Thursday, February 9, 2017

Why and what is opposition to Act 355?

There are many aspects of the Private Member’s Bill or Rang Undang-Undang Persendirian (RUU355/Act 355), brought by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang in Parliament, that have interested me.
I have already written and spoken on different occasions on my views about the Act. I am now trying very hard to understand the crux of the opposition to the amendments sought. 
A few things are clear about the arguments by the proponents of the Act 355 if I understand them correctly. Firstly, they say that increasing the sentencing powers will empower the Shariah courts. Secondly, they feel that as Muslims the Shariah law must be implemented by all Muslims.
It is a must according to their understanding of being a good Muslim. Furthermore, they argue that the amendments will only affect three offences; namely that of zina, offence of falsely accusing someone of zina, and alcohol consumption, with their respective punishments of 100, 80 and 40 lashes. These are offences which are already part of the Shariah law in the country.
There is clearly support for the punishment of 100 lashes for the offence of zina in the Quran while the punishment of 80 and 40 lashes is found in other sources accepted by the majority of Muslim legalists. 
The indisputable fact is that the Act 355 itself concerns the jurisdiction of the Shariah courts and what is sought to amend is the sentencing powers of the Shariah courts. It is perfectly constitutional to seek to amend any Act. 
Then why are some Muslims opposing the amendments to increase the powers of the Shariah courts? Why are also non-Muslims opposing the amendments since Shariah laws will only affect the Muslims?
The simplistic response would be that these Muslims who are opposing are ignorant, liberalists, western influenced or agents of some anti-Islam force. I am not convinced by these simplistic responses. I believe the opposing Muslims are concerned whether or not such enhanced powers in the hands of the Shariah courts as existing today will be justly carried out. 
The other concern that I believe these opposing Muslims may have is their understanding of what is justice in Islam and priorities of the Shariah. If this is so, then they should come out more explicitly and clearly what their understanding is so that it can be the subject of useful dialogue with the view to develop Islamic understanding in the country. 
However, these opposing Muslims should not forget that much of the offences that they now appear to oppose are already part of the Shariah law in the country. Why then the opposition now? This is the part that is still unclear to many.
I doubt if these opposing Muslims oppose Shariah laws per se. I believe both sides will agree that the ultimate aim of Shariah must be justice. The proponents of Act 355 argue that justice can only be served when the Shariah as enshrined in the Quran and developed by the jurists are implemented. What is the counter argument, if any, that can be advanced by the opponents? 
I have also heard arguments that this is a backdoor to implement hudud laws in the future. It could very well be. However, what may happen in the future cannot be a valid objection to what is constitutionally permissible today. 
The other argument often heard is that this may give rise to a dual legal system. Such an argument is a separate matter altogether and cannot be a valid objection to the amendments sought.
I have often argued for a single Malaysian legal system but I do not position this argument as an objection to Act 355. What I envision is a total reform of the Shariah system in the country and a possible fusion with the civil law system. Admittedly, this will require a long-term reform of the justice system in the country.
I may have my own fundamental disagreements with the interpretation of what constitutes hudud and I have written elaborately on this on various occasions. I also disagree that merely increasing sentencing powers leads to empowering the courts. However, on the debate relating to the amendments to Act 355, I believe that constitutionally and on the basis of mainstream juristic views, the proponents of the Act have a stronger case. 
For the non-Muslims, as the law now stands, they have nothing to fear in terms of the application of Shariah laws on them. Hence, the opposition by some non-Muslims is difficult to fathom as it appears to be founded more on fear rather than facts. 
I would be surprised if the amendments sought are not passed in Parliament when they are debated.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Our unifying national philosophy

OCTOBER 3 — A nation without an ideology is like a teenager without a direction. A direction of some sort, even a broad and general one, for example, to appreciate life and its gifts is essential to determine the quality of life.
It also acts as a fence that reminds the teenager to be wary of influences that may make him unappreciative of life’s gifts, such as indulgence in drug abuse. 
