Thanks are also in order for the other Round Table panellists, including former Bar Council President, Zainur Zakaria, HAKAM President, Ramdas Tikamdas, academician Dr. Abdul Aziz Bari and leading constitutitional lawyers in the country, Karpal Singh and Christopher Fernando.
I also want to thank representatives of NGOs and the civil society, academicians and leading legal practitioners who have taken precious time off to attend the Round Table Conference.
It is most unfortunate that Malaysia ended the previous millennium not with any strengthening of the fundamental constitutional values to contribute to the rule of law, but a greater blow to constitutionalism with the statutory rape of the onstitution in the unconstitutional convening of the new tenth Parliament on 20th December 1999.
The issues involved however are not just confined to the constitutionality of the new tenth Parliamentary meetings, but bigger issues of good democratic governance.
In 1991, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was a party to the Harare Declaration - a pledge by the Commonwealth Heads of Government to work with renewed vigour to protect and promote the values of democracy, honest government, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary throughout the Commonwealth.
These are the key issues we will have to grapple with at today’s Round Table Conference as democracy and the rule of law are the fundamental building blocks for a modern, decent and democratic society.
I do not propose to go through the basic facts and arguments of what I had described as the "constitutional case of the millennium" as they are set out in my latest publication under the same name. The whole purpose of the Round Table Conference today is to hear the views and opinions of renowed jurists and legal practitioners in the country on the subject.
I wish to refer instead to two cornerstones of democracy - judicial independence and the rule of law.
The notion that the ordinary Malaysian can fall back on the judiciary as the last custodian of their basic rights to hold the executive in check through judicial review had been discredited since 1988, when the country when through the trauma of the first and biggest judicial crisis in the nation, where Tun Salleh Abas was sacked as Lord President together with two Supreme Court judges.
As a result, the independence of judiciary suffered a setback from which it had never recovered. What is worse, there had been a relentless erosion of public confidence in the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law since the last judiciary crisis 12 years ago.
Without judicial independence there is no rule of law. Without the rule of law, there can be no democracy. Without democracy, there can be no fair and just society.
The time has come for the reform and modernisation of justice in Malaysia, starting with the introduction of a transparent and competitive judicial appointment process.
If judges depend on the goodwill of the Government for their continuing employment, they may find themselves unable to resist political or other improper interference in individual cases.
This is why judges must have security of tenure. They must be able to undertake their responsibilities and exercise their discretion without fear or favour. Their appointments and careers must be developed on the basis of objective criteria to avoid any suggestion of favouritism or preferment in return for favours rendered.
Malaysia should emulate the example of other Commonwealth countries in the reform and modernisation of justice as in the introduction of transparency and competition in the judicial appointment process, whether magistrates or other judicial appointments up to the High Court judge level.
Judicial review promotes the rule of law. Let transparency be
the watchword of the judicial appointment process where candidates
are assessed against objective criteria, which should be easily availlable,
both in paper form and on the Internet. Let all these vacancies be
advertised, involving lay people in the selection procedure for judicial
appointments up to High Court judge level.
The introduction of such a transparent judicial appointment process, together with appointment on merit, will provide a strong foundation for a truly independent judiciary at every level.
The Round Table Conference today on "Constitution, Parliament and Rule of Law" covers many fundamental issues in the country, whether it be the proper role and function of a caretaker government; the respective powers of the Yang di Pertuan Agong, the Cabinet and Parliament; the responsibilities of the Attorney-General and the Judiciary; the distinction between the rule of law and rule by law and the redress available to undo the constitutional case of the millennium where all laws and businesses enacted by the new tenth Parliament for the next five years could be infected with illegality and unconstitutionality.
I wish all panellists and participants a fruitful and productive Round Table Conference. The consensus of the deliberations of the Round Table Conference would be made public tomorrow as part of the process to conscientise Malaysians as to their constitutional rights and responsibilities and what they should do to uphold the rule of law and restore independence of the judiciary.