May Day For Justice

by Tun Mohamed Salleh Abas, Former Lord President, Supreme Court of Malaysia, with K Das


Mahathir was continuously upset with the Judiciary. One of his favourite slogans was "Hang The Lawyers! Hang The Judges!" Believe it or not, he has been saying it for years. -- Datuk Musa Hitam. Speech in Hong Kong, October 1988.

If they are just, they are better than clever. -- Sophocles. Philocetes. 409 BC.

While it is widely believed - thanks to the Time magazine article that the John Berthelsen case provoked the Prime Minister's wrath, it may not be so well remembered that an earlier case offended him even more. The case in question was more technical and there was no high drama of a pair of foreign journalists being expelled from the country. It was an important case, nonetheless.

Fully nine months earlier, on 25 February 1986, the Supreme Court made a decision against the Government in a case involving the take-over of Bank Bumiputra Malaysia Berhad (BBMB) in 1984 by the national oil company, Petronas. A member of the public, and a lawyer, Encik K. C. Cheah had sued the Government and Petronas over the legality of the 2.5 billion-dollar take-over. This was done to rescue the bank from heavy losses in the wake of the notorious Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) scandal. Encik Cheab, it may be noted, was a member of the leading opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

While the case was in progress the Government amended the Petroleum Development Act (in May 1985) with retroactive effect (as of 1 October 1974) to make the take-over legally possible. In July 1985 Kuala Lumpur High Court had rejected the suit and found in favour of the Government and Petronas, but it ordered costs to be paid to Mr. Cheah.

The Supreme Court, in an appeal decision, remarking on the “changed circumstances" under which the High Court heard the case, upheld the High Court decision and once again awarded costs to Encik Cheah. The Acting Chief Justice of the time, Tan Sri Wan Suleiman Pawan Teh remarked in his oral judgement, that "we are not allocating blame on anyone or saying that Parliament has no right to amend the law. We are concerned as to whether the order made was right in the circumstances."

The "circumstances" were indeed special. The law had been changed only after the suit was filed by Encik Cheah. It has been argued in some quarters that without the amendment to the relevant Act Encik Cheah's entire suit would have been successful. But that was not the ' judge's concern. Such purely academic suppositions are not the concern of the Judiciary in action. The judge had to decide according to the law as it currently stood. As 1 said earlier, "the Judiciary accepts the laws passed by Parliament as valid and will not impugn them unless they are clearly against the provisions of the written Constitution."

Nevertheless Justice Tan Sri Wan Suleiman clearly felt that the High Court must have considered some factors in making its decision as to costs. He went on to say that the case was of great public importance, and that the Attorney-General should have been there ', to argue and defend the Government. He can at least explain the need for the amendment, why it was advised and what its objects were."

This concern shown by the judge - that law-making, while it was the prerogative of Parliament, must nevertheless be done fairly and properly under the Constitution, and to the satisfaction of the public - was apparently not to the liking of the Prime Minister.

It appeared that the Prime Minister was under the impression that judges should confine themselves only to the matter of applying the laws already passed by Parliament, and not venture opinions at all in the areas of law-making.

Judges, of course, do not become involved with the functions of the Legislative arm of Government. However wise they may be, they cannot participate in making laws which they will later have to interpret. No one can anticipate what use any particular law would be put to when they are writing the law. Judges have to interpret the laws according to the circumstances at hand. Laws can become obsolete and meaningless when changes take place in society, and again, only judges can decide how to view the law in a new circumstance. Therefore the power to make laws and the powers to interpret them must lie in clearly separate compartments.

It is true that there have been Prime Ministers in the past who have "run the laws past" some judges they respected, before going to Parliament. It is not a good practice. On the other hand it makes a lot of sense to It run . new laws past the Bar Council which has a very different role to play. Practising lawyers, because of their collective experience, can advise the Government by anticipating the many vicissitudes that society and the laws may undergo.

