KUALA LUMPUR, June 17 — The Malaysian Bar plans to march to Parliament today to uphold the independence of the courts and speak out against any attempts to intimidate judges, and present a memorandum addressed to the prime minister on the matter.
This march will be one of the rare moments in the 75-year history of the Malaysian Bar, which currently represents 20,556 lawyers in Peninsular Malaysia.
But will a march by lawyers change anything? Have previous events ever nudged the Malaysian government to do what is right for the judiciary and the country?
Here, Malay Mail takes a quick look at the Malaysian Bar’s 2007 “Walk for Justice”, which is closest in aim to the upcoming “Walk for Judicial Independence”, and see what came of it. The information is based largely on resources publicly available on the Malaysian Bar’s website:
A history of marching when it counts
The Malaysian Bar actually has a long history of marching since it was founded in 1947, such as its April 7, 1981 walk from the Royal Lake Club to Parliament to protest against the government’s proposed amendments to both the Societies Act and the Federal Constitution, as well as the December 2005 and December 2006 peaceful marches from Dataran Merdeka to the Lake Gardens to mark the annual International Human Rights Day on December 10.
In the same year when the Malaysian Bar celebrated its 60th anniversary and had more than 12,000 members, it organised the Walk for Justice.
This was prompted by the September 19, 2007, release of a video clip showing senior lawyer VK Lingam speaking on the phone about or brokering the appointment of judges in Malaysia.
The Malaysian Bar’s governing body on September 22 held an emergency meeting and decided to present a memorandum to the government to call for a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) on the video clip incident, and on September 24 announced that it would present the memorandum after a peaceful walk on September 26.
On September 25, the government announced a three-member independent panel to investigate the video clip’s authenticity, but did not at that time announce an RCI.
What happened at the 2007 march?
On September 26, 2007, lawyers — numbering more than 1,000 or over 2,000 according to different reported estimates — gathered at the entrance of the Palace of Justice in Putrajaya, before marching to the Prime Minister’s Office to deliver the Bar Council’s memorandum.
Then-Malaysian Bar president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan was quoted by The Straits Times saying at the march: “We are walking for justice, we want judicial reform” and “Lawyers don't walk every day. When lawyers walk, something is wrong.”
The Malaysian Bar then handed over two memoranda to the prime minister’s aide.
The first memorandum was a letter addressed to the prime minister about the “latest crisis in the judiciary” as shown by the expose through a video clip of a lawyer’s lengthy discussion with a senior judge and the alleged brokering of the appointment and promotion of judges, with the Malaysian Bar urging the prime minister to strengthen the independence of the judiciary through judicial reform and to introduce a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) to restore public confidence in the judiciary.
The memorandum also urged for an RCI into the video clip. This was well before a government panel later also recommended for the inquiry to be held.
The other memorandum was the Bar Council’s paper on the setting up of an independent judicial commission, providing recommendations such as the composition of such a commission, the process to select judges and the characteristics of candidates.
What was the outcome?
On September 25, 2007, the Malaysian government formed an independent three-man panel to verify whether the video clip was authentic. This panel on November 9, 2007 then gave its report to the government and recommended for a commission of enquiry to be set up.
On December 12, 2007, an RCI was officially set up with five members, with five terms of reference, namely to determine the video clip’s authenticity, to identify the speaker, the person he was speaking to and persons mentioned in the conversation, to determine the truth of the phone conversation and whether there has been any misbehaviour of persons identified or mentioned in the video clip, and to recommend the appropriate course of action to be taken if any of them are found to have committed any misbehaviour.
Following RCI proceedings from January 14 to February 15, 2008, the RCI panel on May 9, 2008 gave its report to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The RCI panel’s report was made publicly available on May 20, 2008.
In the RCI report, the panel agreed with and supported the Malaysian Bar’s September 2007 memorandum to the government on the need to set up a JAC, having concluded that there were weaknesses in the process of appointment and promotion of judges and that having a judicial commission would provide more “transparency, accountability and good governance” which would then boost public confidence in the judiciary.
