Royals weigh in on people's concerns




Thursday, 20 December 2007, 08:59am

Royals weigh in on people's concerns©New Straits Times (Used by permission)

PARTI Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia produced 24,000 copies of a 40-page booklet highlighting key points of the Federal Constitution, Rukun Negara, Vision 2020 and the National Mission this year.

It was handed out to members at the party's national delegates conference in October. The booklet is still being distributed to the public at party functions.

"There is a renewed interest in the Constitution and the Social Contract," says Bar Council chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan, who has been invited to speak about the Constitution and its "fundamental liberties" to several groups this year.

This interest seems to have been sparked by the rulers, who made statements on several major issues this year. Besides promoting a culture of constitutionalism, they recommended dealing with problems through dialogue, negotiation and enlightened social movements that would deny support to chauvinists.

They also appeared to have played a more active role in the appointment of judges. But they reminded groups which tried to draw them into politics that constitutional monarchs were above such partisan politics.

"The rulers are asserting themselves on issues close to the rakyat's hearts -- the independence of the judiciary, race relations, religious tolerance and the defence of the Constitution," says Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi of Universiti Teknologi Mara's (UiTM) Law Faculty, who notes that the prime minister and deputy prime minister are sending similar messages of tolerance and accommodation. "This has earned tremendous admiration from the people."

At his birthday investiture ceremony in April, the Sultan of Perak Sultan Azlan Shah reminded Malaysians that the Constitution promised that everyone in the country, regardless of race or religion, would be accorded fair and just protection.

At the Malaysian Student Leaders Summit in August, his eldest son, Raja Muda Raja Dr Nazrin Shah, noted signs of polarisation along ethnic and religious lines. This should be tackled by upholding the Constitution and ensuring economic and social justice, as well as good governance and a thriving civil society, he said, urging young Malaysians to get a copy of the Constitution and to read it.

The rulers also encouraged inclusiveness. "To ensure that we continue to enjoy peace and harmony, we must understand the religions and cultures of our society," stressed Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah at the Kedah state assembly in November.

"Underlying all the rulers' comments is a sense of inclusiveness and respect for other races and religions," says Datuk Seri Dr Visu Sinnadurai, a former High Court judge and adjunct professor with the University of Malaya's Law Faculty, "This assurance is needed in a multi-racial country."

These reminders are timely, says Shad Saleem. "We have seen a lot of assertiveness, exclusiveness and insulting behaviour, including the use of epithets which are unbecoming of a multi-racial society, even in parliament."

That inclusiveness extends to relations between the monarchs and the executive. At the Khazanah Nasional Development seminar in September, Raja Nazrin argued against the belief that the Rulers' constitutional roles were purely ceremonial. To effectively discharge their responsibilities as guardians of the rule of law, impartial arbiters in the democratic process and "a healthy check and balance in the system of governance", he said, they needed avenues for genuine and in-depth consultations with the executive.

This has happened, says Sinnadurai, who has edited three volumes of Sultan Azlan Shah's essays, speeches and judgments: "Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has engaged them in dialogue and is more inclusive. The environment is more open. For example, the prime minister has made an effort to see all the sultans about the economic growth corridors."

The rulers also appear to have been more outspoken on judicial appointments this year, says Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz: "I think the rulers are very much encouraged by the liberal attitude of the prime minister and they gave their opinions."

When Tan Sri Siti Norma Yaakob retired as Chief Judge of Malaya on Jan 5, no replacement was named. Then Chief Justice Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim assumed the post.

Later, it was revealed that a Federal Court judge nominated by Ahmad Fairuz had 33 unwritten judgments. "After the prime minister had forwarded Ahmad Fairuz's recommendation to the Conference of Rulers, they appear to have had reservations as to why Ahmad Fairuz hadn't considered other more senior Federal Court judges," says an informal adviser to one of the rulers.

The long delay suggested the Conference of Rulers may not have endorsed Ahmad Fairuz's recommendation for the position, says Nazri, who explains that the king makes judicial appointments on the advice of the prime minister.

"The delay goes to show that the prime minister listens. If it were only his decision or choice, it could have been done earlier."

Finally, at the end of August, Federal Court judge Datuk Alauddin Mohd Sherif was appointed to the post while Datuk Abdul Hamid Mohamad was named Court of Appeal president (after the death of Tan Sri Abdul Malek Ahmad on May 31).

Meanwhile, in July, Ahmad Fairuz applied to the king for a six-month extension of his own term that was due to expire at the end of October. At the opening of the 14th Malaysian Law Conference in October, Sultan Azlan Shah called for major reforms in the judiciary, adding that he had heard reports of "disturbing events".

"There have been reports that some judges have taken years to write their grounds of judgments involving accused persons who had been convicted and were languishing in Death Row," he noted.

Quips the informal adviser: "With the Lingam video clip surfacing at the same time, one would have been surprised if Ahmad Fairuz's term had been extended."

In the end, Ahmad Fairuz retired at the end of October. Court of Appeal president Abdul Hamid became acting Chief Justice, as provided under the Courts of Adjudicature Act and was formally appointed to the post in December (backdated to Nov 1).

Sultan Azlan Shah, who was Lord President (now known as Chief Justice) from 1965 to 1984, also stressed in his address to the Law Conference that judges "must be sensitive to the feelings of all parties, irrespective of race, religion or creed, and be careful not to bring a predisposed mind to an issue before them". He quoted the late Lord President Tun Suffian Hashim's claim that judges at that time strove not to be too identified with any particular race or religion.

"In some recent judgments, the judges seem to be influenced by belonging to certain religions and do not appear to have the impartiality advocated by Suffian," says Raja Aziz Addruse, who advised the rulers during the constitutional crisis leading up to the amendment of Article 151 in 1981. "What the rulers have been saying this year is that there should be equality in the spirit of the Constitution -- a view to which all Malaysians should subscribe."

On Nov 10, an Istana Negara official received a memorandum from the Bersih coalition calling for electoral reforms. But legal experts agree this should not be interpreted as a sign of the king's support.

"It is not wrong to hand over a memo to the king but his receiving it doesn't mean he is taking sides," says Raja Aziz. "He will then give it to the prime minister."

The Sultan of Pahang later noted that Malay rulers would not get involved in politics and advised Malaysians to not take part in illegal rallies and violate the law.

Looking back at the rulers' statements this year, the Bar Council's Ambiga says: "We need these voices. The rulers' comments carry extra weight because of who they are -- well-respected and heads of religion in their state. They have played a role which is very even-handed and balanced."