The Government, on the other hand, must always be aware of the need to make the Judiciary strong enough to interpret the laws wisely and without "fear or favour". This is important because a weak Judiciary will mean a weak Government. 1 do not have to stress here that by a weak Government 1 do not mean a weak political party in power. They are very different things. A political party as a contender for power may well be a temporary thing. The Government of the land should not be.

1 made some of these points in a speech in connection with the dramatic rise of corruption in public life in recent times. 1 do not have to elaborate on the financial scandals that plagued and disfigured public life in Malaysia in the 1980s, apart from simply naming a few of them.

There was the notorious Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (B@ scandal which erupted in July 1983, involving $2.5 billion (about US$1 billion), siphoned away by prominent public figures into private bank accounts. There was the international tin-buying scandal involving the loss of more than $660 million in taxpayers' money. Another notorious affair was the United Malayan Banking Corporation (UMBC) deal in which the Finance Minister was allowed to acquire controlling shares in the bank, and disposing of the shares without any public accounting of it. In 1986 there was another massive scandal involving $1.6 billion belonging to some 588,000 depositors in 23 Cooperative Societies which brought great misery to a lot of poor people. There was also the Pan-El affair which brought down the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur stockmarkets and sent Encik Tan Koon Swan, the President of the second largest political party, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) to jail. The MCA, of course, was the main partner of the United Malays National Organisation in the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition.

A number of politicians including deputy ministers were charged in court and jailed. The most spectacular of the scandals - the BMF affair went through the courts in London, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, and cases are still pending. The sheer number of public officials involved was a scandal in itself, not to mention the murder of one of the bank's auditors in Hong Kong, Encik Jalil Ibrahim, who was investigating the fraud.

When I spoke of the need for a strong Judiciary 1 did not have to mention by name even one of these scandals. They have all become part of popular national legend (and a nightmare for the national psyche), and my audience of graduands at Universiti Malaya was only too aware of them. The question was, what could be done about this terrible new - barely six years old - national malaise? 1 thought two things could, and had to be, done.

The first strategy was to inculcate a sense of good values, leading with the attribute of trustworthiness. And this could only be done by good example. The Government slogan which was first publicised before the 1982 general election was "Clean, Efficient and Trustworthy", and later another slogan proclaimed the importance of "Leadership By Example."

And I had said, only too conscious that it was trite, that good example was vital.

On the second strategy, if the first was not effective (and with all those Government men in jail, it clearly was not) was through external sanctions, that is legal sanctions. It was the obvious alternative, but as I have pointed out, judges must also be teachers, especially where the youth is involved. I reproduce here part of what I then said because it became the basis of one of the charges against me some nine months later. But I will reproduce it in its context - which the Attorney-General did not - and emphasise the words picked out by the Attorney-General for his charge sheet:

    "Therefore the machinery of the administration of the justice must be strengthened so that those who are involved are investigated, inquired into by the police and the prosecution, and accordingly brought to court. Here what 1 mean is that the investigators, prosecutors and the Judiciary must be strengthened and must be provided with sufficient funds so as to strengthen and upgrade further their ability.

    "But unfortunately since Merdeka, the courts have been placed under the social service category to receive budget allocations every year. Due to their placement in this category, the courts have been given the lowest priority. The concept of placing the courts under the social category is very unreasonable and out of place.

    "The courts are not like the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Welfare Services, the Ministry of Sports and the Ministry of Education. The role of the courts is very important to bring about public order. If there is no public order there will be chaos in this country and if there is chaos ... no one.. can feel safe and the economy will not grow, the universities will not be able to teach students, the hospitals and doctors will not be able to give services and to exercise their respective professions.

    "The courts will no doubt continue to exist as long as there is a Government. In fact the concept of social services is ... very new and has existed only ... a hundred years .... But the courts exist whenever there is a Government. The Government will not be able to rule, the Government will not be able to per .form its duties if there are no courts.

    "'Therefore 1 feel it is strange that the courts have been placed under this social services category. If we really hold to the concept of the rule of law, the priority of the courts should be altered so that freedom is guaranteed and work is not disturbed.

