My adrenalin surged after reading, first in Malaysiakini, then the news release by Associated Press, about the speech given by the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah at the 14th Malaysian Law Conference. His speech was also reported in New Straits Times the next day. The learned sultan, who was formerly a very well-regarded Lord President, has called for a judicial reform.
He said it was time for the judiciary to regain the public's confidence and bring back the glorious years. For this, he added, mere cosmetic changes were not enough. He said there was no reason why judges, with the security of tenure they enjoyed under the Constitution, could not discharge their duties impartially, confidently and competently.
"Nothing destroys more the confidence the general public, or the business community has in the judiciary than the belief that the judge was biased when he decided a case, or that the judge would not be independent where powerful individuals or corporations are the litigants before him," he said.
Delayed judgments and backlog of cases are signs of incompetence in judiciary, he said. These are words of wisdom and coming from no less a person who is a ruler and a former great judge.
As I see it, the problems in the judiciary is part of a loss of excellence in our society, which has first started in political arena, spread to civil service, police, education, sports and finally the courts.
Why is there such incompetence and loss of excellence?
Loss of excellence, in fact, is what prompted me to write and write regularly. Please read one of my very first articles to Malaysiakini about a year back: Excellence, have we lost the urge? To paraphrase a few lines from that article:
"In the 60s and 70s, Malaysia was not only strong in football, but also in hockey and badminton. We also excelled in our studies. Malaysian students who studied overseas regularly topped their classes in universities and colleges. Even our local universities such as MU and USM had very high academic standings in the world.
"What has happened to us? We need to gain back the urge to do well, to strive for excellence in all our endeavours, not only in sports and in our studies, but also in our courts, our police force, our industries and our businesses.
"Why is there such a system of incompetence? Why has incompetence been so pervasive, from politics, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, police and almost all aspects of our lives now?"
I did a lot of soul searching on this. My conclusion - the politicians over the last two to three decades have to bear the main responsibilities for this.
The rot first started in our political culture. In the 60s, most politicians were clean and competent. Some of them might not have achieved very high academic standard, but they still performed well. There were also many leaders of high integrity. They did not use government funds for their private functions.
Many traveled by trains and buses to attend meetings. Many of them, including Umno delegates, squatted with their friends when they came to Kuala Lumpur to attend party meetings. Some of the politicians sold their houses to fund their political activity for the betterment of community; and politics then were equated with self sacrifice to put nation and society's interest first.
Alas! Slowly the fight for power and position replaced the urge to fight for the interest of the nations. Power, as we all know, will corrupt a person. Because of this wish to fight their way up to be the top leaders, loyalty more than anything else matters when they promote people to positions under them. Even crooked and corrupted individuals were used as long as they were aligned to the leaders and had absolute obedience.
Very slowly, culture changed. When before, only the best and most competent got promoted, elected and appointed to certain positions, slowly a culture of patronage started to appear. Only those who were perceived to be loyal, and those who were perceived to be obedient were given positions and nominated to stand for elections. Competency and integrity were never criteria for appointments.
Had there been a culture of meritocracy, this culture of patronage might not have taken roots. Unfortunately, after the watershed incident in May 1969, a policy - the New Economic Policy - which was meant to eradicate poverty irrespective of ethnic groups ,was hijacked and transformed into a policy of creating an unfair playing ground.
To buy loyalty, the leaders need to play money politics and which means that they would resort to whatever means they can to get funds, even to the extent of abusing their positions and employing corrupt practices. In the name of restructuring of society, cronies were given contracts and projects in order to get funding for the political masters to fight their way up.
From a culture pf patronage, it evolved to become a culture of cronyism and nepotism. Corruption also rears its ugly head. It does not matter when a supporter becomes corrupt as long as he continues to be loyal and continues to provide funding.
The nation's interests were now secondary to personal interest.
The politicians make use of this policy to masquerade their culture of favouritism, patronage, nepotism and cronyism. If you are not one of the group, no matter how good you are, you will be sidelined, and every obstacle placed in your path to prevent your ascendancy. This culture becomes pervasive and ultimately, it is not what you know but who you know that decides a person's rise in the political ladder.
The civil service copied and followed the examples of their political masters. When promotion in the service is not based on meritocracy, incompetence creeps in. When the whole structure is controlled by flock of the same feather, it becomes an entrenched culture and anyone wishing to change this culture would face a Herculean task.
With corruption and incompetence, cover-ups and a lack of transparency become a necessity. The corrupt and incompetent would promote people of the same feather, and the corrupt and incompetent would cover each other's back so well that it becomes a case of 'you scratch my back, I scratch yours'.
If only civil servants and politicians are involved, there is still the legal revenue to right any wrong. It is for this reason that judiciary is often regarded as the most important of the three branches of government in a democracy.
So it would be in the interest of the political masters, even though it is not in the interest of the people and the nation, to introduce this culture of patronage to judiciary. Once promotion is based on who you know and not what you know, the rot starts. We all knew what happened.
We therefore need to heed the call by the Sultan of Perak to reform the judiciary. A truly independent judiciary will be able to bring back the glory and the confidence of the people as well as investors. It will also be the ultimate protector of freedom, equality, human universal rights as enshrined in the Constitution. It will also effectively check any abuse of power on the part of the executive.
It is therefore in the interest of the nation to have a royal commission to review and reform the whole judiciary. We need to have a judiciary that is impartial, competence and occupied by people of high integrity.
It is also in the interest of the country to fully practice a system of meritocracy, in politics, civil service, sports, judiciary, schools and universities. These will be the very first step to counter the culture of rot that has reached an alarming state in the past few years.