The Look East policy and the rule of law — M. Santhananaban

JAN 14 — The Look East Policy, enunciated by our Prime Minister at the end of 1981 and elaborated on in early 1982 has run a course of more than three decades with, regrettably, very little to show for it. An excellent idea entrusted to the bureaucracy has been rendered a piece of civil service rhetorical relish than anything of real relevance. The anticipated renaissance of thought, industry, creativity, reinvention, research and development has not happened with the Look East Policy

The countries of East Asia, in spite of an ageing population continue to power ahead while we are lagging behind in almost every indicator in the socioeconomic index. In the endeavour to emulate the work ethos of the East Asian countries we overlooked some vital aspects of their disciplined societies and governance systems. Apart from hard work and the free rein to private enterprise these countries placed significant value on honesty, integrity and mutual respect.

The most outstanding feature of these countries has been the increasing respect for the principle of separation of powers and the Rule of Law. This respect for the Rule of Law is a theme that is constantly being reiterated by our prime minister especially since May 10, 2018. Two places that assign overarching significance to the Rule of Law are Hong Kong and the Republic of Korea(ROK) , places that are somewhat familiar to me.

There is constant contestation between private advantage or profit and public interest and East Asia has recognised this conflict for more than four decades. Even before Deng Xiaoping’s ‘ Four Modernisations Program’ announced in 1978, Hongkong, following the sensational scandal involving a senior police officer, Peter Godber, established its Independent Commission Against Corruption(ICAC). Since the establishment of the ICAC Hongkong has cleared itself of corruption to a large extent after being subject to more than a century of deeply embedded corruption.

In the ROK anti corruption and pro democracy steps have claimed the lives and reputation of presidents, prime ministers and other high level officials. Currently a former Chief Supreme Court judge is under suspicion of abuse of office including influencing judgements by other judges, showing favouritism and promoting a herd mentality among the top levels of the judiciary.

The courts are an important component of any functioning democracy.

With the recent radical changes that have affected the Executive and Legislative branches in Malaysia it is only logical that both Parliament and the Executive assisted by the press and media reflect the will of the people and provide proper scrutiny and oversight on the workings of our judiciary.

A serving Court of Appeal judge recently made a startling statement that three Court of Appeal judges of the highest probity- Dato’ Mohd Hishamuddin Mohd Yunus, Dato’ Mohd Ariff Yusoff and Dato’ Mah Weng Kwai -were not elevated to the Federal Court prior to their retirement because they were not of a particular ilk. If this is true the matter should be inquired into in an appropriate manner.

It will be recalled when Tan Sri Abdul Malek Haji Abdul Ahmad, President of the Court Appeal passed away eleven years ago a highly respected senior judge, Datuk K C Vohrah, had made some remarks which implied that integrity, independence of judgement and intellectual honesty had stood in the way of Malek’s elevation to the highest judicial office.

Given the utmost gravity of some issues that judges are called on to adjudicate it is essential that herd mentality, obedience and conformity to customary protocol and hierarchical norms are the most dangerous qualities a judge can have. Judges who provide dissenting views on sound authority should not be censured but should be commended.

We should seriously Look East and emulate those highly successful East Asian countries in a wholesome rather than selective way.

Dissent and diversity in our courts and country should be celebrated.

* Datuk M Santhananaban is a retired Foreign Service Officer who has had diplomatic postings in both Hong Kong and the Republic of Korea.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.