This item has been updated since initial publication.
By Chin Oy Sim and Joe Chin
“I am not a lawyer. Thank God,” quipped Yang Amat Mulia Tunku Zain Al–‘Abidin ibni Tuanku Muhriz to appreciative chuckles from the audience, as he kicked off the 3rd Raja Aziz Addruse Memorial Lecture, entitled “Inspirations from Raja Aziz Addruse: Morality and the Rule of Law”, delivered at the International Malaysia Law Conference (“IMLC”) 2014 at The Royale Chulan Kuala Lumpur, on 24 Sept 2014.
The Founding President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Ideas (“IDEAS”), and son of the reigning Yang Di–Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan, characterised the lecture as “the longest lecture of [his] life in front of an intimidating audience”, but it lived up to the title and found resonance with the listeners, who expressed their support and approval with intermittent rounds of loud applause.
The lecture proper had been preceded by introductory remarks by Christopher Leong, President of the Malaysian Bar, who described Tunku ‘Abidin as, among others, a prolific writer on current affairs and social issues; the author of a book for the Installation of the Ruler of Negeri Sembilan and who led a project to revitalise the State Anthem; an Eisenhower Fellow; and a recipient of the Rotary Young Integrity Award.
Mr Leong also provided a brief overview on Raja Aziz Addruse (“Ungku, as most of us fondly and respectfully called him”)’s background, and insight into the genesis of the “oft–cited motto of the Bar ‘without fear or favour’”, which he noted had been initially used in the editorial in the Bar’s October 1969 issue of Insaf, with Ungku at its helm as editor. The Memorial Lecture series had been instituted after Ungku’s demise, elucidated Mr Leong, by the Malaysian Bar in collaboration with The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn Alumni Association of Malaysia in October 2011, to “honour one of our most respected and distinguished Presidents”. Subsequent Memorial Lectures would feature in the biennial IMLC.
As Tunku ‘Abidin put it, Raja Aziz was “rightly best–known for three things: for being elected thrice to the presidency of the Bar Council; for founding the country’s first human rights NGO; and for dealing with profound constitutional issues either through his cases, writing or speeches”.
But Tunku ‘Abidin’s first recollection of the man was not his unparalleled curriculum vitae. It was of “Uncle Aziz”, a family friend whose vital role in the nation’s democracy became evident to Tunku ‘Abidin in his teenage years. Raja Aziz was first and foremost a man whose integrity, honour and morality were in abundance. He had turned down several offers of Datukships because, in his own words, “You don’t need a title to ‘be someone’”.
“[W]hile Raja Aziz rejected all offers of Dato’, he certainly lived up to the style of “Yang Mulia”. But it is the name “Addruse” that we must ensure endures as an inspiration of steadfast morality.”
Building on this apt anecdote, Tunku ‘Abidin reflected on how the low level of confidence in the system of conferment of honours in Malaysia is indicative of a general air of malaise regarding the health of national institutions and our democracy.
To delve into the causes of this state of affairs, Tunku ‘Abidin examined our constitutional setup by considering various tenets and perspectives of constitutionalism expounded by prominent thinkers ranging from AV Dicey, Friedrich Hayek and Lord Bingham to the more recent Ronald Dworkin, Jeffrey Jowell and Trevor Allan, to exemplify and convey how deep, nuanced, complex and controversial constitutional law is. In reference to the very nature of law, he questioned, “Does legislation that fails to fulfil [the criteria of providing order and clarity] not deserve to be regarded as law?” He observed that law must be placed in its proper context, as it does not operate in a vacuum but “should reflect society’s ideals and values, clarifying them and providing order to societal morality. . . . morality is personal but the law must be universal”.
Raja Aziz did not favour Dicey’s view that the sovereignty of Parliament was paramount and even the judiciary was subject to Parliament. Tunku ‘Abidin spoke about how Raja Aziz believed instead in the supremacy of the Constitution and had opposed the 1988 amendments to Section 121 of the Federal Constitution as compromising the independence of the judiciary, and how Raja Aziz had in 2007 famously said, “[The Constitution] means nothing to me at the moment, because it can be changed at any time.” Raja Aziz was a firm believer that fundamental rights provided by the Constitution formed part of its basic structure and could not be abrogated.
The audience members visibly sat up and took (even greater) notice when Tunku ‘Abidin postulated that:
. . . the basic structure of our Constitution is under threat today with regards jurisdiction of courts, religious issues and the relationship between Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak. Even more dangerously, there are those who have deliberately reinterpreted basic premises of our Constitution, citing key articles out of context as justification. Raja Aziz, as a staunch defender of the Constitution as it was understood by those who drafted and adopted it, would be appalled.
To illustrate how Raja Aziz was fearlessly vocal in expressing his views on a myriad of topical constitutional, human rights and public interest issues, Tunku ‘Abidin spoke charismatically of Raja Aziz’s thoughts on the independence of parliamentarians, stifling of press freedom, the constitutional amendments in 1993 that removed the legal immunity of the Rulers, the mandatory death penalty, the police killings of the late 1990s, right to freedom of belief, conversion of children to Islam by one spouse, and detention without trial, as well as of his “long–held distaste for the Sedition Act”.
Time and time again, Raja Aziz spoke truth to power.
Tunku ‘Abidin then painted a disquieting picture of Malaysia’s current social and political climate and culture, which are beset by polarisation, patronage and corruption, and institutional destruction, and questioned the hope for rule of law and morality under such circumstances. He labelled the belief that a change of the governing political party will bring about real change as “unmitigated fantasy”, which drew cheers of agreement. According to him, “[W]e need to cajole political forces into a consensus, to re–forge a shared understanding of the Constitution, the rule of law, and the separation of powers.”
Tunku ‘Abidin made several references to the Sedition Act and its current (mis)use, and noted Raja Aziz’s point about the “elasticity” of the definition of ‘seditious tendency’”. Earlier he had remarked that Raja Aziz had shown him how no issue is beyond debate and had proved that even the most contentious and provocative subjects could be explored calmly yet comprehensively. Tunku ‘Abidin advocated the submission of a complete draft of the National Harmony Bill to Parliament as soon as possible so that both sides — those who support as well as those who oppose the Sedition Act — would be assuaged.
“In such times we miss Raja Aziz. His moral courage, leadership and reasoned voice of calm would pierce through the turbulence to educate us all.”
As Tunku ‘Abidin began drawing his evocative and compelling lecture to a close, he encouraged his listeners to take comfort in the continuing contestation between the Parliamentary and Constitutional supremacy. “Like many of you, I pray that the battle that Raja Aziz fought throughout his legal career can still be won — but only if the Malaysian judiciary successfully asserts its independence, and wins respect from the people.”
On a lighter note, he concluded, “If I have committed sedition, then God help us all — though I can count on 701 Members of the Malaysian Bar [who supported the Bar's motion to repeal the Sedition Act at its recent EGM] to assist.” [Uproarious laughter].