The Malaysian Bar's International Malaysia Law Conference ("IMLC") 2018 is taking place from 14 to 17 Aug 2018 at The Royale Chulan Kuala Lumpur.
By Lim Wei Jiet, Member of the Bar
It was a homecoming of sorts for YBhg Tuan Tommy Thomas to deliver the Opening Address of the International Malaysia Law Conference 2018 as the Attorney General of Malaysia — he had been, after all, a long–time and effervescent Member of the Malaysian Bar. It was also a proud moment for the legal profession, because he is the first practising lawyer to be appointed directly from the Malaysian Bar to occupy the nation’s top legal office.
14th General Elections
As expected, Tommy Thomas kickstarted his speech with the events of the historic 14th General Elections (“GE14”). He observed that our founding fathers would never have contemplated that it would take 14 general elections to effect a change in government. He also praised the peaceful and smooth transition that had occurred on 9 and 10 May 2018 — dates which he deemed “will go down in posterity as one of our greatest achievements”. In that regard, he congratulated the Yang di–Pertuan Agong, Conference of Rulers, Barisan Nasional, the defence and police forces, and the civil service, for discharging their duties admirably.
Tommy Thomas then reminded us of our nation’s darkest moments pre–GE14, in particular the acute centralisation of power under the Office of the Prime Minister, which resulted in the erosion and undermining of other organs of government. The critical lesson for Malaysians, he remarked, was that institutions, systems and structures, “however well intended and constructed, will fail if those who helm them lack courage, integrity and independence”.
Ever the historian, Tommy Thomas then highlighted that constitutionalism in Malaysia has been eroded as a result of 57 amendments over six decades, often for self–serving political reasons. He emphasised that the basic structure of our Constitution — such as separation of powers, rule of law and judicial independence — are, however, still intact and has to be strengthened in coming years.
A Constitution is nonetheless not intended to be static, Tommy Thomas observed. In this respect, he highlighted two important amendments that the Government should effect to the Federal Constitution, namely the reduction of the voting age to 18 years, and the transfer of prosecutorial power from the Attorney General to a newly created office of the Director of Public Prosecution.
Never a person to avoid controversy, Tommy Thomas then criticised the appointment of additional judges of the Federal Court — in obvious reference to the extension of tenure of the former top two judges. He remarked that our greatest judges like Justice Eusoffe Abdoolcader and Tun Suffian Hashim had never sought such office. Further, our Federal Court has 15 judges — a number more than ample and greater than other common law countries such as the United Kingdom (11), the United States of America (9), Australia (7) as well as New Zealand (5) and Singapore (5).
He also emphasised the critical need for access to justice. Otherwise, the Court cannot perform its function as a bulwark against the State. It must have been a delight to many lawyers when he announced that ouster clauses in our statutes must be repealed. Pending that, the Attorney General’s Chambers will henceforth cease to rely on ouster clauses.
The Malaysian Bar
In a heartwarming note that all Members of the Bar can be proud of, Tommy Thomas — on behalf of the Government — officially acknowledged the role played by the Bar in fulfilling its statutory duty in upholding the cause of justice, uninfluenced by fear or favour. On a humorous note, he quipped that it was not too late for the Bar to be “finally recognised by your own government”.
He also fired a salvo at the previous administration’s attempts to make inroads into the Bar’s autonomy and independence via amendments to the Legal Profession Act 1976 (“LPA”). He then revealed that he had invited the Bar to present a Bill to replace the LPA — one where the Bar will have a free hand in drafting, and where there would be no role for any state functionary.
Delivery of Expectations
In his concluding statement, the Attorney General stated that this is not the time or place for attributing blame to each organ in the justice machinery. He instead implored parties to work and repair the institutions that have failed, replace personalities who have violated their oaths of office and offer honest, independent and fair leadership.
As to the expectations of millions of Malaysians, he sought their patience and indulgence. He recognised that, in the reform journey, errors of judgement will occur — but so long as mistakes are made honestly, without malice and are minor in consequence, they should be overlooked.