Remembering Tun Suffian

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
September 26, 2018

FEW Malaysians would have realised that today marks the day when the nation lost one of our (unsung) heroes 18 years ago. He passed away due to cancer at the age of 82; but not before contributing so much to the country, especially in the legal sector. As Malaya then journeyed to shape its own destiny, Tun Mohamed Suffian Mohamed Hashim (1917-2000) left a remarkable legacy that we must take cognisance and be proud of.

In this day and age of a new Malaysia where the "rule of law" is gradually creeping back as the centrepiece of Malaysia's future, Tun Suffian remains a beacon of which direction we should be heading. And more importantly, we should take heed of where we have gone terribly wrong in the past.

Known for his humility, compassion and fierce independence, he is regarded as Malaysia's most distinguished judge. According to The UK Telegraph: "His international standing made him one of the few in his country to speak freely without fear of repression."

As Lord President of the nation's federal judiciary from 1974 to 1982, among his prime concerns was the dignity of the ordinary citizen, and reportedly "he never let legal technicalities prevail over justice".

This may have something to do with his humble beginnings as the first "anak watan" (local boy) to occupy the topmost position in the nation's legal hierarchy.

As son of a kadi from a remote kampung of Kuala Kangsar, Perak, he understood what it meant.

Yet allegedly his wit and talents did not escape his schoolmaster in the nearby Clifford School, who predicted that he would one day be "the pride of the Malay(sian) race".

He eventually proved it when he took over the various legal positions where the colonial British rule had left. He made it clear what constituted an independent Malaya, later Malaysia.

High on his agenda was indeed the rule of law in an uncompromising way. He soldiered on to promote the separation of powers and never flinched from his criticism in defence of the well-respected judiciary in Malaysia when placed under threat.

While it took some time for the citizens to be comfortable with such an arrangement amid the feudal environment of yesteryears, the latter continued to be recognised as part of the socio-cultural makeup in an evolving nationhood that otherwise remained subservient to the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people.

In other words, away from the feudal environment, which categorically excludes that of partisan politics (where some assumed the role of politician-kings dubbed as arrogant "warlords"), the people have the final say. There were no two ways about this.

This is what in essence the new Malaysia is all about, arising from a nationwide collective decision made peacefully on May 9 through the ballot box.

As a result, many of the politician-kings had to face the bitter onslaught of the people, especially the younger generation, whose wrath knew no nostalgia of the feudalistic ways. The consequence of which is now well-known for all to see if not embrace. More so, with a hope to learn from it, namely the rule of (just) law is here to stay and must be deeply entrenched if the brave, new future is to be forever sustained.

That being said, the reality is no less challenging provided we are all fully aware and "well-educated" about it as citizens of this beloved country. It is here once again that Tun Suffian left his hallmark when he described what a university ought to be.

He was very sure of this when the committee he chaired for the establishment of USM summed it: "the university should be an autonomous body separate and apart from the government."

Furthermore, "we believe that academic freedom is a necessary condition of the highest efficiency and the proper progress of academic institutions, and that encroachments upon their liberty, in the supposed interest of greater efficiency, would in fact diminish their efficiency and stultify their development" (Suffian, 1969). Not surprisingly, he was then also the esteemed pro-chancellor of University Malaya for a good quarter of a century, from 1963 to 1986.

Indeed to my mind this is where the problem begins to rear its ugly head, that is, when we deviated from the notion of the rule of law by subjugating the autonomy and intellectual freedom of the university. That derailed understanding of what the rule of law is, or it is at all practical levels when politics tend to abuse it.

Fortunately, now this has come to pass under the present government at least as promised through its election manifesto.

It is therefore up to us to claim it so that the rule of law can be immediately restored as our overdue rights are not only confined to the universities but nationwide.

As today marks the first memorial anniversary of Tun Suffian in new Malaysia, perhaps the following words accorded to him is best remembered in the current context.

In a speech in 1980, he commended the ability to "disagree in a civilised way"; and that "law is made for man, not man for the law".