Last edited: December 31, 2004

Good News for Malaysia and the World

The Straits Times, September 4, 2004

By Tom Plate

LOS ANGELES—Justice delayed may be justice denied—but at the end of the day, it is incontestably better than nothing. Societies that disrespect the professionalism of their courts ultimately court catastrophe.

You’ll presumably get little argument on this point from former Malaysian deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. On Thursday, the country’s highest court put the key in the lock of the state jail which for the past half dozen years was the erudite Asian leader’s unhappy home. And so this remarkable Muslim man is free at last.

Datuk Seri Anwar, an unapologetic advocate of the importance of the warmest possible relations between Asia and America, can thank both Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as well as the Federal Court for his release. He can also thank former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad for his incarceration on charges of sodomy, a transgression of Islamic law, that Malaysia’s highest court ruled were based on evidence so flimsy as to make the conviction unsustainable.

The significance of the Federal Court decision cannot be understood without reflecting on the epochal reign of Tun Dr Mahathir. The Anwar jailing had always been a divisive and spectacular black mark on the long tenure of this otherwise brilliant and patriotic—but perhaps also paranoid—man. His political endurance as PM was phenomenal—from 1981 to last year—and firm, to a fault, but, perhaps because of his own humble origins, he could not abide the rise of Datuk Seri Anwar as his most obvious challenger—nor the latter’s easy level of cultural comfort with the West.

Unlike his three predecessors, the products of Malay royal families, Tun Dr Mahathir was the son of school teachers and held menial jobs as a youth. It may be that such humble roots rendered his true nature as insecure in its interior as it was steely in its public persona. Perhaps the triumphalist West only stirred up those insecurities.

He struck me—on the more than one occasion we met—as a true South-east Asian enigma who could aim for the stars but sometimes shoots himself and his country in the foot. The West-and-Jew-bashing, in particular, did not become him. He could have been better than this.

To his credit, however, his hand-picked successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah, got off to a terrific start from the very beginning. But the political paradox now is that, as Datuk Seri Anwar is free, the new Prime Minister may face a political challenge that his mentor deigned to handle only through the time-honoured techniques of the autocrat.

Whatever, Datuk Seri Abdullah has performed an immeasurably magnificent public service for his nation that could endure for a long time to come, no matter how short or long his tenure as PM.

In the final analysis, we must understand, Malaysia transcends mediocrity on the world stage to the extent that a genuine rule of law, enforceable by the courts, underpins that which is humane and just (in the secular sense) in its society, reduces the capricious and the mendacious, and elevates the highest ethical and humanitarian principles to something akin to standard operating civic procedure.

The crucial role of a judiciary cannot be overstated in both economic as well as political terms. In Pakistan, the military rules; in China, the party predominates. But where the courts are not a joke, outsiders (such as investors) as well as citizens (such as common folk) benefit from a climate of relative equity and predictability.

India, for example, is far behind China as the recipient of foreign direct investment. But that will not long be the case as long as India’s court system increasingly demonstrates an appropriate judicial independence that seeks to keep this sprawling democracy on an equitable and just keel without usurping the constitutional institutions of electoral democracy.

The Malaysian and Indian examples also hold lessons for the West. We must not be complacent about our own judicial institutions. They are indeed the bedrock of civilised society.

In America, the fierce debate over the constitutionality of Guantanamo Bay is not so much a question about the United States President’s right to wage a difficult war against terrorists with special leeway, or even a partisan effort to embarrass the Republican administration. It’s an honest effort to answer the question: Is there a twilight zone in which there is no applicable law? Let us dearly hope there is none.

The recent US Supreme Court decision that in effect insists on the applicability of constitutional guarantees even to terror suspects was, like the Malaysian Federal Court decision, noble and right. When good things such as this happen in our troubled world, it’s a big mistake not to dwell on them at inordinate length. Really good news doesn’t surface that often.

  • The writer is a University of California at Los Angeles professor.

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