Contributed by Steven Thiru and David Dinesh Mathew, Members of the Bar
Param Cumaraswamy was born in Kuala Lumpur in August of 1941, just four months shy of the Japanese invasion of Malaya.
It was out of these hard years of war that this doyen of the Malaysian Bar rose to be hailed many years later by Lord Denning as “a courageous fighter for the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession”, upon his appointment as United Nations (“UN”) Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
Param’s early years saw him complete his primary and secondary education at the Pasar Road English School and Victoria Institution, respectively.
He then decided to further his education in England. Never one to refuse an adventure, Param decided on the scenic route and boarded a cargo boat that took an entire month to get him to London!
After completing his A–Levels, Param opted to read law at Inner Temple.
It was around this time that the Christine Keeler and John Profumo scandal erupted. Interest piqued, a young Param confidently walked into the chambers of Mervyn Griffith–Jones QC, who was prosecuting, and asked whether he could sit in the trial. The QC agreed, and as a consequence, Param had the opportunity to observe one of the landmark English criminal prosecutions of the time.
Param qualified as a barrister in 1966 and returned to Malaysia the following year to begin his legal practice at Shook Lin & Bok, where he eventually became Chief Executive Partner between 1992 and 1997.
Param’s was not, however, an ordinary life in the law.
Between 1985 and 1990, he was subjected to considerable pressure, harassment and intimidation — including death threats — for his defence of human rights in Malaysia. As Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, the then–Chief Justice of New Zealand, said about Param in 1999, “His courageous stand at great personal risk and cost, in defence of judicial independence in his country has made Param Cumaraswamy a legendary figure in this region of the world.”
While these words were uttered much later on in Param’s journey as a lawyer, this trait of dedicated service and valour was evident in Param even in his early years at the Bar.
He was a member of the Bar Council for 24 unbroken years from 1974 to 1998, having held the offices of Treasurer, Secretary, and Vice–President of the Malaysian Bar, and then of President from 1986 to 1988.
The Human Rights Committee and Legal Aid Committee are two committees of the Bar Council that are thriving today, touching lives and making a significant difference in society. Both these committees can trace their origins back to the seeds planted by Param as a founding member many years ago.
In 1984, in his capacity as Vice–President of the Bar, Param issued an open letter to the Pardons Board of Kuala Lumpur that was chaired by the Yang di–Pertuan Agong. In it, he strongly urged the Board to reconsider a petition for commutation of a death sentence on Sim Kie Chon, who had been convicted and sentenced to death under the Internal Security Act 1960.
Param called on the Pardons Board not to discriminate between the rich and the poor in connection with the petition because Sim was a labourer. He wrote:
People should not be made to feel that in our society today the severity of the law is only meant for the poor, the meek and the unfortunate whereas the rich, powerful and the influential can somehow seek to avoid the same severity.
These were the words for which Param was subsequently charged for sedition.
His case attracted international attention, with representatives from the Bar Council of England & Wales, International Bar Association, and other regional and international Bar associations observing the court proceedings.
After a protracted trial at the Kuala Lumpur High Court, Param was acquitted. In its judgment,1 the High Court noted as follows:
Mr. Cumaraswamy was certainly not trying to promote ill–will and hostility between the different classes of the population. In fact, he was urging the Pardons Board not to create the feeling or impression among the population that the Board was discriminating between the different classes.
The judgment was hailed as a landmark victory for freedom of expression in Malaysia.
In 1994, Param was appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. He served in this office with distinction for almost a decade until 25 July 2003.
He was congratulated on his appointment by Michael Kirby, the former Justice of the High Court of Australia, who said that Param’s “integrity in standing up for the independence of the judiciary of Malaysia demanded [his] appointment”.
His tireless efforts as Special Rapporteur earned him the first International Peace and Justice Award from the Irish American Unity Conference in 1999, and the Justice in the World Prize from the International Association of Judges in 2002.
In his role as Special Rapporteur, Param intervened in cases of reported violations of the independence of lawyers or judiciary in more than 100 countries. He undertook missions to Colombia, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Slovakia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and many other countries, reporting to the UN Commission on Human Rights. Param also intervened in Timor Leste when judges there went on strike.
As Special Rapporteur, he also participated in the meetings of the group of eminent judges who drafted the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, and thereafter he had them endorsed by the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Back at home in Malaysia, Param became the subject of protracted legal proceedings beginning in 1995. This was as a result of an interview he gave to the London–based International Commercial Litigation magazine in his capacity as Special Rapporteur, concerning alleged impropriety within the Malaysian judiciary.