Likewise, a nation will just float along aimlessly and in conflicting directions if the people lack a national ideal they can use as a yardstick. I have written many times before, asking what is our national dream and philosophy, keeping in mind we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan nation.
We require a common national philosophy and a set of national values that can unite us as Malaysians and guide our Malaysian spirit to evolve and grow. Like nurturing a child, a nation requires constant nurturing, too.
Today, we perceive our nation to be in a state of ethnic, religious, social and economic tatters. Madness in behaviour and speeches, and mediocrity in work and productivity appear to have become a national norm.
Our leaders have to be proactive to reverse this trend and correct the perception. If the leaders are able to remove the political cataract blinding their eyes, they will see the nation is crying out for a direction and a national philosophy all Malaysians can identify with. 
As a nation that achieved independence, we were learning how to co-exist as Malaysians due to our diverse backgrounds.
We had our first racial clash, albeit politically originated, in May 1969. That was our first and I am sure our last bitter experience of a civil clash. 
As a result of this bitter experience, our past leaders were wise to recognise the need for a national philosophy which can be a guiding force to unite and provide a national direction for the people.
The National Consultative Council, headed by the late Tun Abdul Razak, had the unity and “soul” of the nation in mind when the principles of the Rukunegara were formulated.
What is so special about the Rukunegara? Firstly, everyone seems to have forgotten it was formalised as a national ideology through a declaration by none other than the Yang diPertuan Agong on  Aug 31, 1970.
I learnt the Rukunegara in school and I recall reciting it at school assemblies. It represented our national values.
It has five main principles namely, belief in God, loyalty to the King and the country, upholding the Constitution, rule of law, and good behaviour and morality.
The purpose of instilling these five principles is explained by the preamble to the Rukunegara. 
The preamble provides Malaysia aspires to achieve a greater unity for all her people by:
  • Maintaining a democratic way of life;
  • Creating a just society in which the wealth of the nation is equitably shared;
  • Ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions, and;
  • Building a progressive society which shall be oriented to modern science and technology;
The Rukunegara contains not only universal values so relevant to a diverse society like ours, but it also sets a clear direction which we all can share to make this nation great.
We really need to be united by common values before we are pulled apart by mischief makers in our society who are bent on dividing us.
What is urgently required now is the rebirth of Razak’s political will to give life to the principles of Rukunegara. 
I support the increasing call that the Rukunegara is made as a preamble to the Constitution of Malaysia.
This will allow the courts to interpret the Federal Constitution within the context of the national philosophy particularly with regards to the protection of the fundamental liberties of the citizens as enshrined in the Constitution.
It will also enable the protection of the constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary democratic political structure of our country. 
If our current leadership has Razak’s wisdom, foresight and courage, I foresee discussions, conversations and the political will to promote the Rukunegara to the position it was meant to be.
However, as Just International president Dr Chandra Muzzafar recently pointed out, since the 1980s, the Rukunegara seemed to have been systematically put aside. Is it any surprise then there is a feeling today that our nation seems to have lost its soul while we may have generally achieved major material progress? 
I appeal to our current leadership to put back the soul in our nation. 
* Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement which encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Managing the judge

SEPTEMBER 26 — I often advise young litigation lawyers to know who the judges they are appearing before are and, if possible, to observe some of the trials they are presiding over. Talking to a few seniors about the conduct and behaviour of the judges in trials and hearings is equally important. Different lawyers may have different experiences with the same judge.
Being humans, no two judges are alike. Some judges make it a total pleasure to appear before them right from case management to conclusion of trial. These judges are friendly, courteous, systematic and understanding of the constraints litigation lawyers face. Some other judges may be considered as difficult for various reasons. There are also judges who are mostly silent on the bench. You will not know what they are thinking while some others, you wish they will not speak so much. All this is normal as human beings are prone to idiosyncrasies, prejudices and making mistakes.
If the lawyer has never appeared before a certain judge, I find case managements are a good time to understand the kind of judge you will be facing. I believe judges also use the same time to assess the lawyers. It is like some legal “dating” before the trial begins.
