The rot in Malaysia's judicial system is pervasive and extends to the highest offices of power, both past and present. And now there is a videotape that many Malaysians -- including many in the local bar -- believe to be proof.
Last month, I released a videotaped recording showing a prominent local attorney, V.K. Lingam, discussing the appointment of top judges to the federal court. The person on the other end of the line appeared to be none other than Malaysia's top judge, Ahmed Fairuz. The substance of the conversation leaves little doubt that what transpired was influence peddling and fixing of judicial appointments.
Since its posting on my Web site, the recording has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and has sparked public rallies throughout Malaysia. I have not disclosed how I received this tape in the interest of protecting the witness's personal safety. (Interested readers can view the video at http://www.anwaribrahim.com.) I vouch for its authenticity.
In the video, which was recorded in 2002, Mr. Lingam is seen and heard describing conversations and meetings the purpose of which were to gain influence with then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed to make favorable judicial appointments. The substance of his legal work, boasts Mr. Lingam, would be meaningless unless he did his part in securing friendly judges who would rule in favor of his clients. On the tape, Mr. Lingam remarked that ". . . half the time we are talking about judiciary rather than doing the work. But if I don't do this part, my work will be useless."
For Mr. Lingam, this kind of lobbying is par for the course. In 1994, for example, he enjoyed a lavish vacation in New Zealand with another chief justice, Tun Eusoff Chin, allegations that Mr. Lingam denied until photographic evidence and copies of travel itineraries from an insurance investigation put the two families on the same flight and at the same tourist destinations.
The contents of the video came as no surprise to many Malaysians, who recall Dr. Mahathir's orchestrated efforts to emasculate the judiciary in 1988. At that time, Dr. Mahathir's sacking of Tun Salleh Abbas, the then-chief judge, and other senior judges, left me deeply concerned about the breakdown of constitutional checks and balance inherent in our parliamentary democracy. Dr. Mahathir's handpicked judges signaled the beginning of an era when the judiciary became enslaved to the executive branch. Since then, the executive has given short shrift to matters of accountability, governance and transparency in the judiciary.
Which brings us to today's scandal. Mr. Lingam's close ties to Dr. Mahathir, a former chief justice and the late attorney general, Mohtar Abdullah, as well as his relationship with the current chief justice have put him at the center of this most recent controversy. Yet he appears to be immune to the legal process, shielded by the unseen hand from the nation's law enforcement agencies, which seem bent on persecuting the whistleblowers rather than catching the culprits.
After the video was released the government established a three-member panel with virtually no powers of investigation to probe the authenticity of the videotape. Three weeks after this panel began its work, it has produced no results and seems to have no mandate to look into the questions of corruption that the videotape raises. Meanwhile, the federal Anti Corruption Agency has threatened to arrest two individuals who helped bring the tape to light unless they divulge the identity of their source, and recent comments made by the head of the agency suggest a similar ultimatum may soon be issued against me. Such measures do not inspire confidence.
They have, however, sparked public outrage. Last month, the Malaysian Bar Council staged an unprecedented demonstration in Kuala Lumpur. More than 2,000 lawyers marched to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's offices to demand accountability and judicial reform. Political parties from the opposition including the Justice Party (Keadilan) as well as a few hardy voices from within the government, have demanded that an independent Royal Commission be established to investigate this scandal. Other independent bodies, such as Transparency International, have joined the chorus for a full and transparent inquiry.
Yet the government's response has been uninspiring. Prime Minister Badawi came to power in 2003 promising to clean up corruption and depoliticize the judiciary. His lack of action since the video's release demonstrates how little he has accomplished on both fronts. He has rejected demands to establish the Royal Commission and instead has spent more than a month calling for verification of the authenticity of the video -- a task that requires no more than a few hours of laboratory work.
Meanwhile, Cabinet members, some of them implicated in the videotape, have issued statements to the media telling them to report "responsibly" on the issue. "On this earth, we can do whatever we like, but you must remember that when you die, you have to answer to someone," Tengku Adnan, minister for tourism, told reporters. His name is mentioned in the tape no less than 10 times as someone who could facilitate meetings with the prime minister to discuss judicial appointments. The two men best able to explain the tape, Mr. Lingam and Mr. Fairuz, have remained silent, apparently hoping that a combination of public apathy and the absence of an independent media will soon kill the story.
Sadly, none of this should be surprising to those who do business in Malaysia. Multinational corporations operating in the country often seek redress of their grievances in overseas courts in Singapore or Hong Kong rather than take their chances with the Malaysian judicial system. Other potential investors opt to steer clear of Malaysia altogether, planting themselves in neighboring countries that offer greater transparency, accountability and assurance of the rule of law. As the late Tun Suffian, a former chief judge with an impeccable record, once remarked in a speech in 2000, "When I am asked what I thought, my usual reply is that I wouldn't like to be tried by today's judges, especially if I am innocent."
A government so complicit in the abuse of power and the destruction of the judiciary can hardly be expected to follow through on the structural reforms that are now required -- namely, a complete overhaul of the process of judicial appointments, including the creation of an independent council with oversight powers and autonomy. The executive must be kept out of this process. The Conference of Rulers, a council comprising the nine rulers of the Malay states, must assert its authority and play its constitutional role as the people's guardian against arbitrary action of the powers that be.
In this regard, the observation of Sultan Azlan Shah -- the chief judge of the high court before his ascension to the rotating Malaysian throne -- bears repetition: "The erosion of public confidence in the judiciary's independence would ultimately lead to instability and it would certainly take a long time and would be an arduous task to restore it."
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Malaysia celebrated its 50th birthday in August to rather muted fanfare. Fifty years since we gained our independence, the country remains a dim shadow of what it could be. Economic indicators show rising inflation, increasing unemployment and declining foreign investment. Ignoring the need for economic, judicial and electoral reform, the government uses its monopoly on the media to project an image of strength and stability. Meanwhile, the delicate balance among Malaysia's diverse ethnic communities is quickly coming undone as each group begins to scapegoat the other for its own problems.
There is compelling need to return to the founding principles enshrined in our Constitution to ensure that Malaysia's future is a truly democratic one marked by tolerance, economic vitality and the rule of law.
Mr. Anwar, who is barred from running for political office until April 2008, is the de facto leader of Malaysia's opposition Justice Party (Keadilan). He is a former deputy prime minister.