I have a lot of respect for the Malaysian Bar Council, which under Param Coomaraswamy and Tommy Thomas bravely and consistently provided one of the only restraints to former Prime Minister Mahathir’s increasingly authoritarian and arbitrary premiership. Still, I can’t agree with the Council’s comment on Anwar’s release.
The Bar Council, which represents some 8,000 Malaysian lawyers, said the Federal Court's decision on Thursday to uphold Anwar's last-chance appeal against his sodomy conviction showed that "Malaysian justice can be independent of politics."It does? I think it shows the opposite: while the Prime Minister was gunning for Anwar the judiciary toed the line, under his more emollient successor the judges are still doing what they are told.
In 1988 Mahathir first flexed his muscles against the judiciary by removing Lord President Lord President Tun Salleh Abas and replacing him with the more pliant Chief Justice Hamid Omar. I was Managing Editor of the Malayan Law Journal at the time and thought that the doom and gloom of my lawyer friends was rather overdone. Not for the first time, I was proved completely wrong as over the next 15 years the Malaysian judiciary’s independence crumbled slowly and painfully before our eyes. A nice summary of the executive v judiciary battle in Malaysia can be found here.
Given that the large Barisan majorities in the 1990s allowed Mahathir virtually to ignore the legislature (in his last few years as Prime Minister he almost gave up attending debates in the Parliament) Malaysia became a sort of elective dictatorship. Nothing demonstrated this more than the arrest of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar on trumped-up sodomy charges in 1998. It will be interesting to see whether his release heralds a more balanced distribution of power within the Malaysian political system, or whether Abdullah is merely tidying up some of the loose ends left by his predecessor.