Lawful Battles
It's a war that has earned him both fame and scorn at home, but veteran lawyer Param says the tide is turning for the independence of the judiciary.

By Clarence Y.K. Ngui

Datuk Param Cumaraswamy’s views on legal matters and the judiciary are much sought after internationally. He has been in the centre of international scenes such as Bangkok, Thailand at the height of the Democracy Crisis of 1992 and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for the recent debate on the Syariah Laws.

Param is perhaps one of Malaysia’s best exports in the international judiciary fraternity. Yet, his fame can be equally controversial. For instance, Param is persona non grata in Singapore. He has been barred from entering the island republic for almost two decades after commenting on the arrest of twenty-odd Singapore lawyers in the 1980s.

“Sometimes, there is a small price to pay. At least, I am proud of what I have done,” says Param. It can be intriguing when one enters Param’s oxymoronic universe – he may be respected internationally but at the same time controversial in Malaysia and Singapore.

His run-ins with the Malaysian authorities started in 1977 when Param made a public protest over the death sentence on a 14-year-old boy by the High Court of Malaya. The boy was charged with firearms possession, which carried the mandatory death sentence. Then, the attorney-general had wanted to charge Param for sedition. But, in the end, no charges were made.

“It is a moral victory,” says Param. To date, he believes that the 14-year-old boy deserved better than a death sentence. After 28 years, Param tells Malaysian Business that he was proud that the boy was given an opportunity to repent at the Henry Gurney School instead of losing his life at the gallows.

Today, at age 64, Param has not changed much. He is still an idealist fighting for his various causes such as the independence of the judiciary and the fighting of corruption in Malaysia. He is currently the President of Transparency International Malaysia as well as the Chairman of the Malaysian Working Group for the Asean Human Rights Mechanism.

“I have been very lucky and God has been very kind,” asserts Param. Perhaps he is right in counting his blessings. In 1994, he was appointed as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers in Geneva.

But not long after, in 1995, he was sued for four defamation suits in Malaysia for over US$100 million over an interview with the London-based magazine International Commercial Litigation in 1995. The suit dragged on for years. In the end, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped in and the Malaysian Government dropped the case as Param had immunity as a UN diplomat.

“Datuk Param is very committed to his various causes in life. He is a strong believer in judicial independence,” says former Bar Council President, R. Chelvarajah. According to Chelvarajah, this includes Param making personal sacrifices to fight for the liberty of others. “Imagine being charged for sedition for defending the rights of another 14-year-old boy or an uneducated labourer.”

Perhaps Chelvarajah is right. During the four defamation suits, Param resigned as chief executive partner of one of Malaysia’s largest law firms. “It is a personal sacrifice. I did not want the legal firm to lose its business,” says Param. Since 1998, Param has run his own legal practice at Wisma Tun Sambanthan.

Today it is a different story altogether for Param. He has made a surprise comeback. His views are once again much sought after, with his agreeing to a flurry of media interviews and various invitations to participate in forums and discussions in Malaysia.

Perhaps Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s efforts to wed out corruption and restore the major institutions in Malaysia have made Param’s views more relevant to Malaysians. “Abdullah is making the right moves in human rights, democracy and combating corruption,” says Param.

But Param believes it is time to move beyond the rhetoric. For him, fighting corruption and restoring the confidence of Malaysians is not a one-man task of the Prime Minister, but also the responsibility of members of his cabinet and society at large. “It is a difficult task, but it is not totally impossible,” he says.

In 1985, when Param urged the Kuala Lumpur Pardons Board not to discriminate against a poor labourer, Param was charged with sedition. “Thankfully, I had the support of the Bar Council and the Human Rights Commission,” says Param. Then, Param’s acquittal was hailed as a landmark victory for freedom of expression.

Param believes the period of fear is behind for most Malaysians. Abdullah has made the right moves in addressing shortcomings. He says there is a stronger emphasis on combatting corruption and battling the various inequalities of Malaysian society. “It is the responsibility of all Malaysians.”

Param is working very closely with the authorities such as the Anti-Corruption Agency and the Integrity Institute of Malaysia to fight corruption. However, he believes another vital component for the complete restoration of human rights and the rule of law is a free press. “We do not have journalists any more. All we have are reporters,” says Param.

Param believes the removal of the Official Secrets Act, the introduction of the Freedom of Information Legislation and Witness Protection will allow for greater press freedom and the return of the rule of law. “In the end, all Malaysians must have the perception that we all live in a corrupt-free society where the rule of law reigns,” says Param.

While Param has gone through numerous hardships, he has never considered living outside Malaysia. “What can I do in the United Kingdom or Australia? In Malaysia, I can contribute my expertise to a better future. I can’t do the same in other countries.” For the record, he has been offered assistance numerous times by various embassies and high commissions, but to Param, Malaysia is where he can make a change.

However, it is not the same for his family members. Two of Param’s daughters are currently residing overseas. Param recalls how a daughter was so traumatically affected by his sedition cases that she decided to change her major from law to international studies at Southampton University in the United Kingdom. “I cannot imagine being a lawyer in Malaysia,” Param recalls his daughter’s words.

As Chelvarajah puts it, “Param’s strong personality stands out as a man ahead of his time. “You need a brave person to bring about changes. He is indeed a man without fear and motivated to bring about change.”

Of late, Param has been spending most of his time at Transparency International and at his legal practice. Besides work, Param spends his time preparing for his overseas stints. “I have to spend a lot of time researching, especially for the speeches that I have to write.” Just before our interview, Param was in Vientiane, Laos to foster the charter of human rights. He is currently preparing for his trips to Geneva, New York and Berlin.

At press time, Param would be at Columbia University, New York to receive the Peter Gruber Foundation’s Justice Prize that carries a cash award of US$ 200,000 and a gold medal. “It came as a pleasant surprise,” says Param.

Life can be full of surprises,. Param’s ideas of judicial independence, human rights and the rule of law are not totally revolutionary. It is only that he is slightly ahead of his time in the Malaysian context. With Malaysians maturing in their thinking, it is only natural that Param’s ideals would be more acceptable soon.

[Datuk Param has since stepped down as President of Transparency
International Malaysia. That position has been filled by yet another
Old Victorian, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam.]

Datuk Param Cumaraswamy
V.I. 1955 - 1959

VI The V.I. Web Page