    "If we want to avoid a backlog of cases we should not blame the courts, because these backlogs are due to several factors, which I need not elaborate here. A large proportion of this backlog is due to the increase in the population of the country, side by side with all kinds of social problems, as well as because of new laws which create new categories of offences without considering whether these additions will involve [extra costs to] existing courts."

These remarks were made on the occasion when I was being conferred the Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. It was an academic setting and hundreds of young people were graduating after years of study. As a judge and a senior citizen I felt that I must give the young people the benefit of my experience and knowledge. Who could possibly imagine that these remarks of mine were so dangerous as to characterise me as unfit to be a judge?

If the Prime Minister was as upset about the speech as he claimed to be later, there was no indication of it at all at the time. But, apparently, my speech did not go unnoticed.

Another speech by one of my brother judges, however, had a more immediate effect.

The Prime Minister reacted strongly to a statement made by Justice Datuk Harun Hashim on 5 September, 1987 at a Seminar on Law at Universiti Kebangsaan. Among other things the judge remarked that it might be timely to make improvements to the Malaysian Constitution. Some of the points he made were certainly worthy of debate and discussion by the students and academics assembled at the campus in Bangi:

    * Senators be appointed from among Chief Ministers, Menteri Besars and State Assembly Speakers;

    * 20 additional Senators be appointed from among political parties contesting in a general election on the basis of one Senate seat for every 5 percent of the total votes secured.

    * Dates of General Elections be fixed in order to cut down politicking and to save taxpayers' money.

    * Government be required to make annual references to Parliament to seek permission to extend the life of emergency regulations.

These were not extraordinary suggestions, particularly in an academic setting. They were also fully in keeping with the judicial traditions of participating in the education of the country's future lawyers. And by no stretch of the imagination could Justice Harun Hashim's speech have been interpreted as a political speech.

Yet the Prime Minister reacted on the next day, 6 September, with some heat, and according the The Star, criticised "certain judges" for encroaching on the roles reserved for other branches of government. He said these judges were no longer adhering to their rightful role of administering justice in a democratic system. "The Judiciary," he declared "should be neutral in politics."

On the next day he went a step further and criticised Justice Harun personally. The Star report of 8 September read in part as follows:

    "Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad today said that High Court Judge Datuk Harun Hashim should not have commented publicly on the Constitution.

    "' If he has his own personal views, that's his problem. But he should not voice it publicly,’ the Prime Minister said.”

According to The New Straits Times of 8 September, he also spoke about the "indiscretion of judges" and hoped this would not become a "trend". According to that report I was also referred to and given some gratuitous advice on my role as head of the Judiciary, as well as some peremptory instructions on what I should do:

    "Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said today it was up to the Head of the Judiciary to admonish judges who made public their political views.

    "As Prime Minister, he did not have the right in view of the Judiciary's independence under the country's system of parliamentary democracy.

    "He said it was to ensure the continued independence of the Judiciary as a separate branch of the Government that he was critical of judges making public their views on matters that did not concern their function.

    "Dr. Mahathir described a judge's call for changes in the method of appointing Senators as an intrusion into politics that might affect his impartiality if the matter was referred to his court.

    "'Therefore it is important for judges to avoid making their views public. If a judge has a personal stand, then it is his problem. But, judges should refrain from publicising it,' he said at a press conference at the end of his three-day visit to Pahang.

    "It was unfortunate that a certain member of a branch of the Government which should be "completely neutral and free from politics" were apparently beginning to involve themselves in politics.

    "By doing so they were attempting to influence politics in the country, he said.

    "'As we know the attempts to get the Federal Constitution reviewed were organised by those who oppose the Government.

    "'And the involvement of some judges in activities of parties that oppose the Government raises the question of whether these judges are siding with the Opposition.

    "'This is not healthy for the administration of justice in the country especially after it is already stipulated that judges should not interfere in politics.'

    "He hoped the indiscretion of these judges would not become a trend as it might result in confusion in the administration and loss of public confidence in the Government."

