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Malaysia’s judiciary reputation in the dock

Lingam: Looks like me, sounds like me - theSun
Lingam was not drunk when he spoke - MT

Malaysia’s judiciary reputation in the dock (Reuters)

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 21 (Reuters) - For decades, demands by Malaysian lawyers for a cleaner judicial system have fallen on deaf ears. But now a grainy video by an amateur has suddenly answered their prayers.

A royal commission probing a scandal on judicial appointments that the video spawned has strayed beyond its narrow terms of reference and put the judiciary’s reputation in the dock.

The 14-minute video, showing a prominent lawyer boasting of his ability to influence judicial appointments and his connections with former premier Mahathir Mohamad, has also added a political dimension.

It may force Mahathir, who clashed with judges during his 22-year rule, to go on the defensive — a welcome respite for his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is keen to avoid more scathing attacks from his outspoken predecessor ahead of elections widely expected by the end of March.

“It’s not about individuals really. It’s about the whole system,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, president of Malaysia’s Bar Council, which groups about 12,000 lawyers. “It’s the whole system that is under trial. This is the chance to deal with it.”

The judiciary, under question since the 1980s over its independence and integrity has reached a critical juncture.

Once regarded as one of the more independent institutions in Malaysia, it has lost credibility since Mahathir clashed with top judges, three of them whom were removed in 1988.

Little faith

Foreign investors, too, have shown little faith in the Malaysian system. Lawyers said more and more foreign firms prefer to seek legal redress in Singapore, Hong Kong or London.

“I personally think it’s because of lack of confidence. There could be any number of reasons, but I would say confidence is certainly one of them,” Ambiga said.

Tunku Abdul Aziz,a former head of Transparency International in Malaysia, agreed.

“Nothing is more calculated to kill off international confidence in a country than for its judiciary ... to be perceived to be less than transparent and accountable,” he wrote in his newspaper column at the weekend.

The video shows Lawyer Kanagalingam Vellupillai, better known as VK Lingam (picture above), unaware he is being filmed speaking on his mobile phone — allegedly with the country’s then third-ranking judge, Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Hamid.

Mahathir told the commission last week he personally decided the appointment of top judges during his reign, discarding the advice of the chief justice on at least one occasion.

The opposition has blasted the 82-year-old Mahathir, who ruled with an iron grip before retiring in late 2003, as being ”evasive and uncharacteristically unforgetful” during the testimony.

Mahathir aside, another thorn on Abdullah’s side is de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who leaked the video in September and quickly turned it into a major election issue.

Mahathir sacked his former deputy in 1998, then had him arrested and jailed before he was freed in 2004. Under the law, he cannot stand for office until April due to his conviction.

Analysts said Abdullah, who swept into power promising a cleaner government and less corruption, should seize the opportunity to silent his critics and reform the judiciary.

“We can change it very easily. Now the chief justice is so straight,” the Bar’s Ambiga said. “I can tell you confidence will come back very fast. But they must want to change.”

Some analysts question whether the political will is there, despite Abdullah’s ability to ram through reforms, given his ruling coalition’s overwhelming majority in parliament.

“At the end of the day, nothing will change. Everybody, from Anwar to the Bar Council, just wanted to settle scores at the expense of the judiciary,” said one political analyst.

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