It is an accepted principle in the legal process that it is possible for a judge to make mistakes in evaluating evidence and therefore, make the wrong decision. Hence, the appeal process. This is common in litigation.
The litigation lawyer has the duty of advancing his client’s interest and legal position. Sometimes, you may be faced with a difficult judge whom you find to be interfering too much with your cross- examination, for example. Trials by nature can be quite stressful and it is possible for us to get carried away by emotions. It is always helpful to remain calm as it is when you are calm you are able to formulate the correct sentences and remain focused on your client’s interest. If you feel the interference is unwarranted, it is important you respectfully get everything on record so that on appeal, you will appear courteous, sincere and reasonable.
It is critical that litigation lawyers remain professional and courteous even when they may be annoyed as succumbing to annoyance may worsen the situation. While it is critical the trial lawyer should hold his ground on matters that concern the interest of his client, it is pointless to argue with the judge. Quarrelling with a judge in open court is completely unprofessional and embarrassing for everyone. Judges, too, generally avoid unnecessary arguments with trial lawyers as it may diminish their own reputation.
Sometimes, during trials, it is common for lawyers and judges to get into a heated argument about the law or what is permissible under the Evidence Act. Sometimes, it may concern the nature of the question the trial lawyer wants to ask or his style of asking the question which the judge may not approve. All these are common court drama. I have experienced some wise judges stand down to let matters cool down and sometimes, invite the lawyers into chambers to discuss the matter. Judges are experts at maintaining impartiality or at least the appearance of impartiality and seasoned trial lawyers are experts at managing their emotions quickly or at least the appearance thereof.
One of the important ways of managing the judge is to come for trials prepared. The easiest way to annoy a judge is to appear before the judge unprepared or shoddily prepared for your case. In this regard, extensive pretrial preparations are important such as finding out how the judge likes the bundles or exhibits to be prepared, the witness statements to be read or deemed read and so on. Knowing the legal angle of your client’s case and also being peremptorily prepared for possible questions by the other side or even the judge is useful as this may earn the judge’s respect.
I know it is instinctive for trial lawyers, who make a living by arguing, to automatically argue or rebut a position the judge takes which is contrary to his. I find this is not a useful approach. I often advise my own legal team to never behave defensively with a judge. It is important for trial lawyers to concede when they are wrong or make a concession when it is not particularly important for their client’s case. In other words, the trial lawyer should always keep his ego carefully locked up in his briefcase.
While I have experienced one or two judges who had given me a difficult time in my early years of practice, I find it distasteful when I hear some lawyers say they lost the case because the judge does not like them. Being in practice for many years, I know this is untrue and cannot be true.
Firstly, the judge has better things to do than to invest his personal feelings in a trial lawyer. Secondly, the judge is always mindful he has to legally justify his decision and hence, the judge would not jeopardise his career to spite a lawyer.
As long as trial lawyers remember judges are human beings and that they themselves have a duty to present their case professionally and as efficiently as possible, I believe it will be a reasonably pleasant day in court notwithstanding the stress of a trial.
* Jahaberdeen is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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Saturday, September 24, 2016

What system of governance: Theocracy, democracy or secular?

SEPT 19 — To me, and I repeat, to me, it is not about being obsessed with the label of “secular” or “Islamic” country though I do not have serious problems with people using the term. I try to understand what they are actually saying as the substance is more important than the label. 
My position is clear: I do not support oppressive regimes or ideas whether they are labelled “secular” or “Islamic”. To be clear, I do not support a “secular system” that is anti religion as that is oppressive of a person’s faith. Likewise I do not support an “Islamic system” that takes away the professed Muslim’s inherent right to serve Allah as he understands it from the Quran as that is equally oppressive of faith. 
In any case, I believe the practice of one’s faith or religion should not be allowed to affect national security, general public order, peace and harmony in the country or deny the basic fundamental rights and liberties of other citizens guaranteed under our Federal Constitution. 
