Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Revisiting the 1988 Constitutional Crisis

Written by johnleemk on 2:56:24 pm Jun 1, 2007.
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In 1988, a remarkable event occurred — the likes of which have not been seen before in this country, and may not be seen again. Several of the country's leading judges — a substantial portion of our Supreme Court — were suspended, and later sacked, for alleged insubordination.

There are a number of perspectives on the ignominious affair of 1988, which saw a constitutional crisis precipitated when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, on the advice of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, suspended and later sacked several sitting judges in the Supreme Court, including the nation's number one judge, Tun Salleh Abas.

The official line is that the constitutional crisis resulted in a more efficient and less corrupt judiciary; I have seen a few allegations of corruption amongst the judges who were removed, and some attempt has been made to draw a tortuous link between a clearing up in the judicial backlog and the sacking of the judges. (Though officially the backlog still exists...)

Of course, the official antiestablishment perspective is that the constitutional crisis resulted in the sacking of righteous men standing up for the rule of law and judicial independence. A substantial number of people also allege that the resulting constitutional amendments substantially weakened the Malaysian judicial system.

I am normally skeptical of extreme viewpoints; this is especially so when the issue is something so controversial. Some attempts to revisit the events of the 13 May 1969 racial riots have resulted in skewed and intellectually lacking interpretations.

However, in this case, I am inclined to side with the antiestablishmentarians. That the constitutional crisis threw our legal system into disarray is clearly evidenced by the fact that the judicial power of the federation, once directly vested in the courts by the Constitution, has vanished from the Constitution.

Instead, the Constitution is silent on where the judicial power lies; at least one interpretation I am not too sure about argues that this implies that it has been vested in Parliament, which then delegates it to the courts. I don't know enough about this to comment.

What I do know is that because the constitutional amendments also made the civil and Syariah courts equal in standing, much trauma has resulted for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, when the civil courts refuse to hear a case and cede jurisdiction to the religious courts because of the grey areas surrounding this issue. (The civil courts are not legally unfounded in doing this; were the Constitution stronger, this could not happen.)

(The argument that the religious courts will be able to do justice to all parties, even non-Muslims, is of course totally ridiculous.)

Moreover, the outcome of the constitutional crisis was an overall weakening and virtual castration of the judiciary. The whole point of having three branches of government is so one group of people makes the law, another enforces it, and another interprets it.

If the same group has its finger in all three puddings, so to speak, then who is to say what the law is? The law basically says whatever this group wants it to say, and the rule of law goes out the window.

It has been alleged that Salleh Abas was incompetent, and deserved to be sacked. Maybe. But the fact is, he was sacked for asserting the judiciary's independence from the government — for stating that the law did not always say what the executive (Prime Minister) wanted it to say.

Recently, the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, sacked his country's top judge, precipitating a constitutional crisis not unlike our own. Protesters from the legal fraternity immediately invoked the parallels with Malaysia, asking if they wanted Pakistan to be a legal basket case just like our country.

Our lack of respect for the rule of law, as demonstrated by the 1988 constitutional crisis, speaks volumes about ourselves. It is said that the people get the government they deserve. If you want to know why you can't speak as you want or think as you want, or even call yourself what you want, here's why: it's a legacy of the constitutional crisis of 1988.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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