In that small moment we had justice

Rome was not built in a day but we have waited 32 years. From 1988 the country has suffered from a massive public trust deficit with the judiciary. A series of dramatic events – sacking and suspending of Supreme Court judges, constitutional amendments to reduce judicial power, active political interference in judicial appointments – have made it hard for Malaysians to see the judiciary as a body of independence and integrity.

We have longed for this, and we are getting close.

Before 1988, our courts were well respected, and scandals and allegations of impropriety were little to none. The judiciary received its first onslaught when Mahathir was dissatisfied with the judges’ decisions against his government. He orchestrated heavy-handed tactics against the judiciary which culminated in a constitutional crisis.

Five judges at the highest court, including the then Lord President Tun Salleh Abas, were unceremoniously suspended from the bench, following a highly dubious disciplinary proceeding. Tun Salleh Abas, together with Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman and Datuk George Seah, were permanently sacked.

The constitution was also amended (Article 121 and Article 121(1A)) and this effectively shrunk judicial power, striking at the heart of the century-old doctrine of separation of powers. Even Tunku was “disgusted” by Mahathir’s actions.

A healing that needs more healing

It took the government 20 years to admit that this episode was one the judiciary “never recovered from”, and that the “serious transgressions” committed in the past must be acknowledged. Abdullah’s government put forth ex gratia goodwill payment to the sacked and suspended judges to “mend what had been [done]”.

Events that led to judicial crisis of '88 | The Star

The judiciary is conscious of this. That is why every Chief Justice newly appointed would emphasise the principles of separation of powers and judicial independence. They understand the heavy obligation to protect the institution from public criticism and distrust. Optics are crucial in justice. Justice, after all, must be seen to be done.

Former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mah Weng Kwai said that the dark days of 1988 has slowly seen a breath of fresh air. A committed Chief Justice who cares about independence and the quality of work is vital. There is “a little more independence” and “definitely less political interference” like we had years ago.

But that is not enough. Public trust in the judiciary faltered because of a dramatically negative event in 1988, and it takes a dramatically positive event to restore the people’s trust in it. Scandals and allegations of corruption, backroom dealings, and dubious court decisions made the stain of 1988 even stickier than before.

The only time the public pays attention to the judiciary is in cases involving high-profile politicians and during judges’ appointments. It does not help when the memory of Anwar Ibrahim’s 2015 conviction (where Anwar had called the Federal Court judges “great cowards of humanity” who were “partners in crime for the murder of judicial independence and integrity”) and Najib’s highly extraordinary extension of Chief Justice tenure still lingers.

A dramatically positive event

It takes a judgement like that of Justice Nazlan’s in former prime minister Najib’s SRC verdict that makes us trust the judiciary again.

After 100 days of listening to a total of 57 prosecution witnesses and 19 defence witnesses, on a case about Najib’s role in approving RM4 billion worth of retirement fund (KWAP) loan to SRC International, Justice Nazlan, took two hours to deliver what is now a landmark judgment on the duty of public officials.

Justice Nazlan found Najib guilty of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering and sentenced him to 12 years in jail and RM210 million fine.


In his judgement, he connected the facts of the case to the meaning of “gratification” under Section 23 of the MACC Act. The extraordinary sum of RM42 million was a form of gratification because the money received in 2014 to 2015 was something Najib approved in the Cabinet and directly caused him to have access to greater funds in the company. The approval by the Cabinet, chaired by Najib, benefited the company that was controlled by Najib.

Najib’s position as prime minister and finance minister also acted as a form of influence that is considered “sufficiently predominant” on the Treasury secretary-general and KWAP CEO.

Further, Justice Nazlan said that it was curious that Najib was not concerned with how the RM4 billion was used – whether it was to promote national energy strategic initiatives to Malaysian’s benefit. Even when the Swiss authorities froze the funds, Najib still did not care. Justice Nazlan thinks that Najib’s lack of concern was more consistent with a person who had made unlawful transfer who did not want to be found out.

Do not rob this from us

On the oft-repeated claim that the money was a donation from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Justice Nazlan said this was “nothing but an implausible concoction”.

Extracts of the judgment were written in English. But it has contained our long-held logic and reason, our unwavering search for the truth amidst the smoke and mirrors – our cherished hopes and dreams.

Najib’s lawyers will file an appeal, and it will take almost a year for the legal process to complete. Najib may win the appeal and like our small victory on 9 May 2018, it may be reversed. The virus may continue to plague our country, politicians may continue to grab for power and betray public trust, and the economic recession may continue biting into our savings.

But do not rob us of 28 July. It made us believe in the courage of the few – the truthseekers, the freedom fighters, the idealists, the rebels, the dreamers. It made us believe in a hopeful future while living in a room of dark history.

Because in that small moment we had justice.

(Revised edition published on Malaysiakini).

Image source:

  1. The Star
  2. Malaysiakini

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