The 1988 Judicial Crisis
In July of 1988, the Malaysian judiciary was unexpectedly thrown into disarray. The Lord President of the Supreme Court, Justice Salleh Abas, was suspended and later removed from the bench on contentions of misconduct, at the behest of then-Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. The Prime Minister had been facing challenges from members of his own party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). A campaign for the premiership, headed by Member of Parliament Razaleigh Hamzah, had garnered tremendous support, but was ultimately defeated in the party’s internal elections. Hamzah’s faction grew increasingly displeased with the result, and filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the election based on allegations of manipulation and tampering. Mahathir had resolved, in anticipation of unfavorable verdicts from the judiciary, to target the validity of the nation’s apex court.
Robert Lazar, at the time a prominent litigator with eight years of experience, was hired to represent Justice George Seah, yet another Supreme Court judge who had been suspended on account of Mahathir Mohamad’s political stratagem. Seah, along with four other Supreme Court justices, were appointed to a tribunal established to adjudicate on Abas. In the process, they had granted the Lord President an interlocutory order, an action that in effect accorded Mahathir the opportunity and incentive to contest the tribunal altogether, and thereby propagate a narrative of widespread dishonesty within the judiciary.
While Dr. Mahathir denied responsibility for the crisis, this national tragedy continues to haunt the judiciary till this very day.
Initially, Lazar and the rest of the legal team, led by Malaysian Bar veteran R.R. Sethu, were taken aback by the events. It was unthinkable that the country’s highest court could be targeted and dismantled by the executive with such haste and dexterity. Within a matter of months, the independence and respect that the judiciary had cautiously cultivated over several decades was exposed and vulnerable. As such, Seah’s situation was precarious. As the case progressed, Seah received a few minor favorable decisions, but was eventually dismissed from the Supreme Court. In a private letter penned to Lazar, Seah expresses that the new tribunal’s composition effectively assured his guilty verdict.
In 2008, Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim urged the government to revisit the crisis and formally apologize. Seah and the other judges received ex-gratia payment soon after. Thirty-two years later, the crisis continues to have a profound effect on the judges and practitioners of today’s Malaysian legal profession..