On April 17, 2008, then prime minister Tun Abdullah Badawi announced that the government proposed to set up a JAC, with the aim of making the nomination, appointment and promotion of judges a more transparent process.
It was also at this 2008 event that the prime minister recognised the contributions of the “six outstanding judges” — including two posthumously — who were affected by the 1988 judicial crisis, and announced goodwill ex gratia payments to them or their families. (The Bar Council together with the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, LAWASIA and Transparency International–Malaysia had in August 2007 formed a panel of eminent persons to look into the 1988 judicial crisis and had in August 2008 released its report.)
The independence of the judiciary was strengthened when the Judicial Appointments Commission Act 2009 was gazetted on February 8, 2009.
In short, the government actually carried out the RCI and the JAC which the Malaysian Bar had pushed for in its 2007 walk.
Wait, there were other marches, too
After the 2007 Walk for Justice, the Malaysian Bar held two more marches, to uphold freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in Malaysia.
On November 29, 2011, the Malaysian Bar organised the “Walk for Freedom 2011: Peaceful Assembly Bill Cannot and Must Not Become Law!”, which reportedly was attended by about 1,000 persons in protest against the government’s Peaceful Assembly Bill which was said to have clauses that were too restrictive on the constitutional right to assemble, such as prohibiting street protests.
In the 2011 walk from the Royal Lake Club to Parliament, Malaysian Bar’s proposed alternative Peaceful Assembly Bill was delivered to then deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong.
The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 was gazetted on February 9, 2012.
In October 2012, the Malaysia Bar received the United Nations Malaysia Organisation of the Year Award, where the professional body was recognised as having admirably fulfilled its role as the guardian of the rule of law and defender of human rights and the public interest in Malaysia.
On October 16, 2014, the Malaysian Bar held the “Walk for Peace and Freedom” to condemn the use of the Sedition Act 1948 and to protest the multiple arrests, investigations and charges made under that law.
In the march from Padang Merbok to Parliament, which was estimated to be attended by between 1,000 and 2,000 lawyers, the Malaysian Bar’s memorandum was presented to minister in the Prime Minister’s Department at the time, Datuk Mah Siew Keong, who accepted it on behalf of the PM.
Zooming back to 2022
The judiciary has come under threat again, with online attacks ramping up in recent months against the judge who had heard and decided on former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s trial over the misappropriation of RM42 million of SRC International Sdn Bhd, in what appears to be a bid to discredit the outcome of the trial.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on April 23 was reported confirming to local newspaper The Star that it had started its investigation on the SRC trial judge Datuk Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali, later responding on April 28 to criticisms by insisting that it has the power to investigate public officers including judges and clarifying that investigations do not necessarily mean an individual has committed an offence.
Judges and the judiciary in general however are unable to defend themselves publicly against wild allegations, which was why the Malaysian Bar stepped in to help protect the dignity and integrity of the courts.
The Malaysian Bar on April 24 spoke out against the MACC investigation, and the Bar Council on May 4 said it had on April 29 held an emergency meeting before deciding to hold an extraordinary general meeting (EGM). On May 5, the Bar Council announced the date of the EGM as May 27. Also on May 4, six former Malaysian Bar presidents had also launched a petition urging the Bar Council to organise a walk.
On May 21, the MACC announced that it had completed its investigations in a case involving the judge, and said it had presented on May 18 the investigation papers to the Attorney General’s Chambers for further study and direction.
On May 27, the Malaysian Bar decided at an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) to support the Bar Council’s motion to organise a peaceful protest to uphold the judiciary’s independence, while also criticising the way that the MACC had publicly announced investigations on the judge for an indefinite period and without proper closure and said that such action amounts to an act of intimidation against the judiciary.
Lawyers are expected to gather today at the Padang Merbok car park with plans to continue with the march to Parliament, with Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Mas Ermieyati Samsudin expected to accept the Malaysian Bar’s memorandum on the prime minister’s behalf.