Four potentially crippling multi–million dollar defamation suits were brought against Param by various Malaysian personalities and corporations. He saw the suits as harassment and intimidation to try to break him down economically. He was forced to make the difficult decision to leave Shook Lin & Bok and set up practice on his own, as he refused to let the firm suffer from the adverse publicity brought on by the suits.
Param’s attempt to set aside the writ — on the ground that the court had no jurisdiction over his person because he was immune from the suit — failed.
This sparked outrage, as it was in direct contravention of Malaysia’s international obligations. A face–off began between Malaysia and the UN.
The UN claimed immunity from legal process on his behalf under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations 1946. The Malaysian Bar stood by Param. As UN Special Rapporteur, he was accorded the privileges and immunities necessary for the independent exercise of his functions.
Eventually the International Court of Justice in The Hague found that Param was indeed immune from legal process, and directed the Malaysian courts to recognise this immunity. In 2001, the suits against Param were withdrawn.
While he has faced numerous attacks, Param has also been recognised by many for his steadfast dedication to justice and the rule of law.
From 1986 to 1989, he was the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the International Bar Association. He is a life member of The Law Association for Asia and the Pacific (“LAWASIA”), having been elected as its President from 1993 to 1995, as well as former chairman of its Human Rights Committee. He was appointed commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists in 1991 and served on its executive committee from 1998 to 2002. He was also a member of the International Board of Article 19, the Global Campaign for Free Expression from 1996 to 2005; an honorary member of the Law Society of New Zealand; a founding member of the Regional Working Group for the establishment of an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, which has since been established as the ASEAN Inter–Governmental Human Rights Commission, as well as chairman of the Malaysian Working Group; and former President of Transparency International Malaysia.
In 2003, Param was made Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple, although he had been called to the Inner Temple. The Master Treasurer of the Middle Temple had spoken to the Treasurer of Inner Temple and obtained special permission for this to happen.
Param was also conferred honorary membership in 2003 of the Law Society of England & Wales “in recognition for his unswerving efforts in the promotion of human rights internationally and the preservation of judicial independence”.
In 2005, Param was the recipient of the Peter Gruber Foundation’s Justice Prize at the University of Columbia Law School, for a “life dedicated to the defense and affirmation of justice and fearless advocacy for judicial independence”.
Throughout his time at the Malaysian Bar, Param has been a stalwart of justice and civil liberties. African human rights lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee said: “Standing between authority and subject is always uncomfortable, often dangerous. But that is what we are trained to do.”2 That is exactly what Param has always exemplified in his lifelong furtherance of the causes of human rights and civil liberties, including the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, even at considerable risk to himself.
Param remains in practice to this day, and continues to write extensively about the independence of the legal profession and judiciary, and the importance of human rights. He has also lectured widely on a variety of legal topics, particularly on the role of an independent and responsible judiciary in fostering democracy.
Param is married to Davinder Kaur, herself a lawyer. He has a son, Roberto Shankar; two daughters, Shanthi and Deborah; and grandsons, Liam and Allesandro.
1  1 MLJ 518
2 Pheroze Nowrojee, “No Respecters of Persons: Advocates in the Front Line” (2011) 20(1) Journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, pp. 16–20
â€‹â€‹to view the citation as it appeared in the Commemorative Booklet for the Malaysian Bar’s Annual Dinner & Dance 2018;
â€‹â€‹to view the acceptance speech by Param Cumaraswamy;
(3) here to view a video on Param Cumaraswamy; and
(4) here for a peek at the highlights of the Malaysian Bar’s Annual Dinner and Dance 2018, held at the Grand Ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, on 17 Mar 2018.
Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award
The Bar Council instituted the Malaysian Bar Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 as a form of recognition of and appreciation for outstanding Members of the Malaysian Bar who have demonstrated particular dedication and exemplary lifetime service, and made invaluable and outstanding contributions, to the Bar.
The Award was first conferred (posthumously) on â€‹Raja Aziz Addruse, at the Malaysian Bar's Annual Dinner & Dance on 10 Mar 2012. Since then, the recipients have been â€‹Peter Mooney, Mahadev Shankar, â€‹Dr Radhakrishna Ramani (posthumously), â€‹Karpal Singh s/o Ram Singh (posthumously), and â€‹V C George.