A theocratic state is often understood to be a political State which is founded on a particular religion. A theocracy may be defined as a form of government which defers not to civil development of law, but to an interpretation of the ‘will of a God’ as set out in religious scripture and authorities. 
In realistic terms, therefore, it will be ruled by a few men who will interpret the religious scriptures in the name of God for the rest of the populace. The clergy and religious leaders will be dominant under such a political structure. Human political history suggests the earliest forms of government are theocratic probably because a reference to a “divine” source was necessary to impose law and order then. 
Since theocrats believe they rule by divine sanction and are implementing the divine will, it is doubtful if they will brook any dissent to their views. 
Hence, any criticism of the government may be construed as criticising the religion and going against God. A study of the State-Church relationship in Christian political history will bear out this point. In other words, theocracy would naturally be anti-thesis to democracy which is a political structure that allows for consideration of diverse views and for leadership opportunities by ordinary citizens. Criticism of government policies in a democracy is considered a fundamental right and duty of a concerned citizen. Democrats welcome criticism, theocrats do not.
In modern times, the two ‘pure’ theocractic political structures are probably the Vatican and Iran though there are “quasi theocratic” states such as Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Afghanistan, Sudan and so on. 
Secularism, as I understand it, is a political system that is neutral to organised religion and it makes a conscious separation of those mandated to run the state from religious dignitaries and religious institutions. A secular state is not anti religion as is often misunderstood in our country — probably confused with the political system known as ‘State atheism” which promotes atheism as a state policy. I do not support state atheism because of its obvious denial of the freedom of faith as theocracy is equally guilty of.
Just as there are various degrees of democracies and theocracies, there too are various degrees of secularist political systems. Unlike theocracies which are dictated by religious personalities, the degree of democratic and secularist practices are determined by the people. It may be tweaked to adapt as situations changes.  
So, if we look at the substance beyond the labels, we see these are political systems and modes of governance with their own unique features, values and consequences on the governed. The real question that citizens ought to ask is: What degree of control and in what areas do they want the government to have on them? In other words, how much freedom are they willing or should give up for the greater good of the nation?
I believe our answer lies in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia and in the interpretation of its articles. Clearly, we are not a theocratic state as the country has never been governed by clerics. We are a parliamentary democracy with many features of a secular state as is generally understood. Due to the political reality that the majority of the citizens (voters) are Muslims, there are attempts by several religious leaders and their supporters to gradually turn Malaysia into an “Islamic theocratic” state as understood by them. I hope I am wrong but I detect this trend is increasing.
Even though Article 3(1) provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation it also states that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.  
The Federation is obviously made up of 13 states and three federal territories. How we interpret the words “Islam is the religion of the Federation” will determine to what extent religious dignitaries will influence the governance of the Federation and hence on the liberty of the people. 
I believe this point is very important to be remembered, especially by Judges when they are confronted with such an issue before them. To me, the wording of Article 3(1) is clear the constitution never intended for the country to evolve politically into an “Islamic theocratic State”. 
The Constitution also accords various fundamental liberties which I would argue generally supersedes religious positions. It is the duty of the government and the courts to uphold these fundamental rights despite any personal inclinations, if any. I admit this is a tricky and sensitive area but has to be addressed with courage, knowledge and sincerity, nevertheless. I have said many times before in certain cases where Muslim judges may find themselves in a conflict of conscience situation, then they should honourably recuse themselves from hearing the matter. 
With respect, I believe our courts have erred when they made an artificial distinction between faith and religion as if religion is completely independent of the requirement of faith. Such an artificial distinction is often made when Article 11(1) on the freedom to practise and profess a religion comes up for consideration. The other area which will determine the direction our political system of governance will be heading is on the interpretation of the word “precepts of Islam” as used in the Constitution.  I hope to touch on this area in the future, God willing. 
In the meantime I pray that our political leaders understand and are aware of these developments.
* Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is a senior lawyer and founder of Rapera, a movement that encourages thinking  and compassionate citizens. He can be reached at rapera.jay@gmail.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.
