Malaysia’s Judiciary: Teoh Beng Hock Appeal Verdict – A Turning Point?

In the last few years, the reputation of Malaysia’s judiciary for fairness and adherence to do justice strictly according to the law has taken a severe beating. Notorious cases such as the Linda Joy, Anwar Ibrahim, Nizar vs Zambry, and other less politically visible cases have raised public doubts as to whether our judges – especially in cases with politically sensitive outcomes – are able to arrive at fair and just decisions. Or whether in fact the opposite has taken place with judges more concerned with career advancement and playing ball with the powers that be.

Public concern that our courts – including at the highest level – may in fact be filled with partisan, unfair or even corrupt judges, has been rising non-stop since the Mahathir period. This has led me to write a piece on “How low can our judiciary go” in April this year in which I noted that at no time in the country’s history has there been such a large and wide variety of politically charged cases being brought to the courts of law. This includes the present batch of ridiculous sedition cases which have made the Attorney General’s Chambers a laughing stock among knowledgeable legal circles all over the world.

I have also noted that “if we take these cases individually and collectively, the overall impression that can be obtained from the many articles and analysis which have appeared in the Internet media is that the Malaysian judiciary has come under tremendous political pressure when arriving at their judgments” (

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Why Are There Incompetent Judges?

Some authoritative observers of the deterioration in judicial standards in the country have been much more critical of judges than I have. The highly respected former Court of Appeal judge N.H. Chan – a legal expert who was called to the English Bar in 1959 and has more than 50 years of experience in Malaysian legal practice at the private and public level has asked with understandable exasperation how could it be that we are the only country, out of all the other common law countries, in the entire world that has so many incompetent judges? His answer is that there must be something wrong in our system for the appointment of judges.

Many people from the legal fraternity agree with him. There was a time when judges were appointed from the cream of the legal profession and the law departments in our universities produced graduates who knew their law and were of some standard. With the decline in educational standards especially after the implementation of the New Economic Policy, it was inevitable that the standards of law graduates in the country – and with it, also the standard of judges – recruited to administer justice – would also fall.

Apart from the decline in educational standards, the factor of politically-biased appointments has played a role. The Lingam case and the shocking disclosures arising from the Royal Commission of Inquiry in particular show clearly that the appointment of judges in the country has been tainted; and that there was evidence of ethical and criminal misconduct by lawyer Lingam, various judges, politicians and businessmen on the matter of judicial appointments. Despite this finding, the Attorney General chose not to put Lingam in the dock. This was not because no law had been broken but because of the fear that the skeletons that would emerge out of the closet during the trial would bring down the government.    

We are still living with the legacy of a compromised judiciary and the dark shadows cast by prominent members of the judiciary who are more interested in the pursuit of power and self interest rather than with the pursuit of justice.

Importance of the Teoh Beng Hock Case

But every now and then, a verdict comes from out of the blue which shows that there are also good and honourable judges in the system who are not interested in the pursuit of power and self interest and who are willing to stand firm in the administration of impartial and principled justice.

The most recent example of this has just arrived from the Teoh Beng Hock case, a landmark case which has riveted the attention of the nation for over five years now.  Members of the public who were expecting that this case would go unpunished by our judicial authorities were pleasantly surprised. As a result we see in the internet media the almost universal praise and accolades accorded to the three appeal court judges – Ariff Yusuf, Mah Weng Kwai and Hamid Sutan for their reasoned, meticulous and rigorous written judgments when they struck down the earlier open verdict on the case arrived at by the Shah Alam High Court in refusing to set aside the coroner’s open verdict in the inquest of Teoh Beng Hock.

In their unanimous decision, the judges panel held that Teoh’s death was caused by multiple injuries from a fall from the 14th floor of Plaza Masalam as a result of, or which was accelerated by an unlawful act or acts of persons unknown, inclusive of Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) officers who were involved in his arrest and investigation.

Police must start investigation

Teoh Beng Hock’s sister, Lee Lan said that she has lodged a police report yesterday at the Shah Alam police quarters to speed up police investigation. The police must remember that some MACC officers have caused the death of Beng Hock and the culprits must be caught and punished adequately. 

Whatever happens next in the case it is important that we should not lose faith in the integrity of our judiciary which forms the first line of defence in the protection of our constitutional rights. It is not only judges themselves who must exercise vigilance so that their independence is not compromised by political, legislative and other pressures. It is all Malaysians who must stand firm so that there is no political or executive interference with the judicial process.   

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