Straits Times, Singapore (Used by permission)
by Leslie Lopez, South-east Asia Correspondent
Govt's perceived reluctance to deal with crisis of confidence is causing much unhappiness
KUALA LUMPUR - WHEN the Malaysian government
established a three-member panel last month to investigate a video clip that
alleged judicial corruption, it sent out two separate messages.
First, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's administration acknowledged that widespread concerns over the independence of Malaysia's judiciary needed to be tackled urgently.
By setting up the independent panel, the government also tacitly admitted to a
lack of public confidence in the ability of enforcement agencies, particularly
the police, to carry out the simple task of determining the authenticity of the
The controversial clip, showing a senior lawyer allegedly brokering the appointment of judges, was released by the country's former deputy premier, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
This week, two separate events underscored the seriousness of the problems afflicting the judiciary and the police.
On Monday, Perak's Sultan Azlan Shah delivered a sharp rebuke to the country's judges when he told a conference of lawyers that the judiciary was in serious need of reform.
'Sadly, I must acknowledge there has been some disquiet about our judiciary,' said Sultan Azlan Shah, who at one time served as the country's chief judge. 'I am driven nostalgically to look back to a time when our judiciary was the pride of our region and our neighbours spoke admiringly of our legal service.'
A day later, Malaysia's third most senior police officer alleged that the country's two other main enforcement agencies - the Attorney-General's Chambers and the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) - were undermining police efforts to arrest criminals.
Datuk Ramli Yusoff, who heads the Commercial Crime Division, also accused the Attorney-General's Chambers and the ACA of harassing police informants over the detention of an alleged underworld warlord.
Datuk Ramli was charged in court on Thursday for failing to declare some of his assets.
To an outsider looking in, the picture is not pretty.
Datuk Ramli's claims, coupled with the caustic remarks that Sultan Azlan Shah made, present Datuk Seri Abdullah with the serious challenge of trying to convince the local and international business community that Malaysia is a safe investment destination.
Disquiet over Malaysia's judiciary and the country's enforcement agencies is not new.
The problems date back to 1988, when former premier Mahathir Mohamad clashed with the judiciary over several decisions by the courts that went against his administration.
Then the widely published trials of Datuk Seri Anwar in the late 1990s not only raised fresh questions over the judiciary, but also brought the enforcement agencies, particularly the police, under close scrutiny.
Analysts and businessmen said that the Anwar trials helped cement the perception that enforcement agencies and the judiciary were open to dictates by the ruling elite and even some politically powerful business groups.
'The perception remains, and all of these are the remnants of Dr Mahathir's rule,' said Prof Shamsul Amri Baharudin, a professor of social anthropology at Malaysia's National University. 'The message is clear: Abdullah needs to clean things up.'
Close associates of Datuk Seri Abdullah insisted that reforms were already under way.
They noted the recent anti-corruption crackdown on civil servants for alleged abuses in government procurement contracts and failure to disclose their assets, as in the case with Datuk Ramli.
'Allegations of victimisation by the ACA are signs that the virus is trying to fight back, and this shows that the clean-up is working,' said a senior government official.
But lawyers and opposition leaders say that Datuk Seri Abdullah's clean-up push is cursory at best and the political will to institute reforms is lacking.
This could be because of the workings of Malaysian politics.
Datuk Seri Abdullah's ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) draws most of its political support from the rural Malay heartland.
In this constituency, concerns over the judiciary and the country's security agencies do not resonate as strongly as they do among the country's urban population.
'There is no push factor for Umno to reform the judiciary or the police,' said a retired judge who asked not to be named.
But the reluctance to deal with growing unease with the judiciary and the enforcement agencies could have serious economic repercussions.
In his speech on Monday, Sultan Azlan Shah cited results of a recent World Bank survey on the resolution of commercial disputes, which gave Malaysia a poor ranking of 63 among 178 countries.
'A similar report by the US State Department warns American businessmen to be wary of the slow process of adjudication of cases before the Malaysian courts,' he said.
'This is indeed a poor reflection on our courts.'
REFORM IS OVERDUE
'The perception remains, and all of these are the remnants of Dr Mahathir's rule. The message is clear: Abdullah needs to clean things up.'
PROFESSOR SHAMSUL AMRI BAHARUDIN, on the perception that enforcement agencies and the judiciary are open to dictates by the ruling elite and politically powerful business groups
REFORM IS ONGOING
'Allegations of victimisation by the ACA are signs that the virus is trying to fight back, and this shows that the clean-up is working.'
A SENIOR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL, who notes that there have been crackdowns on civil servants for alleged corruption