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June 30, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 25 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Chan Looi Tat for Asiaweek
Rais says judges should watch whom they associate with

'No Law Against It'
Minister Rais Yatim says it's okay to comment on the judiciary

Malaysia's judiciary is under close scrutiny these days, and not just because of the ongoing sodomy trial of ousted deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Earlier this year, a panel comprising members from several international legal groups issued a 121-page report called Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia in 2000. In its recommendations, the report made no reference to Chief Justice Eusoff Chin. But in a separate section of the report, the panel said they had discussed with Eusoff a 1994 trip he had made to New Zealand, where he and his family were pictured with a prominent Malaysian lawyer, V.K. Lingam. The report noted that Eusoff "adamantly denied" to the panel any improper behavior on his part.

The matter might have ended there if not for Rais Yatim, gadfly, lawyer and a new minister in the Prime Minister's Department overseeing legal affairs. During a recent radio interview in Australia, Rais was asked about the New Zealand photographs of Eusoff with Lingam, which have been posted on the Internet since 1998. Said Rais: "Such socializing is not in keeping with the proper behavior of a judicial personality, and this has been intimated to [the chief justice] in no uncertain terms."

Eusoff responded with a press conference showing his bills and receipts for the New Zealand trip, and threatening to sue anyone who alleged that someone else had paid for his vacation. He said he had merely bumped into Lingam in New Zealand: "I was going to the zoo and he asked, 'Could I tag along?'" Eusoff denied that Rais had discussed the New Zealand holiday with him. On the call Rais had also made for "rejuvenation" of the judiciary, Eusoff retorted that the minister was responsible only for court logistics and equipment. Eusoff noted that the New Zealand trip had been raised in a poison-pen letter in 1995 and was subsequently investigated and cleared by Malaysia's Anti-Corruption Agency.

Opposition politicians and the local Bar Council have long expressed concern about the judiciary, especially after 1988, when PM Mahathir Mohamad clashed with the Supreme Court over decisions that went against his administration. Eventually, three Supreme Court judges were removed, including the then head of the courts. But the war of words between Rais and Eusoff marks a rare public feud between two top government officials. Asiaweek approached both Rais, 57, and Eusoff, 65, to tell their sides of the story. Rais sat down for an interview on June 12. As for Eusoff, who has been given a six months' extension at his job, he responded through his aides that he had "no comment" to make. Below are excerpts from the talk Correspondent Santha Oorjitham had with Rais:

Can you elaborate on your remarks to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.?
I gave a talk on Malaysian civil liberties to a forum organized by the Australian National University. Afterwards, a reporter from ABC asked me a few questions about the Justice in Jeopardy report. I said that the Malaysian judiciary, like any other judiciary, needs to renew itself from time to time. I used the word "rejuvenation." That was subsequently objected to, in a way, by the chief justice. Secondly, when the question was popped regarding the alleged picture of the chief justice, I said I was aware of it and had seen it on the Internet. I said if the picture were true, those involved, especially the icons of the judiciary, ought to be very circumspect. I said I'm sure the CJ knows about it and I have quite clearly intimated that personalities in the judiciary should be very careful about their associations and friendships.

What do you mean by rejuvenation?
Progressively growing with the demands of the times. [The judiciary] should learn how to operate a PC, for example. They should take heed of the cyberworld. The more judges putting away their pens from now on, the better. So, more IT [information technology], judges more IT-literate, more merit and scholarship into the system, to see a viable and robust judiciary which could take care of the onslaught of the millennium and not cling on to the so-called sacrosanct view of the past [that] you can't touch the judiciary with a 10-foot pole.

I would like to differ on the idea that the judiciary cannot be commented upon. There is no law against it. Everybody should be given the right to comment on [the judiciary] so long as it does not interfere with judicial responsibilities and functions. Although the CJ has branded me as one only responsible for tables and chairs, with due respect, I do know one or two things about the judiciary without having to sit on the bench. [I have] my rights as a citizen and as minister in charge of legal affairs. When it comes to matters pertaining to public interest, like the backlog of cases, impropriety of certain methods of doing things, we are free to comment.

So what is the line between acceptable comment and contempt of court?
Contempt of court is when you pass an opinion on a case that is still ongoing or disparage the judges in a manner that they cannot defend themselves. You should not bring odium to their character. Contempt is rather restrictive in that manner. For example, the ongoing case of Anwar Ibrahim -- if one were to pass judgment or assessment on the sodomy matter, that would be regarded as contempt. But other than that, you can comment on the affairs of the judiciary, with respect to public interest.

Are there guidelines on the conduct of judges outside the courtroom, including their social lives?
It's difficult to pinpoint what a judge can and cannot do outside courtroom hours, but definitely to be circumspect about personal relations is one of them. If a judge is seen too much inclined toward certain persons, it could conjure up a difficult position. The principle against bias is one of the pillars of the rule of law. It is not difficult to envisage that the more free one is from such infringements, the better.

What do you think of the chief justice's reaction to your comments?
It was somewhat of an over-reaction.

Does the cabinet support you?
Yes, including [Finance and Special Functions Minister] Tun Daim Zainuddin and [Youth and Sports Minister] Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, as head of UMNO Youth. I appreciate that.

What do you think of the Justice in Jeopardy report?
Overall, they condemn the system without the opportunity of availing points of rebuttal from various quarters. They arbitrarily pick out cases in the past and condemn those cases. They should also take cognizance of the record of the Malaysian judiciary overall and not only for the past two years. The proven track record of the judiciary pertaining to case decisions, good judgments, judgments against even the government -- these were not taken into account at all. Only the previous cases of the last two years were highlighted, mainly involving Anwar Ibrahim. That is rather esoteric and one-sided, if not biased. They don't consider the track record of the judiciary prior to the Anwar Ibrahim affair.

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