Sunday, 6 April 2008

Say Sorry So We Can Move On

Brave New World (The Star)
3 April 2008

There is nothing wrong in admitting one’s mistake. It is in fact a type of strength."


Saying sorry is really hard, apparently. At least according to Elton John; but then I can’t see that camp old fellow apologising to anyone.

Speaking of old fellows, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad too doesn’t seem to be keen on saying sorry.

His reaction to calls from DAP chairman Karpal Singh for him to apologise for the dismissal of Tun Salleh Abbas in 1988 was to brush it aside.

Instead, he said that the tribunal which decided against Salleh Abbas, then Lord President, should apologise. That’s akin to John Wilkes Booth saying that his pistol should apologise to Abraham Lincoln.

However, this is neither here nor there. Karpal was just being Karpal, and it will be a chilly day in hell before Mahathir apologises for his administration.

The actual proposal by Senator Zaid Ibrahim is that the present government should apologise to Salleh Abbas and the other judges sacked during that black spot in our judicial history.

This proposal has met with some objections – primarily that an apology is not enough. The culprits are still around so they should be brought to task.

The situation in Malaysia is different from, say, in Australia. There, the recent apology by the government to the Aboriginal people made sense because the perpetrators of the worst offences against Australia’s indigenes are dead.

Actually, I liken an apology to Salleh and the two judges who were suspended, then sacked, more to the South African truth and reconciliation efforts at the fall of apartheid.

The purpose is not so much to punish the offenders, but more to seek closure to an awful part of the nation’s history, and then to move on.

And the legal system needs to move on. We live in the shadow of 1988 and all the problems that have resulted from it.

The perceived loss of confidence in the judiciary’s impartiality stems from that time, as well as the sense that the judiciary is beholden to outside powers, be they political or business.

A sense that was proven apparently correct, correct, correct to many people’s eyes when the infamous Lingam tape floated to the surface.

I can understand the need for justice. I truly sympathise with the idea of putting those responsible for the 1988 debacle through the wringer of the justice system, but, realistically, can this happen any time soon?

Perhaps it is better to have an apology, which will be akin to an official admission that the Government had done something terrible to the judiciary.

With such an admission, we can then start to rebuild, because then it will be absolutely clear that a terrible injustice has occurred and there is a need for a fresh start.

However, at the time of writing, even this symbolic (albeit important) step of saying sorry has been rejected by the Cabinet.

I imagine such an admission would be considered too embarrassing and a loss of face. Or perhaps the Cabinet truly believes that the tribunal was not wrongly constituted and unfair.

Whatever the reason, it is unwise to reject the idea of an apology. We have a desperate need to rebuild our judiciary and – it follows – the entire legal system to something we can not only be proud of, but also more importantly feel secure with.

This is one of the issues that powered the wave of discontent against the Barisan Nasional in the last election. It is odd then that the Cabinet chooses not to deal with it head-on and to dismiss Zaid’s idea (some would say, rather arrogantly).

There is nothing wrong in admitting one’s mistake. It is in fact a type of strength. A person can make all sorts of mistakes, the important thing is to realise that mistake and try to fix it.

Take Zaid, for example. When I first saw him I was a young tutor and he was climbing the Umno ladder.

It was at a panel discussion at a public university and he was defending the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, which basically allowed the Government to compulsorily acquire land not just for public purposes but also for commercial purposes. It also shut the door on any judicial review over the reasons for such acquisitions.

In my young and idealistic mind, such an amendment was an affront to the principles of justice and social equity I was trained in, and I told Zaid in no uncertain terms that as a lawyer, he could not be defending such a law.

He, being the president of the mighty Muslim Lawyers Association, quite scathingly put me down.

He seems like a different chap nowadays. Maybe I should ask him to apologise?

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