A FORMER student (currently teaching law in a local university) sent me a text message last week “Salam Ramadan (Ramadan greetings). Where are we now on the law reform agenda?” I replied instantly, “Salam. Shifting from second gear to third gear”.
His text message reached me on the evening after senior lawyer Tommy Thomas reported for duty at the Attorney-General’s Chambers, where he told reporters that “We are planning to reform 60 years of laws. It will be a long process, but we will reform what needs to be reformed”.
The new A-G’s statement followed an earlier promise by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to repeal the newly minted Anti-Fake News Act, and before that the promise by Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin that he will review (and repeal if found no longer relevant) several statutes under his ministry’s portfolio, including the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma), Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015 (POTA) and Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (POCA), the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA), and the Sedition Act 1948.
Muhyiddin said that law reform was part of Pakatan Harapan’s election manifesto. He added: “Any law that is considered to have elements of cruelty, oppression, injustice, and which may be considered contrary to human rights, and laws that are not clear in their implementation, will be examined in depth.” The law reform work “may take some time”.
To put matters in perspective, we went into first gear when Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin told the media that certain Acts of Parliament would be reviewed, and if found to be no longer relevant, would be repealed. Clearly that decision was taken to implement the coalition’s election pledge of law reform. After that, we went into second gear when Muhyiddin said he had already set up a special committee under the ministry’s secretary-general, Datuk Seri Alwi Ibrahim, to carry out the review.
I believe that in the days ahead the other newly appointed ministers will come up with their recommendations in respect of the laws under their respective portfolios. When these other suggestions and recommendations start coming in, we have to move into third gear — decision to set up a formal and centralised body to carry out the law reform.
In the past, it was generally thought that law reform work could be done at the A-G’s Chambers itself, but there was also a counter proposal that we should establish a Law Reform Commission.
Amongst legal luminaries then who were in favour of setting up a Law Reform Commission was the late Tan Sri Harun Hashim who, upon his retirement from the Bench, was invited by us at the International Islamic University in Petaling Jaya to join our law faculty as a full-time professor.
His legacy at the university has now been immortalised in the Harun M. Hashim Law Centre. I used to enjoy his company then as I picked his mind and probed his thoughts on several issues of law.
In June 2001, the local media quoted Harun (who was then vice-chairman of Suhakam) as saying that a permanent law reform commission should be established in this country “to review laws on a continuous basis” to ensure their suitability at all times. He added that such a commission had been set up in Australia, India, Britain and South Africa.
The Australian Law Reform Commission is a federal agency established under the Australian Law Reform Act 1996. The practice in Australia shows that an important body such as this commission is best established by an Act of Parliament, not by executive action.
After the government decides on this issue (whether we need to establish a body by an Act of Parliament or by mere executive action), we can move up to fourth gear — getting the right people to do the job. The laws to be reviewed will have to be identified and then studied in detail, discussions and public consultations held, views and feedback from interested parties and stakeholders sought, recommendations and draft legislation prepared.
This is going to be tedious and time-consuming, because legislation should not be made in haste. When the final recommendations and draft legislation are ready, we can then move up to fifth gear — presenting the finished work to the cabinet for its consideration and decision.
Learning from experience, this is where proposals and recommendations from below can get stuck and cannot proceed any further. It could be a case where a new minister has just been appointed and he wants sufficient time to read the various papers before submitting them to the cabinet meeting.
It could be a case where the minister, being new to the subject matter, cannot convince his cabinet colleagues of the need to have the new law, or it could be due to any number of other reasons. If the recommendations and draft new legislation are stuck here, all previous hard work comes to nothing.
If this hurdle is cleared, then the draft legislation goes for fine-tuning at the A-G’s Chambers where a new bill is then prepared, with its explanatory note.
This will bring us to the final stage (sixth gear) — tabling the Bill at the Dewan Rakyat. Here the people’s representatives will have their final say, to support or to oppose, if sufficient time for debate and discussion is available.
Salleh Buang formerly served the Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for practice, the corporate sector and, then, academia
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