Yesterday I (TP) spent two hours interviewing Tan Sri Abu Talib bin Othman, the Chairman of SUHAKAM (Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia; Human Rights Commission of Malaysia). With an organizational name like that, you’d figure that this is a pretty good group. In fact, it is. The problem is that the group has an "advisory role" for the government, and the government responds to this advice by saying "thanks, but we’re not interested in your reforms". It is widely known that the Malaysian Parliament (
Dewan Negara Dewan Rakyat) does not even read the reports that they mandate that SUHAKAM produce.
OK, that’s not surprising. And to be honest, I didn’t have high expectations of my conversation with Tan Sri Abu Talib. I was interested in his views on a couple of other matters. Tan Sri Abu Talib–a barrister by profession–was the Attorney General of Malaysia from 1980 to 1993, and in 1999 he headed the Royal Commission to investigate the savage beating that former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim received when first detained under charges of corruption and sodomy. This is a man who has been at the center of the regime’s authority, and an instrument of its power over society. I wanted to know his views of judicial independence in Malaysia. This is a particularly relevant question for him. In 1988, as Attorney General, he was the person who charged the then-Lord President Tun Salleh of "not acting properly" for criticizing (in a private letter to the King) the Prime Minister’s view that the judiciary should not question government decisions. Tun Salleh and two other judges were eventually convicted of improper conduct by an independent Tribunal with no legal standing appointed by the Attorney General and the Prime Minister, and subsequently removed. This has been widely interpreted as Mahathir Mohammad’s most important move in consolidating a regime with no institutional checks on his personal authority, as well as the end of the always-tenuous independence of the Malaysian judiciary.
Tan Sri Abu Talib is quite a nice man. We had a very nice conversation, and he was more than willing to speak in his capacity as a private citizen. At one time, he rattled of a list of requirements of the judicial branch that would please any democrat or lawyer: the judicial branch of government "must be independent, fair, and impartial." Yet I have to wonder how he could honestly hold such views given his personal involvement in the Tun Salleh affair. He was very clear that he believed that Tun Salleh had acted improperly by stating that the judiciary branch of government must be independent. How can he reconcile these views?
Tan Sri Abu Talib, as Chairman of SUHAKAM, is an ardent supporter of
freedom of the press ("with responsibility," of course) and a strident
opponent of Malaysian laws which allow the police to detain indefinitely
suspects without trial, evidence, or legal counsel. Speaking of his own experience as Attorney General, though, he claims that he never used these laws unfairly. Things were different then, he says. And I think that he believes that as well. Anwar Ibrahim, in his view, received a fair trial. Tan Sri Abu Talib argues that the judiciary must be independent, but in the same breath stipulates that the role of the judiciary is not to get bogged down in procedure and principles, but to dispense "justice".
So here we have the benign face, or perhaps the Janus face, of power in Malaysia. Tan Sri Abu Talib, a very friendly and obviously intelligent man, who genuinely supports true human rights causes in Malaysia, does not believe that his role in Mahathir Mohammad’s regime constituted a violation of the very principles for which he now advocates.