In an exclusive interview with malaysiakini, Salleh said he turned down the job offer (which came with an enormous entertainment allowance and unlimited travel) because he did not want to compromise the independence of the judiciary.
"They wanted me to just leave quietly. But I refused as there would be a cloud surrounding my departure. People would say I am corrupt. Or they would say that I am a coward.
"So I said to myself: I can't go on like this. If I accept the post, every day I have to look at myself in the mirror and my reflection in the mirror will curse me. This is not the life that I would want to lead," he said with a smile.
He said he was prepared to lose everything the Lord President's post included rather than his principles and beliefs.
However, Salleh believed that the judiciary would not have suffered as it did if he had the full support of the judges back in 1988 when the charges were levelled against him.
"If they were united with me, the judiciary would not be as it is today. Unfortunately, the judiciary lost because of the split among judges. There was a split because there were judges who had more interest to take over my job than fighting for the independence of the judiciary. If they had given me solid backing, I don't think that the government could have done anything," he said.
Asked if he ever regretted losing his job, Salleh who is also the Jertih (PAS) state assemblyperson, said his sacking was a blessing in disguise.
Saved from embarrassment
"Now looking back over the years, I think it is better that I was not with the Bench. Look at what had happened to the judiciary...the embarrassment it suffered. I think I was saved from being embarrassed. I think I was saved from doing the very things that I dislike. After the dismissal, I was free to do anything and also was able to concentrate on my religion," said the father of six and grandfather of 24.
He said lucrative job offers from private companies was also a form of "bribery" and suggested that a law be introduced to bar judges from holding certain posts in the first five years of their retirement to preserve the integrity of the judiciary.
"This would also deter any unfair judgments or decisions in favour of certain companies and organisations. This has been done in many countries not only involving judges but also other posts as well. For example in United States, the defence officials are not allowed to hold any post in companies related to their job for the first five years of their retirement," he said.
He also jokingly admitted that he had made an indirect contribution to his own sacking when he made changes to the judiciary a few years earlier by severing the link between the Malaysian judiciary and the London-based Privy Council.
"After my dismissal, I went to London to give some lectures and met a friend who is one of the judges at the House of Lords who told me that my biggest mistake was severing the Privy Council. He said if the council was still the supreme appellate body, I could have been saved. I think he is right," he said with a laugh.
"A hundred-percent commitment"
He however admitted that he was bitter over being treated badly because he had always given "a hundred percent" to his work. He started as a magistrate in 1957 and once held four jobs simultaneously as state legal advisors and deputy public prosecutors for Negri Sembilan and Malacca in 1962.
"I remember after the May 13 incident in 1969, I did not go home for a week. I stayed in the office, working day and night to draft the law and regulations needed to bring order to the country. Police came to the office and bring me food.
"If I had given my service in a sambil lewa (lackadaisical) attitude, I would not have felt so bad. But I had given a whole lot whole-heartedly. Sometimes even at the expense of my own family and children. That is why I feel very, very bitter," he said.
Salleh said when Abdul Hamid Omar succeeded him as the Lord President, he anticipated problems for his successor with the Bar Council which had been very vocal in their protest over the dismissal.
"The Bar Council did not support Hamid taking over me as the Lord President. Until today there is that resolution stating that the Bar will not cooperate with the judiciary. The lawyers made the resolution unanimously. Although there had been attempts to remove the resolution but the attempts failed and it is still there," he said.
He said the Bench and Bar enjoyed the best of relationships while he was head of the judiciary, and was glad that the two parties have reconciled since Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah became the Chief Justice nearly two years ago.
High hopes for judiciary
He echoes the view of many people who have been happy with Dzaiddin's appointment, adding that he has high hopes for the judiciary as the Chief Justice's statements have been very encouraging.
He said the future of judiciary depends on the courage of judges, their abilities to write good judgments and their willingness to write independent judgments as these three aspects are essential in upholding the legal system in Malaysia.
Asked if he meant the present judges were lacking in these aspects, Salleh said, "Well, not all judges. I am happy to mention that KC Vohrah (Court of Appeal judge) and Abdul Malek Ahmad (Federal Court judge) are good. Abdul Kadir Sulaiman (Court of Appeal judge) also seems okay. Among the young ones, I'd say Abdul Malik Ishak and Hishamuddin Mohd Yunus are good."
Asked if he had ever dreamed of becoming the Lord President during his younger days, Salleh said he never had the ambition to be one as he had planned for an early retirement at the age of 50.
"I wanted to leave the service when I turned 50. Then I was the solicitor-general. But the late Tun Suffian Hashim intervened. You see, my weakness is that I hate to disappoint people and because of this, I stayed on. Tun Suffian wanted to build the judiciary and he appointed me as a federal court judge," he said.
He said after two years at the bench, he got restless and wanted to resign. But again at Suffian's persuasion, he stayed on the judiciary until Suffian retired and Raja Azlan Shah (now the Sultan of Perak) was made the Lord President and he became the Chief Justice of Malaya.
"Two years later, the Sultan of Perak passed away and fate took its course as Raja Azlan became the Sultan. I remembered the time when I attended the funeral and was standing beside Raja Azlan at the cemetery. He quietly told me: 'Now that I am going to be the state ruler, you are going to take over my post as the Lord President'," he said.
He said the clash between the judiciary and the executive intensified after former High Court judge Harun Hashim made a decision involving a foreign reporter from Asian Wall Street Journal who had challenged the government's decision to withdraw his working visa in Malaysia.
He said the contention was that the writer's visa was withdrawn for writing an article which was critical of the then Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin. Harun had allowed the journalist's claim and quashed the government's decision.
"It made the prime minister Dr Mahathir very angry. Not the decision per se but there were comments made by Harun against the government that seem to bite deep into Mahathir's feelings. It all started from there," he said.
He said his faith in God helped him overcome the stressful events that arose during his suspension and dismissal.
"I just regarded it as moving to the next job. Life goes on. During my suspension, I knew that if God does not permit to hold the job, then so be it. What was important is that I fought for what was right," he said.
Part 1 of the full Q&A entitled "Former Lord President did it his way, too" is available in the Opinions/Features section today, only to subscribers.