These were all very serious, not to say astonishing charges. Judges were being accused of being indiscreet and injudicious. To say the least it was insulting, not to say an act of contempt. There was no question that the foundation on which the dispensation of justice rested was now being undermined. Who would respect judges who were accused, not only of being injudicious and indiscreet but indulging in politics as well? Yet that was exactly what the Prime Minister was saying.

And to say publicly that I should "admonish" the judges was to reduce their Lordships to the level of errant schoolboys and the Lord President to some kind of distraught schoolmaster with discipline problems. It was an alarming picture.

Therefore it was not surprising that the then President of the Bar Council, Encik Param Cumaraswamy, responded very extensively and thoroughly to the Prime Minister's statements. The senior lawyer's view was reported in The New Straits Times of 8 September as follows:

    "Although the Bar Council commanded the Prime Minister for espousing the doctrine of the separation of powers, it was disturbed over his remarks on the role of the judiciary.

    "We cannot help feeling that the Prime Minister may be under a misconception on the role of the judiciary and the Rule of Law.

    "The Prime Minister's remarks were obviously prompted by views on the Constitution expressed by a High Court judge at a recent law seminar.

    "The Constitution, being the charter of the nation belongs to the nation and its people. Every citizen has a right to comment on it.

    "It is not an instrument for the monopoly of politicians and for their exclusive discussion or comment.

    "However, as the Constitution was the supreme law of the Federation, the judges have a more important role over this instrument.

    "The power to interpret the Constitution was vested in them, and by the nature of their oath of office they are to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.

    "It is part of the traditional role of judges to speak up on matters pertaining to the law, the Constitution and the administration of justice outside the courts.

    "It is nothing new for judges to speak on such matters at legal and academic gatherings as judges throughout the centuries have been doing so.

    "It is part of their traditional role. In doing so they are not indulging in politics.

    "Far from the people losing confidence in the Judiciary, as alleged by the Prime Minister, confidence in the entire system of Government would be enhanced and held in high esteem both within and outside the country if the Executive arm of the Government remains respectful of the courage and independence of our judges.

    "In discharging that duty, it is beholden on them to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the Constitution and call for amendments and improvements.

    "In doing so, whether within or outside the courts, the judges are playing their rightful role under the Constitution.

    "It is they, through their learning, understanding and experience, who mould, shape and give life to the Constitution."

It was very clearly and succinctly put. 1 did not feel that as Lord President 1 should enter the debate as to the rights and wrongs of the Prime Minister’s views. So I confined myself to a simple statement on the need for an end to the controversy. The New Straits Times of 11 September reported my comment as follows:

    "Lord President Tun Mohamed Salleh Abas said today he does not wish to be drawn into a public debate over the statement by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad that judges should not make public their political views.

    "'I do not wish to comment. I think the best thing to do is to keep quiet and let the matter rest,"' he said.

He said there would be no end to the matter if he were to comment, adding that it was not proper for him to react "based only on newspaper reports. . . . "

Reticence on my part, however, did not mean the end of the debate, for the matter had already generated great public interest. There was already a growing concern that the Executive and the Judiciary now lay on a collision course.

On 20 September The New Straits Times carried a report of a speech made on the previous day by His Royal Highness, Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak on the subject. The former Lord President made these points:

    "Conflicts between the Executive, the Legislative and Judiciary can only be alleviated if each fully understands its powers and duties.

    "For instance it can never be the function of the Judiciary to express views on what the law should be.

    "Such a course would be a complete deviation from its traditional role and would lead to a rule by men rather than a rule by law.

    "Again it is no part of a Court's duty or power to restrict or impede the working of legislation, even of unpopular legislation; to do so would be to weaken rather than advance the democratic process.

    "While the Constitution provides valuable and sensible protective guidelines against the misuse of power by the Government, these are by no means the final answer and cannot substitute for sound judgement and public vigilance.

    "An independent Press and a lively media prevent any movement towards autocracy.

