From the courtroom to the streets

Posted on April 2, 2020

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was admitted to the Malaysian Bar as an advocate and solicitor on 17th August, 1990, the culmination of a childhood dream.

Then, if anyone had said they had looked into a crystal ball and saw that one day I would be on the streets with hundreds and thousands of others inhaling teargas, or speaking at political rallies, I would have told them it was time to change that crystal ball.

On 23rd November, 2010,I wrote : “I am convinced that the judiciary can only be returned to the people as their final bastion when an alternative government, led by a prime minister who is not motivated by hopes of re-election at the next polls, but by the need to put in place vital reforms during his tenure, is installed after the next general election.

I have therefore decided to hang up my robes, cease legal practise, and devote myself to working with the rakyat in the coming months to establish a new government and have installed a reform-minded prime minister after the 13th General Election”.

Why?

What had driven me to this decision?

In that post, I allude to the decision of the Federal Court in the Shamala case. That decision, for me, was very much the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back.

In June and July of that same year, 3 decisions in the Court of Appeal, where I appeared for the appellant, all freedom of religion cases, left me with little pride in adorning my robe, and irredeemable shame in being part of a process that failed to deliver what was due to every litigant : the impartial evaluation of the evidence and an honest application of the law.

In truth, though, by 2004, I had already started getting disillusioned with the pretence that the system of administration of justice was, had moved out of KL to live on a farm, relocating my law firm in Bentong, hoping, in time, to wind up the firm and retire.

All that changed in December, 2005 when Ambiga, then the Bar Council President, asked me to hold a watching brief for the Bar in the Moorthy case.

The next year, a group of concerned NGOs and NGIs, myself included, kicked off a peoples’s initiative called Article 11.

All thoughts of quitting practice had vanished.

Two incidences in 2009 got me thinking once again about leaving practice.

In January, 2009, I was in Kuala Terengganu for a bye-election.

On 10th January, 2009, this is what I wrote : “yesterday, as the rest of the Barisan Rakyat team took time out to send Gus and I to the airport, Marina pointed out to me two structures and their surroundings that left me in near tears.

The first was the Crystal Mosque.

From the highway, looking directly at this structure, one is momentarily awe-struck.

Until one dips one’s line of vision from the mosque and then one  sees the state of the houses.

Does God command us to build Him opulence or to reach out to our less fortunate brothers and sisters?

Then, as we reached the airport, Marina said ‘Look left’.

Again, dilapidated houses.

Throughout the flight and the bus ride to KL Sentral, the one thought that kept running through my mind was how do we help the poor in Kuala Terengganu?

I have no quick solutions”.

Two months later, I flew to Batang Ai, Sarawak, ahead of a bye-election that was due to take place in April. I traveled by 4-wheel drive into the interior, to long houses in Lubok Antu. I got the opportunity to meet and talk to the folk there.

iban

On 22nd March, 2009, I wrote : “Jawah told me that there were 156 longhouses within the constituency of Batang Ai.

I asked what was the average monthly family income of those who lived within his longhouse.

“RM2,000 per year”, he replied.

I was stunned.

“That’s a little more than RM150 a month”, I responded, quite shocked.

Jawah just stared back at me.

“What about the other 155 longhouses?”

“More or less the same”, he replied.

On my drive back to Kuching with the rest of the team, I pondered on the question whether the BN government that has ruled this state since independence truly has the well-being of its people”.

By the time I reached home, my whole outlook on life had changed.

In an Oil & Gas  nation that had, as its first pillar in the Rukunegara, belief in God, with mosques, churches, temples and gurdwaras in every town and city, and yet, families had to get by on RM150 a month?

Advocate justice in court, but remain silent to the gross injustice that takes place everyday in the daily lives of so many?

These words from the Holy Qur’an haunted me : “And why should ye not fight in the cause of God and of those who being weak are ill-treated and oppressed? Men women and children whose cry is: “Our Lord! rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from Thee one who will protect; and raise for us from Thee one who will help!.”

Shamala’s case was indeed the last straw.

In December, 2010, I notified the Bar Council.

No regrets, but one.

How has that decision impacted my life?

In 2013, in reapplying for a visa to go to Australia, an earlier application having been rejected because of the impending sedition charge I faced, I had to address the matter of my not being in gainful employment and my seeming lack of sufficient incentive to depart Australia.

In an addendum to the application, which I have reproduced in an earlier post, I wrote : “…Upon taking the decision to cease legal practise and go into full time activism, I sold off my considerable law library and my home and fish, organic fruit and vegetable farm in Pahang, Malaysia. Details of that farm can be seen at http://fishfruitveg.wordpress.com/ The proceeds of both sales mentioned above, together with savings both here and overseas after 20 years of a fairly thriving legal practise, managed now in the context of a much changed lifestyle from one that I was previously accustomed to, has been, and is now, used to sustain my family and I”.

What I did not say was that much of the proceeds of sale was gone.

That one regret?

Full-time activism took a heavy toll on my relationship with my 2 children.

I can never turn that clock back.