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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Working towards national unity

AUG 22 — I am writing this article from Rio de Janeiro, being here to support our Malaysian badminton team.
While I am happy to note that we become united in our support of the national team, it also reminds me that back home, there is a perception of increasing fractures in national unity among us.
It is clear that in the Games, including badminton, national identity becomes more important than ethnic, cultural or religious identities. A multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan based country presents itself to the world and behaves as a united nation representing all citizens of the respective countries. 
In the Olympics, we work hard and are united in the quest for gold. Is it not overdue that we work hard and are united in achieving the gold for being united as citizens of Malaysia?
The perception that our national unity is fracturing is not completely without basis. 
There are still too many things around us that are calculated to accentuate our differences rather than remind us of our similarities. The insane politics of racism and religious bigotry is still very much alive in this advanced computer and Internet age.
Take, for example, the latest new political kid on the blog, a political party that is going to be premised on Malays only membership. The frightening thing is that this race based party is formed by former members of the Malaysian government. Is this not an admission by themselves that they have failed to instil the spirit and awareness of being Malaysian when they were in power?
I can understand their argument that it is politically expedient to do so and their competition is with Umno and PAS. This, therefore, highlights the very point I have been making for two decades now — political expediency often is the culprit that divides the nation.
Malaysians must move away from condoning political expediency that hurts the nation in the long run.
The perceived fractures of national disunity not only emanate from ethnic differences but also intra and inter-religious differences. There are wrong approaches and unnecessary efforts that seem to divide Malaysians based on religious preferences.
This itself is intrinsically contradictory because religion which is supposed to be spiritual is becoming a factor of division rather than a catalyst for unity, love and compassion between fellow Malaysians. The rakyat and the National Unity Department in the Prime Minister’s Department should be more creative and pro-active in finding ways as to how religion can be a unifying factor and so on.
Likewise, there is also increasing sectarianism within the Malaysian Muslim community which, if we are not careful, may lead us to the kind of sectarian disputes that are taking place in the Middle East. Once again, serious thinking and planning by the National Unity Department, the minister of religious affairs and other stakeholders to address this potential danger should be made urgently.
I have a question to pose to those who have been entrusted to plan our national unity – what common ideals or dreams have you given the average Malaysian?  It appears to me that as a nation we have no common direction, each going in separate and often opposite ways.
There is increasing confusion arising from the quarrels of a secular or Islamic state without any proper, intellectual, civilised and substantive debate or discussion. In this age, we still behave like the primitive cavemen shouting down others instead of advancing our arguments in a coherent and polite fashion.
We seem to lack a culture of knowledge and polite discourse. What is even worse, there seems to be no concerted and committed efforts by those entrusted to bring about such an environment. Hence, the citizens think that many at the top are mere seat-warmers with no ideas or vision.
With respect, I am beginning to suspect that those entrusted with the job of bringing about national unity are still grappling for a foundation or basis of national unity. Should the basis be religious? Should it be Islam since Article 3 of the Federal Constitution says that Islam is the official religion of the federation. If Islam, then which “structure” and “how much”? If it is not religious based, then what?
For national unity to come about, there has to be a national identity, national values, a national common vision or goal or dream. These need to be identified.
National unity cannot come about based on religion in a multi-religious society because while there are commonalities, there are also dogmatic differences that cannot be reconciled. However, religious sentiments may be used as one of the motivating sources for unity if we focus on the fact that religions do teach kindness and goodness to one another and that we are created by the same Supreme Being, albeit that we call Him by different names.
However, the extremists in the respective religious circles may not like this as it may offend their notion of exclusivity of their religions.
Even within the same religion, there is a problem of pleasing the sects and sub sects that exist. Hence, these are the problems and challenges that may arise if we use religion as a basis for national unity.
It, therefore, appears that the search for a basis and planning for national unity need to transcend religious boundaries.
So what is it that we can use as a basis for national unity? We need that direction and we need that urgently. We cannot wait for the next Olympics.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.