    "Just as war is too important a matter to be left to the generals, so also, it may be, politics is too important a matter to be left exclusively to the politicians; that is the underlying principle of the Westminster model upon which our Constitution is based.

    "In a government of men and laws, a portion that is a government of men, like a malignant cancer, often tends to stifle a portion that is a government of laws."

By this time, late in September, there were strong rumours in the air that the Government was planning to table a substantive motion in Parliament to censure Justice Datuk Harun Hashim because of his statements. Of course society in general and the Judiciary in particular, found this dismaying but I thought it wise to say nothing. Judges cannot act or even speak out on the basis of rumours - even if it is popular belief that rumours in Malaysia usually prove to be much more reliable than newspaper reports.

However, Sultan Azlan Shah seemed to have felt it was necessary to clarify the situation as far as Justice Harun Hashim's statement was concerned. So His Royal Highness spoke up once again, when launching a law book at Universiti Malaya on 30 September, 1987:

    "When a judge aired his views outside the court, one person mistakenly made a wrong presumption by saying that [the comments of] a judge should be confined to the court.

    "If that was so, then no judge would be willing to write books and disseminate his knowledge.

    "These people [judges] should be encouraged to explore and contribute to the pool of knowledge, especially on the laws of the country.

    "A judge plays the role of watchman to the Constitution and to the property and interests of society, and he has to ensure that everyone follows the rules. "

This thoughtful clarification by a former Lord President, however, seemed to have made no impression upon the Prime Minister because two days later, on 2 October he said at a formal dinner held in the East coast town of Kota Bharu:

    "The Government will ensure that each branch of its service carries out its respective duties so as to avoid duplication of roles.

    "A branch of service such as the Police, Army and Civil Service or Judiciary, should not interfere in the jurisdiction of another.

    "But recently there have been unhealthy trends and the Government will ensure that they are kept to that stage only."

This was one of the most startling statements ever made by a Prime Minister of a democratic country. And the tone the Prime Minister used was threatening, (and, as we were to discover later, quite ominous). It was hardly in character with what the Attorney-General was to say in the days to come:

    "'The comment of the Prime Minister was made in good faith out of a desire to see that judges in this country conduct themselves in the highest traditions of the Malaysian Judiciary."

With all respect to them, it was hardly "good faith" to lump judges together with civil servants, policemen and soldiers!

And the Bar Council once again came forward to explain why the Prime Minister’s statement was the result of dreadful ignorance and a lack of appreciation of the Constitution and the laws. The statement said:

    "It is astonishing ... it is a very serious misconception on the Prime Minister's part to say that the Judiciary is a part of Government Service.

    "The Judiciary is not a part of the Government Service like the police, army or the civil service.

    "The Judiciary is one of the three arms of the Government, the other two being the Legislative and the Executive. It is not subject to the orders of the Executive like the civil service, the army and the police.

    "It is only in a totalitarian state that the judiciary does what it is told by the Executive."

It was soon to become clear that the views of neither the learned Sultan and former Lord President nor the Bar Council had a salutary effect upon the Prime Minister's thinking.

This might be the place to recall a speech made by Dr. Mahathir more than a decade earlier when he was Deputy Prime Minister. He was introducing the speaker, Mr. Justice Enrique M.Fernando of the Philippines Supreme Court, who was about to deliver the Tun Razak Memorial Lecture at the University of Malaya, on 18 October, 1977. The future Prime Minister then said:

    ". . . the independence of the Judiciary also implies the independence of the legislature from the Judiciary. This is a topical and relevant comment because there is a tendency for institutions wishing to be autonomous to believe that while others should not interfere in their affairs, they should be free to interfere the affairs and usurp the functions of others. I am sure that Tun Razak's belief in the independence of the Judiciary is based on the democratic concept of the separation of judicial from legislative functions. While the legislative wing should not assume Judiciary roles or seek to direct the Judiciary, the Judiciary should not attempt to force its views upon the legislature. To do go, especially when accompanied by threats, may result in a confusion of roles and the eventual destruction of the independence of the Judiciary itself."

