(Petaling Jaya, Sunday): The new Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Tan Sri Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah has kept up the high hopes of Malaysians when he unflinchingly admitted the "unpalatable fact that public confidence in the judiciary has eroded in the last few years" at the first judges’ meeting after his appointment.
This is the first time in the nation’s history that the highest judicial officer in the land has spoken frankly at a meeting of judges about the sick state of affairs of the judiciary - something well-known to the people and the world except to the cocooned officialdom - marking the end of the denial syndrome about the need for far-reaching judicial reforms.
Dzaiddin yesterday acknowledged that "in reality, this negative perception has held back the country’s development as multinational corporations and foreign investors are reluctant to invest because they perceive there is no level playing field", causing them to prefer arbitration outside Malaysia in the event of dispute.
Dzaiddin declared that his mission as the new Chief Justice is to "bring the judiciary back to its past glories" and he called on all judges to close ranks to work for the "good of the judiciary, country and faithfully discharge our duties by giving justice to the people".
As judicial independence and impartiality, which constitute the cornerstone of a just rule of law, are not private rights of judges but the fundamental rights of all Malaysians, it should be the individual and collective responsibility of all judges to restore public confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.
It is most disappointing that the first judges’ meeting after the appointment of the new Chief Justice did not conclude with a loud and clear message to the nation and the world signalling the collective resolve and commitment of the judiciary to back Dzaiddin in the agenda to restore public confidence in the judiciary and bring back the judiciary to its past glories.
In other systems where public confidence in the judiciary is jealously protected, encouraged and defended, judges not only have to observe high standards of conduct personally, they are also required to encourage and support their judicial colleagues to do the same as the questionable conduct by one judge reflects on the judiciary as a whole.
The rational for such a code of conduct is that judges have opportunities to be aware of the conduct of their judicial colleagues. If a judge is aware of evidence which, in the judge’s view, is reliable and indicate a strong likelihood of unprofessional conduct by another judge, he has a responsibility to ensure that appropriate action is taken to protect the public interest in the due administration of justice.
This is not the case in Malaysia, as there is no such code in the Judges’ Code of Ethics 1994 which was formulated by the former Chief Justice, Tun Eusoff Chin, under whose tenure public confidence in the independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary reached an all-time low.
One important step to restore public confidence in the judiciary is therefore to recast the Judges’ Code of Ethics 1994 and to reformulate a statement of judicial ethical principles for the benefit of judges and the public.
Dzaiddin should initiate widespread consultation, both within and outside the judiciary, on how best to restore public confidence and bring back the judiciary to its "past glories" before the end of his two-year tenure especially as this is not the sole responsibility of the Chief Justice or the judiciary, but that of the whole Malaysian nation and people as well.