Stories of Malaysian Justice


I JUST finished reading a remarkable book, written by a former holder of one of Malaysia’s constitutional offices with responsibility in shaping the law. Having served in the legal arena for many decades, he left the role under circumstances that have impacted the evolution of law and politics in our country.

The book was published a year after the author’s departure from office, and in it, he shares his perspective of national events, recounting conversations with the Prime Minister, the degree of infighting among politicians of the same party and coalition, and the extent of disagreement within the legal profession. He even reveals his interactions with the royal institution, including the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

Much of the book includes assertions of principles, especially of the importance of rule of law, the proper role of institutions, and a belief that the Federal Constitution, imperfect though it might be, must always be upheld. Autobiographical elements illuminate the connection between the writer’s past experiences with why he believes in these things. It remains up to the reader, of course, to be convinced or otherwise by the narrative being presented.

The book I am referring to is May Day for Justice by Tun Salleh Abas. It was one of the few books I read at university that, while reading it, I knew would contribute a great deal to how I thought not only about Malaysian politics and society, but also to my own understanding of political philosophy.

(If it were up to me, the book would be in our school curriculum, as part of civic education classes in which students would learn about their rights and responsibilities as citizens, a basic history of how Malaysia’s component states were governed over time, and thus the origins and present functions of our national institutions as defined by the Federal Constitution and other laws. It is an objective which many advocates have tried to push in many iterations to many sitting politicians over many years, and I hold out hope that it will happen.)

I reread the book upon hearing about the demise of the former Lord President (the penultimate holder of that title before its downgrade to the present title of Chief Justice) last month at the age of 91, after having tested positive for Covid-19. In doing so I was reminded of other luminaries with a great commitment to the law: Tunku Abdul Rahman, Sultan Azlan Shah, and Raja Aziz Addruse, all of whom feature prominently in the book. (In fact, it was in May Day for Justice that I first encountered Raja Aziz, before realising he was a family friend, and long before I had the honour of delivering the lecture named after him at the International Malaysia Law Conference in 2014.)

Feb 8 was Tunku Abdul Rahman’s birth anniversary, coinciding with the launch anniversary of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). Last year our gala dinner featured Datuk Seri Wan Azizah’s final significant speech as Deputy Prime Minister, a position that has since remained vacant. This year we held a well-attended online conference, and I’m happy with what the team, led by Tricia Yeoh, has achieved this last year: continuing the research and advocacy across our Social Policy, Democracy & Governance, Economics & Business, and Public Finance units, while reacting to policy shifts brought about by Covid-19 and the change in government. People often ask me what Ideas’ role is amidst ever shifting political circumstances: it is to continue advocacy backed by sound research, and to provide neutral platforms upon which coalitions can be built.

Many colleagues were surprised by Malaysia’s best-ever ranking (39th) in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index released last week. Academics and disgruntled activists can nitpick on the various scores assigned, and indeed these types of indices often suffer from incomplete data being force-fed into matrices for comparison. But one trend reflected in the improved scores is the strengthening of civil society organisations: their ability to voice out, to shape public opinion, and ultimately to impact public policymaking. The recent Taman Rimba Kiara case provides one example of the power of citizen action.

I understand there is a more recent book published by another former holder of one of our constitutional offices, also published a year after his departure. I do not recall the public response when May Day for Justice was released, but it would have certainly been devoid of social media excitement, denials, leaks and cybertrooper mobilisations.

Without having fully read Tommy Thomas’ Story, I can’t suggest any equivalences between the two books, but it would definitely be a good thing if May Day for Justice made it onto the bestseller lists too.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.