At the time this aberrant statement scandalised the judges present. And in due course, the then Lord President, Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim asked him why he said what he did. Dr.Mahathir's astonishing answer, as recorded in the Malaysian Law Journal of February 1978, was that he did not mean the judges but the Bar! because members of the Bar were officers of the court! How he translated the Judiciary to mean lawyers - even with that "officers of the court" technicality - is a conundrum too bizarre to contemplate. Was he perhaps totally ignorant of the meaning of the word "judiciary?" Was it sheer ignorance or was it only untruthfulness? Either way the judges had reason to be very concerned. But more disturbing was the obvious thing: clearly he nurtured a deep-seated suspicion and dislike - not to say hatred - of the judiciary even ten years before he launched his direct attacks on the judges.

Now, late in 1987, it is entirely possible that the Prime Minister was preoccupied with other things at that particular point in time. For while the Judiciary was being attacked, even more dramatic tensions were building up in the country.

The man in the street was not to know at that point that an unprecedented - and to many, totally unjustified - police action was about to be launched by the Government.

More than a hundred people were on the brink of being deprived of their liberty (without due process of ordinary law), under the much criticised Internal Security Act (ISA). It was an old law made in 1960, specifically to handle Communist terrorism, and had been used far more often than appeared justified to many public spirited people. It had been criticised severely every time it was used. It was condemned repeatedly by international human rights groups. But the 1987 application of it was widely condemned as purely political and therefore highly perverse.

We all knew that political tensions had been rising slowly since the 1986 General Election. The Government party had won, taking 148 out of 177 seats in Parliament, but no one could avoid noting that the opposition had taken 42.6 percent of the popular vote. The Government's Parliamentary strength (83.6 percent of the seats) did not reflect at all accurately the electoral support of the people (57.4 percent) for the Government. This compared with 132 out of 154 seats in 1982, and the 1982 vote count for the Government was even slightly better.

Within his own party, too, the Prime Minister was steadily losing support since his Deputy, Datuk Musa Hitam resigned in early 1986 in protest against the Prime Minister's style of conducting Government affairs. Then Dr. Mahathir sacked half a dozen cabinet ministers and junior ministers who had opposed him in party elections in April 1987. Stability within the party and the Government became extremely doubtful.

UMNO's main partner, the MCA, which had been badly mauled at the General Election by the Opposition was desperately trying to regain its credibility by focusing perhaps too hysterically on Chinese community issues. The biggest Opposition (largely) Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the other hand was understandably exploiting its election advantage and championing Chinese causes with more gusto than ever.

At that point Chinese educationists were demanding that their school system be not interfered with by the authorities. Some extremist politicians - from the MCA, Gerakan and the DAP leapt into the fray to back these demands, further provoking the Mahathir administration by demanding that election promises be kept vis-a-vis Chinese education. The meeting to decide on the "fate" of Chinese education was held on 11 October, 1987, in the Thean Hou Chinese Temple in Kuala Lumpur, and attended by Chinese of opposing political persuasions as well as politically neutral educationists. It was undeniably an exciting meeting which at the very least looked like a racial meeting. (It was certainly characterised as such by the authorities in its White Paper published in March 1988: Towards Preserving National Security.)

This stung Malay political extremists into their own paranoid reaction that the Chinese were mobilising, and that their demands were dangerously excessive, and shrill claims were made that Malay political dominance was being threatened.

This wild theory of "Malay Dominance" had been re-expounded by one of the more chauvinistic of the UMNO stalwarts who had told an unbelieving mixed audience in Singapore on 30 August, 1986, that the dominance of his race must be the basis of Malaysian politics for all time. It was a needless provocation based on moribund political theories and archaic thinking habits. It was also an overweening apology for racial chauvinism.

