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Revisiting the 1988 judicial crisis

 | April 3, 2012

In this first of a two-part article, our writer digs up a seminar presentation by the late K Das, who co-authored May Day for Justicewith sacked chief justice Tun Salleh Abas.

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Everyone knows that wisdom among Malaysian politicians is rare, but perhaps few realise that the courage to tell the truth to people in power is just as rare, if not rarer.

One man with such courage was the late K Das, a playwright and journalist who became a household name in the 1970s and 80s, when he was the Kuala Lumpur correspondent for the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review.

Das’ most enduring work is the 1989 publication May Day for Justice, which he wrote with Mohamed Salleh Abas after the latter’s infamous dismissal from his position as chief justice and lord president of the Supreme Court. Some have called the episode narrated in the book as the darkest hour in Malaysian judicial history.

At a human rights seminar organised by DAP just before the book came out, Das shared his experience of writing it and gave insights into his feelings about the administration of prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Referring to constitutional amendments that had the effect of subordinating the judiciary to the executive arm of government, he said: “Changing the laws is a perfectly legitimate thing. No one argues about that. What we are talking about is changing the laws the communist way, or the totalitarian way, without consulting the people.

“The only real difference between the communists and these so-called parliamentarians was that the first gang sat in the jungle while the second mob on Parliament Hill. Neither of them had any respect for the will of the people. Neither of them had any idea or cared for what the rule of law meant. Neither of them was honest.”

Das said he wrote the book to fulfil his duty of showing Malaysians what a “thoroughly immoral and criminal government” they had and to convince them to remove it from office.

He met Salleh for the first time at the sacked judge’s official residence.

“He was already packing to move into more humble quarters and out of the limelight of public life,” he told participants at the DAP seminar. “It was not the best way to meet a man for the first time.

“I found him amazingly calm.”

Angry and intrigued

Salleh’s composure would not surprise those familiar with his background. He was a man of humble origins, the son of a sailor who also eked out a living as a small village trader. Salleh rose to become the top judge in the land while remaining a deeply religious man.

Das said he was angry and intrigued at the same time.

“He did not seem to be angry with that wretched gang of official rogues and thugs who had caused his downfall. He seemed to feel sorry for them more than anything else despite having been misled, lied to, victimised, called a liar, insulted and humiliated in all sorts of ways, put through a public circus of a tribunal and finally dismissed.”

He recalled that Salleh kept saying, “Poor chaps! Silly chaps!”

“I myself was not in a charitable mood. What I knew of the affair in fact put me in a very foul mood. Tun Salleh’s attitude that day, I must confess, annoyed me and irritated me.”

Das said they discussed the form the book should take. “He did not want a legalistic story. It had to be written for the layman. The man in the street had to understand what had happened. He told me that if justice meant anything at all, the ordinary people must be educated about the whole affair.”

He said that in Salleh’s view, justice was not for Parliament or the law courts or the judges or the lawyers; it was for everybody. And the ordinary people needed more attention than the high and mighty of this world.

“It was inspiring to hear the victim of the greatest injustice ever done by the law of this country talking to me about justice in the abstract, justice for the society, and not about justice for himself, or his own destruction, about his own anger or his own frustrations.

“I was really moved.”

May Day for Justice was published with a foreword by former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, who wrote that if the government were honourable, it would resign as soon as the book was published.

The government’s response to the publication, according to Das, was “basically silence”, but he added: “The publisher was informed by a telephone call from a major English tabloid (The Star) that the Home Ministry had instructed the paper not to carry the advertisement for the book. Whether that claim about the Home Ministry is true or not, we cannot be sure because the caller refused to confirm his message in writing. But one thing was sure, the paper did not carry any advertisement on the following day.”

He said the only newspaper that continued to advertise the book was the now defunct Malay daily Watan.

On Oct 21, 1989, opposition leader Lim Kit Siang mentioned the book in Parliament and urged MPs to read it. He called for a commission of inquiry to answer the allegations it made against the Mahathir administration. There was no response.

It was not until 2008 that an attempt was made to redress the injustice against Salleh and other sacked judges. The then law minister, Zaid Ibrahim, urged the government to apologise to the judges. The then prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, subsequently announced financial compensation.

Perhaps one of the most important developments in the issue was the recent call by Bar Council president Lim Chee Wee for a review of the 1988 constitutional amendments. He said the changes tampered with the balance of power and had to be redressed to ensure that the courts are free of control by the executive arm of government.

In the meantime, thanks to the increasing popularity of the alternative media, more and more Malaysians are waking up to the fact that what is morally wrong cannot be politically correct.

Stanley Koh is a FMT columnist.

Also read:

The mystery of the lost day


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