KUALA LUMPUR, May 26 — When Datuk Zaid Ibrahim was heckled by a clutch of Umno MPs and labelled Opposition lover on Thursday, it spoke volumes about the ruling party’s desire for judicial reform and change.
It also showed that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s reform agenda may not enjoy the full support of his party officials, many of whom still view everything in Malaysia as a zero-sum game. Any policy that is embraced by non-Malays must be to detrimental to the political power of the Malays, these politicians conclude.
Thursday was the first time that the de facto Law Minister had to deal with snide remarks from his party members in Parliament but certainly not the first time Umno politicians have sprayed him with adverse comments over the Judicial Appointments Commission, the Royal Commission report on the V.K. Lingam video clip and the review of the Internal Security Act.
These ruling party politicians — including ministers, deputy ministers and MPs — crave for the status quo. They have recovered from the shock to the system which the Malaysian electorate delivered in Election 2008 and have their eyes firmly on what Umno members and the Malay community want.
They are convinced that the reform agenda of Abdullah will weaken the patronage system on which they have been bred and will loosen the grip Malays have on important bodies such as the judiciary and the Anti-Corruption Agency. But because he is the prime minister and commands the powers of incumbency, they are wary to attack him or his reforms directly.
So the arrows are fired at the senior lawyer who he appointed as a senator and Cabinet minister.
Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir led the Zaid-bashing on Thursday as the minister was telling the House on the government’s efforts to reform the judiciary. “Congratulations, minister. As you have done well in realising the opposition’s goal than that of your own party,” said Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s youngest son.
Several other Umno MPs also tossed a few comments at Zaid, including Datuk Tajudin Rahman, the MP for Pasir Salak.
The next day Zaid hit back, saying that the BN leadership should take action against MPs who were disrespectful to Abdullah and were against government policies. In response, Mukhriz accused Zaid of being more loyal to the PM than to the party.
The position taken by Mukhriz is not surprising. He wants Abdullah to resign and makes no bones about it. He has asked more questions aimed at embarrassing the PM in Parliament than the Opposition.
He also believes that this emphasis on judicial reform is aimed at diminishing his father’s legacy. The Royal Commission report said that Dr Mahathir did not follow the constitutional process in appointing and promoting judges. It also laid blame on Lingam, businessman Tan Sri Vincent Tan and Tengku Adnan Mansor for judge-fixing.
Since the report was made public, there have been calls for the major players in the video clip episode including Dr Mahathir to be investigated by the Attorney-General. In the upper reaches of Umno, some politicians cannot understand the fuss being made about Dr Mahathir’s role in the video clip.
As far as they are concerned, he was exercising his constitutional right to appoint Tun Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim as the Chief Justice. And if he took the advice of Lingam, Tan and Tengku Adnan, it was well within his right to do so.
Some senior Umno politicians are also wary of the Judicial Appointments Commission, seeing it as a body which will pave the way for the dilution of Malay power over this important institution.
Under the government’s plan, the commission will provide a list of candidates to the PM. He will whittle down the list and hand over his nomination for the position of Chief Justice or other senior positions on the Bench to the Conference of Malay Rulers. If the PM rejects any candidates forwarded by the commission, he has to given reasons.
Some Umno politicians have a different take on the commission. They note that there if the majority of commission members are non-Malays, there is a possibility that they will nominate more non-Malays to the Bench. One day soon, the CJ will be an Indian or a Chinese, they fear.
Surprisingly, such views are being passed on not only by peripheral party members but also ministers and former ministers, leading the more enlightened members of Barisan Nasional to wonder whether the lessons of Election 2008 have been fully understood by Umno.
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has told friends that though Abdullah appears committed to reform the judiciary, his party does not have the stomach for any change and will block any meaningful move for judicial reform. His reading of the situation will be put to the test twice over the next few weeks.
First, when the Cabinet discusses the framework for the Judicial Appointments Commission and when the Bill is presented before Parliament at the next sitting beginning June 15.
If some of the ministers object to the commission or if some of the 79 Umno MPs disregard the BN Whip and vote against the Bill, this will be the clearest sign yet that Abdullah’s reform agenda is on shaky ground.
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