All this led to the horror of a mass demonstration being held in a city sports stadium on 17 October, by UMNO Youth, with placards demanding among other things, "Chinese" blood on the Malay kris. "Soak it with Chinese blood," said one sign, and another claimed, "May 13 has begun," (1 3 May, 1969 being the date of the worst race riots in Malaysia and a date commonly used by political mountebanks to invoke terror).

Politics, it seemed, had suddenly fled into the dark ages. Fear hung in the air.

Fortunately for the city a great thunderstorm washed out this wild, provocative display of race hysteria before it got fully under way.

But that was not the end of Kuala Lumpur's woes. It was followed by a (perhaps unrelated) shoot-out with the police two days later involving a young Malay soldier, one Private Adam, with an M- 16 rifle in the middle of a busy commercial centre in the Jalan Chow Kit area. Rumours became rife about the army being involved in the racial crisis.

But the gunman was overpowered and tensions seemed to die off, for the second time in as many days, and there was an almost audible sigh of public relief.

But not for long.

Unbelievable as it may sound, hardly had that tension died down than there were renewed calls for a massive race-based political rally. The organisers wanted half a million Malays to gather for an anti-Chinese showdown in the heart of capital city!

The tension and terror of the mid-October days, it seems, had done nothing to soften the hearts of wild politicians. They obviously wanted more tension and more terror to feed their own political ambitions. They wanted a vast mass rally of a racial kind in the middle of this multi-racial city. It looked like an engraved invitation for another May 13.

And it was touted as UMNO's anniversary celebration!

But this extraordinary event was to commemorate a very strange date: the 41 st year of the party's birth. Odder still, the party was born on 11 May (1 946) and the celebration was to be held on 1 November. Thus it was to be very much of an unbirthday party (of the kind Humpty Dumpty recommended to Alice in Wonderland some time before he had his "great fall". Unbirthdays, as every Alice reader knows, fall on every single day of the year except on the birthday itself.)

One might ask, "Who-would take such blatant nonsense seriously?" The answer is that a great many did. Why? Because of the undoubted authority of office enjoyed by the organisers of the nightmare world we were now slowly beginning to inhabit.

For these rally plans were actually being laid by the Prime Minister's own political party, UMNO. The party Secretary-General, Datuk Sanusi Junid himself made repeated public calls for this mass gathering of support for UMNO. Malays from all over Malaysia - UMNO members as well as non-members - were invited to gather in the city. It was clearly to be a racial meeting, not a party meeting. Otherwise why invite Malay people who were not Party members?

The Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Ghafar Baba himself blandly told reporters that the gathering would be orderly and that there was no danger of any trouble. The police were not so sanguine. More police units were deployed and the Inspector General of Police, Tan Sri Haniff Omar, told the press that the crowds would be well controlled. Yet it was noticed that the IGP looked neither confident nor happy.

Calls by a variety of sober voices to abandon the plan were simply ignored. There were nervous people scurrying about, buying and stocking up food and other provisions in anticipation of massive riots, disruption of public life and eventual chaos.

More urgent calls for rational thinking from several quarters - including that respected elder statesman and former Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman - were simply brushed aside.

Racist politicians of the worst kind, it seems, were on the loose and were now in full bay. Nothing would stop them from proceeding on their destructive course. The most remarkable thing about the rising hysteria was that the Government seemed to be in no mood to call a halt to the preparations for these so-called UMNO celebrations. Indeed it looked very much as if the Government and the party had become one and the same thing, and was actually sponsoring the madness with a frantic enthusiasm with public speeches, posters and daily broadcasts.

In that terrible climate, the attacks on the Judiciary did not help matters. In fact it appeared that the Judiciary was now half-forgotten by the ordinary man. Who could think, in that maddened atmosphere, of the sober, dignified and balanced deliberations associated with the courts of law? Was it possible for the Judiciary to do even-handed justice, not in an atmosphere of sobriety and peace, but in this environment heavy with hysteria? How could people believe in fairness or justice when Government leaders themselves, to all appearances, were set on an obvious and deliberate course of destruction and chaos?

With all these distractions, the attacks on the judges ceased, for a brief time, to be a central public preoccupation.