Appoint Justice Siti Norma as Chief Judge to dispel perception of fear and resistance to appointment of women to the highest judicial offices in the land


Speech (2)
on the Constitution Amendment Bill 2004
by Lim Kit Siang

(Dewan Rakyat, Monday): The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said yesterday one should not fear the emancipation and empowerment of women as it is beneficial to humankind and society as a whole, and that the acknowledgement of the rights of women, be it Muslim or non-Muslim, should be regarded as one of the 10 principles of Islam Hadhari (Civilisational Islam) enabling them to gain the status they are entitled to.

Despite the Prime Minister’s statement, there seems to be considerable unease and discomfort with the emancipation and empowerment of women in the highest reaches of our society – which is probably one important reason why a woman has not occupied any one of the three highest judicial offices in the land when there is no lack of qualified candidates.

It is more than two months since the retirement of Tan Sri Haidar Mohamed Noor as the Chief Judge of Malaya on November 8 last year, but his successor has not been named.

Such inordinate delays in the appointment of key judicial positions is unacceptable and does not reflect well on the efficiency, effectiveness and professionalism of the system of administration of justice, especially as the retirement of senior judges is known long beforehand.

Is the delay in the appointment of the Chief Judge related to the constitutional amendment to raise the retirement age of judges from 65 to 66?

The Chief Justice, the Prime Minister and the Conference of Rulers – the three parties directly involved in the decision-making process concerning senior judicial appointments - should give fair consideration to the appointment of Justice Datuk Siti Norma Yaakob, the most senior Federal Court judge who had been bypassed thrice for promotion to the three highest judicial offices in the land, as the new Chief Judge of Malaya, so as to dispel the perception of fear and resistance to the appointment of women to the highest judicial offices in the land.

Siti Norma, 64, was elevated to the Bench 21 years ago in April 1983, and was the first woman to be appointed to the Court of Appeal and Federal Court – and staked a clear claim by her seniority and experience to all the three highest judicial posts of the land, Chief Justice of Federal Court, President of Court of Appeal and Chief Judge of Malaya, when they became vacant in the past five years, which would also have marked a most remarkable breakthrough for women achievements in Malaysia.

Siti Norma is even more senior that the Chief Justice of Federal Court, Tan Sri Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, who was made a judge only in August 1990, and the President of the Court of Appeal, Datuk Abdul Malek Ahmad who was appointed High Court judge in March 1992.

In this connection, I wish to refer to the Bar Council’s memorandum to the Chief Justice in October 2002 on “Judicial Appointments in Malaysia”, setting out the criteria and principles for judicial appointments to ensure judicial excellence and independence, viz:

  • There must be clear and publicly identified processes for selection and appointment.

  • There must be clear and publicly identified criteria against which persons considered are assessed.

  • The process of appointment must be independent.

  • Appointments must be made on merit.

  • Appointments should be permanent or else subject to appropriate security of tenure.

The Bar Council memorandum submitted the following qualities as essential in a judge:

(a) Legal Ability

(i) Professional qualifications and experience
(ii) Sound knowledge of the law and experience in its application
(iii) Overall high quality as a lawyer

(b) Strength of Character

(i) personal honesty and integrity
(ii) intellectual honesty, impartiality, open-mindedness and good judgment
(iii) courtesy, patience and ability to listen
(iv) stamina, diligence and commitment to work and duty
(v) social awareness and appreciation of diversity in society
(vi) a strong desire to be fair and an acute awareness of the need to minimize personal influence in decision-making.

(c) Personal Skills

(i) clarity and precision in expression, oral and written
(ii) ability to absorb and analyse complex and competing factual and legal material
(iii) management and leadership quality

(d) Judicial Quality

(i) can be trusted to exercise discretion and judicial powers responsibly
(ii) ability to stand up to any interference with his or her independence – an unblemished personal record and cannot fall prey to such interference.

On judicial promotions, the Bar Council memorandum stressed that it should be based on merit and the same criteria for judicial appointments. Furthermore, seniority should ordinarily be the prime consideration and if it is to be departed from, it must be in exceptional circumstances.

If Justice Siti Norma is to be bypassed once again from judicial promotion, excluding her from all the three highest judicial offices of the land, Parliament and the nation are entitled to an explanation as to the “exceptional circumstances” whereby her seniority and experience had again and again been sidelined.

As this is the first constitutional amendment affecting the judiciary under the premiership of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, bearing in mind the crisis of confidence which had plagued the system of justice for one-and-half decades from 1988, one would expect that it would be a most important amendment to fully restore and enhance public confidence both national and international, in the efficiency, professionalism, independence, impartiality and integrity of the judiciary.

It is most disappointing that no such constitutional amendment to fully restore national and international confidence in a truly independent judiciary and a just rule of law has been presented to Parliament. In fact, the Bar Council has not even been consulted or informed about the Constitution Amendment Bill 2004 although it pertains to judicial and constitutional matters.

No progress has been made in judicial reforms, as in setting out clear criteria and principles for judicial appointments and promotions proposed by the Bar Council, and its proposal for the establishment of a Judicial Services Commission, which are based on the Latimer House Guidelines 1998 for Commonwealth judicial reforms. Even all talk of revision and update of the Judges Code of Ethics have ended.

The country cannot pretend that the dark chapter of the judiciary of the past decade never happened or could never return. Parliament and the nation have the responsibility to ensure that the system of justice in Malaysia will never again plunge ino the abyss from which it has not yet fully recovered. A Royal Commission of Inquiry to fully restore national and international confidence in the system of justice in Malaysia must be established as a top national agenda, and I urge the Prime Minister to give this his full support and priority.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman