|Malaysian Bar ready for more challenges|
|Monday, 04 March 2013 08:45am|
©The Star (Used by permission)
by HARIATI AZIZAN
The Dragon Year was fiery for the Malaysian Bar. Will the Year of the Snake, an election year to boot, be hotter still?
TOOTHLESS cat”, “anti-government”, “stupid” the Malaysian Bar is no stranger to brickbats, having been at the receiving end since its inception some 66 years ago. However, the criticisms appeared to be more relentless last year, with “opposition party”, “pro-gay” and “anti-islam”, among others, being hurled at it.
Its outgoing president Lim Chee Wee not only had his manhood challenged but also received death threats. At one point, an alternative Bar was even mooted. “Why? I sometimes feel like (we are) a pariah!” laughs Lim, whose term as the Bar Council chief will end later this month.
So no one was more surprised than Lim when the accolades came in as 2012 drew to a close. First, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak acknowledged at the International Malaysian Law Conference (IMLC) the Bar's role as “an important and equal partner in the rule of law and the administration of justice”.
Then the United Nations in Malaysia picked them as the UN Malaysia Organisation of the Year. The award recognises the contributions of organisations in the country in promoting and protecting human rights (particularly as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), social justice and equality.
As cited by the UN resident coordinator Kamal Malhotra, the Malaysian Bar has shown “unfailing commitment in standing up and unwavering zeal” in speaking out against abuse of power and upholding justice.
Coming not too long after the censure from various factions, the pats on the back have encouraged the Bar to persist in its work, says Lim, adding that the Bar will continue to be committed to raising various issues of public interest, strengthening their ties with other stakeholders in the administration of justice, and taking substantial measures to improve the Bar.
Still, one challenge remains public misconception.
A factor behind this, he feels, is a lack of awareness of the Bar's role.
“(Certain) people attack the Bar because they do not want our message to get out there, because it is a message from an independent body and from lawyers,” he opines.
Then there are those who label them as street rabble-rousers.
“What they don't realise is we do more advocacy with our mouths than our feet. I mean, we try to talk through issues (rather) than walk (to protest),” Lim muses.
Their biggest challenge, he adds, is to “persuade” the government on legal and human rights matters.
“It is a true challenge for us to formulate our arguments to persuade the government. It is an act of persuasion. It is easy to criticise but it is more difficult to persuade for change.”
He hopes the Malaysian public can read or hear what the Bar says, and think for themselves whether they agree or not.
“The role we play in society is to give an independent, objective view from the legal perspective. If they read and listen to what we say, they will see that all our statements and comments are grounded in the law either domestic law or international law,” Lim says.
What is happening in a public debate here is that it is often divided into two: the government view and the opposition view, he explains further. The public needs an independent view, and this is where the Bar comes in. “Whenever there is a debate on a particular issue that involves a legal question who do you think (if not the Bar) should step in to enlighten people and say to them: actually this is what the law is, or what the law should be or what it must never be.”
Hate them or love them, the Bar has indeed been vocally advocating various matters of public interest including freedom of assembly, moral policing, the Lynas issue, mistreatment of orang asli, new security laws, mandatory sentencing and death penalty.
The Malaysian Bar, Lim emphasises, is apolitical. “We are not pro-opposition or pro-government.”
He concedes that the Bar has often been accused of interfering in politics or being political, but people need to look at what politics means, he says. “It means activities associated with the governance of a country. This includes its laws, and how they are applied, including by enforcement agencies such as the police.
“On this wide definition then, the Bar Council is entitled to be involved in politics.”
However, when politics is defined in the narrow sense of activities of political parties, the Bar would stay out, unless there is a legal issue.
“Our message is consistent. We are pro-justice and anti-injustice,” Lim stresses.
However, he is expecting the jibes for him and other outspoken lawyers to make their stand in the coming general election.
“Why must it be a requirement for anyone who criticises the government to stand in elections? For instance, I am the president of the Bar surely it's enough legitimacy for me to have a voice and speak up when there is an abuse of power by the government? And everybody has a right to criticise the government,” he says.
In fact, he jokes, he is actually a conservative “scaredy cat” but is able to raise his voice due to the Bar's set designation in society.
One thing he and his fellow Malaysian Bar members will be doing during the polls is to follow the process closely.
The Bar also has a wish list for the winners “Part Two” of the political transformation programme announced by Najib on Malaysia Day in 2011.
Malaysia needs to continue the steps to further law reform and strengthen institutions, as well as establish new ones, to forge ahead towards a just, equitable and democratic Malaysia, he says, and urges Najib to set up a Law Reform Commission.
This Commission will ensure that law reform is inclusive if it is tasked with a wide and effective consultation process and is staffed by top legal talent including from the Attorney-General's Chambers, Lim explains.
For now, he lauds the Government for listening to the Bar's call for a greater access to justice for the people. An additional RM20mil was allocated in the 2013 budget to the National Legal Aid Foundation (NLAF), which was set up in April last year.
The establishment of the NLAF has given real meaning to article 5(3) of the Federal Constitution, which states that when a person is arrested, he “shall be allowed to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice”, Lim explains.
The programme has expanded with some 985 lawyers trained to provide legal assistance while more than 15,000 Malaysians to date have received legal aid in one form or another.
Lim believes 2013 will be an even more eventful year for the Bar, not just because of the much-anticipated polls. Various programmes have been planned to strengthen the rule of law as well as enhance the legal profession. One is the liberalisation of the legal profession with amendments to the Legal Profession Act that permit the entry of licensed foreign lawyers into Malaysia.
The Bar has been in discussions with various foreign law firms and lawyers, some with international expertise and reach, who are interested in having their boots on Malaysian soil. It is also working to promote Malaysia as an investment and dispute resolution centre which will have a direct impact on the profession. For one, it would hike up salaries since foreign law firms will pay top money for top talent while local law firms will be pressured to up their game to compete with the foreign law firms.
But “the Malaysian legal system, like the Malaysian economy, has to adapt and lift its standards to be competitive in the global legal market. Otherwise, it can never claim to be a serious contender in terms of having a world-class Judiciary,” he says.
This move will be in tandem with the increase in intensive training and enhancement of local courses for local talents. Along with the Legal Profession Qualifying Board, the Bar will also work with local law schools to improve legal education here.
It will also continue to “persuade” the Government to ratify international human rights treaties/conventions, specifically, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Another big task is to keep the legal fraternity and the judiciary free of corruption. The Bar recently spoke out against errant judges and rogue lawyers and pledged to work closely with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
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