Chew Daily here yesterday at the end of his two-year term as Malaysian Bar president.

The previous BN administration under former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had sought to amend the LPA to appoint government representatives to the Bar Council, a move perceived as attempted government interference with the Malaysian Bar.  

When asked by Malay Mail whether he was “very happy” when PH won GE14, George replied: “Absolutely.”

George clarified that he was happy with PH’s victory in the 2018 general election not because the Bar was pro-Opposition, stressing that the legal body has always been apolitical and did not favour any political party.

“If you see even now, we make statements and take positions that go against the current government. So are we now pro-Barisan because we’re doing this?” he questioned.

“But of course I was very happy to see a new government in place simply because this new government’s emphasis was rule of law, which is what the Bar has adhered to all this years and which we’ll continue to do.”

More engagement under Pakatan

George pointed out that the Malaysian Bar had far more engagement with the PH administration compared to the BN government.

“Letters that we send to different ministries, we actually get a very quick response. Many times, it’s a positive response. When we seek meetings, we actually get meetings. Those days, many times, our letters go unanswered. Or we get responses which do not actually answer our letters.”

George pointed out that the Malaysian Bar wrote “countless” letters to former Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Richard Riot about issues related to the Industrial Courts, but the legal association did not get a single meeting with him.

“So how do we discuss issues and how do we move forward when we don’t even get a meeting?”

George said in the last few months, the Malaysian Bar met Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Waytha Moorthy, and minister in charge of legal affairs Datuk Liew Vui Keong.

The Malaysian Bar president said he has also met Attorney General Tommy Thomas “so many times”, but has never met Tommy’s predecessor Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali once.

More responsive police and Pos Malaysia

George highlighted improved engagement with institutions like the police and Pos Malaysia after PH won the 2018 election.

He said the Malaysian Bar would, for example, ask the police for details on lawyers charged with criminal offences like criminal breach of trust so that disciplinary proceedings could be started against these lawyers, but under the previous BN government: “You’ll never get a response.”

“Or many a time, they’ll say ‘we cannot provide you with that information’.”

Under the PH government, however, the Malaysian Bar could now get such data.

“Recently, we had a whole list of information on who are the lawyers charged, not just in Semenanjung, but also in Sabah and Sarawak. And we passed on that information to Sabah and Sarawak as well,” said George, referring to the Sabah Law Society and the Advocates’ Association of Sarawak that regulate lawyers in both states respectively.

George also gave an example of how Pos Malaysia assisted the Bar Council’s election last October when several Malaysian Bar members complained about not receiving their ballots in the post.

“We wrote to Pos Malaysia. [We got] not just a reply; we in fact had a visit from Pos Malaysia, telling us what went wrong. These are things we never experienced before,” said George, adding that the national postal service even visited law firms which received the ballot papers late.

But under the previous BN administration, Pos Malaysia “never” responded to the Malaysian Bar, claimed George.

“This time, we get proper responses and they actually act upon it. Even with ministries, we actually get responses,” he said.

“Now we write for a meeting, we get a meeting. And decisions are taken and things are changed.”