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A man well remembered (Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim)

Millennium markers - Personalities

VERY often a person has to die before his or her friends come to pour tribute on him or her. Former Lord President Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim, 82, who passed away on Sept 26, however, was fortunate to have known in his lifetime that he was very much liked, admired and respected.

It is right and fitting that this kampung boy from Kota Lama Kiri in Perak should be buried in the Royal Mausoleum in the state's royal town, Kuala Kangsar.

The consent of Sultan Azlan Shah for the burial at the Royal Mausoleum speaks volumes of the Perak Sultan's respect for Suffian, whom he had replaced as Lord President after Suffian's retirement on Nov 12, 1982.

This son of a kadi became an icon of justice for many young Malaysians - after Tun Salleh Abas' dismissal as Lord President in 1988 - when he spoke out at seminars, wrote letters to the newspapers, questioned government policies and became the proverbial pain in the Executive neck.

And Suffian's succinct choice of words not only hit the mark but hit hard.

There are those, however, who say that Suffian was guilty of closing the door on judicial review when he was in a position to make a difference and his laments and criticisms after his retirement were too late.

Others say that the judgments of Suffian - who was appointed High Court judge in 1961, Chief Justice of the High Court of Malaya in 1973 and Lord President in 1974 - rejecting judicial review should be viewed in the context of the era they were made in.

His is a story young Malaysians should take the time to read. His is a life that one could learn many lessons from.

Up until Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad's accession to Prime Minister in 1981, Suffian's tenure as a judge coincided with the premierships of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Tun Hussein Onn - all British-trained lawyers like himself.

In his foreword to Victor Morais' book A Man For All Time, first Lord President Tun Sir James Beveridge Thomson said this of Suffian:

"He was young enough to have acquired a questioning mind by reason of having been young during the years when the minds of all thinking young men were stirred to activity ... by world events. He had had unusual educational advantages, entirely I hasten to add, the result of his own efforts ... Above all, he had the wisdom to see that the way to fit himself for the higher things which undoubtedly awaited him was to continue for a while to acquire experience working with other lawyers not necessarily more learned than himself but with longer years in the active practice of their profession.''

Suffian, who came from a family of 14 children - eight brothers and five sisters (Suffian's father had two wives) - had wanted to be an engineer.

"Suff'', as he was known to his friends, had wanted to be able to point out to the buildings and bridges he had constructed but it was not to be.

Despite winning the Government's coveted Queen's Scholarship, he could not apply for engineering when he found that his rural school education had left him wanting in the sciences and advanced mathematics.

It was then that Suffian, who was at Clifford School Kuala Kangsar, had the good fortune to hear Abdul Wahab Muda - who was a former student of his headmaster Capt B. Preedy when he (Capt Preedy) was in Anderson School Ipoh.

As Suffian heard Abdul Wahab - one of the first Malay lawyers in the country and the then protem secretary-general of Umno - speak, his mind was made up; he was going to study law.

Sifting through the mounds of articles on Suffian, it is apparent that the former Lord President was one who, when he found good advice, applied it and passed it on to others.

Among them were "do it now''; from Capt Preedy, a headmaster at Clifford School Kuala Kangsar; "be self-reliant'' from another headmaster D. Roper; "have my in-tray empty at the end of the day'' from the last expatriate Attorney-General Tan Sri C.M. Sheridan, to cut red-tape from then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak; and to "write honest, if not brilliant judgments'' from the first Malaysian Chief Justice of Borneo Tan Sri Ismail Khan.

We have Suffian's father and Capt Preedy to thank for his use of simple language, his stint as a wartime radio journalist for his lucid writing (he had to write his radio scripts with clarity because the radio spots were short), and Socrates for his timeless advice to "hear courteously, consider soberly and decide impartially''.

Many judges who had gone to pay their last respects to Suffian in Petaling Jaya or to the funeral later in Kuala Kangsar, had told reporters that Suffian was their role model when they were growing up.

Court of Appeal Justice Datuk Shaik Daud Ismail, who had worked under Suffian as a magistrate in Alor Star, said: "Upon my appointment to the High Court in 1983, he gave me a piece of advice which I have followed - keep the judgments simple as they will be read by the man in the street and he must be able to understand it.''

High Court Justice Datuk K.C. Vohrah said that Suffian's legacy was his clear and lucid judgments, articles, books, monographs and speeches.

"The country has lost a good man who has done more than any other person to showcase how good a judiciary we had,'' he added.

High Court Justice Datuk T.S. Selventhiranathan, who met Suffian in the early 1970s when he was in Raub, Pahang, serving both as magistrate and Sessions Court president, said: "I was only two years in service at the time but Tun Suffian was very approachable. He was a good man.''

On his legendary courtesy, senior lawyer Datuk Dr C.V. Das, said: "One got the impression he was conscious of the fact that counsel was appearing for the client and the client was witnessing the fact that his case was being dismissed.''

"And Tun Suffian was very conscious of the fact that a judge must demonstrate his impartiality,'' he added.

Malaysians have Suffian's father to thank for bucking the trend and taking Suffian out of the Malay School in Lenggong, Perak, after his Standard IV examination and sending him to Clifford School.

Suffian himself, was to later say that if his father had heeded the criticism - that a kadi was sending his eldest son to a school where he would have to learn the language of the infidels - he could have ended up a kadi himself.

Suffian, who had studied Muslim law for the Bar examination, had always been respected for his knowledge in Islamic laws.

Even before his foray into the domain of the infidels (i.e. Clifford School), he had already read the Quran from cover to cover, twice, by the time he was 11.

And by then, he had also studied theology and Arabic as well.

But his lessons did not stop when he went to Clifford School because the religious teacher there made sure that he learnt fundamentals of the Islamic faith.

Describing himself as someone who considered the spirit of Islam more important than ritualism, Suffian once said: "My father never told us to pray, and we, his children, prayed because of his example.''

"I think that were he alive today, he would be shocked at the way some Muslims set so much store in outward show ... and slavishly observing all the rituals with scant regard to the true teachings and the spirit of Islam,'' he added.

By sending his eldest son to Clifford School, Kadi Hashim paved the way for Suffian to score a number of firsts, including becoming the first Malayan solicitor-general (1959), the first chairman of the Higher Education Advisory Council of Malaysia (1972) and the first judge to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award (1975).

Among Suffian's valuable contributions would have to be his book An Introduction to the Malaysian Constitution, his translation of the Constitution into Bahasa Malaysia, the Suffian Report which came about as a result of his role as Chairman of the Royal Commission on Salaries; and his time as Universiti Malaya Pro-Chancellor from 1963 to 1986.

He was also constitutional adviser to the Sultan of Brunei for six months in 1959.

Among the numerous associations he served at various periods were the Royal Asiatic Society, the Asean Law Association, the Tun Razak Foundation and even the Malaysian Orchid Society and the SouthEast Asian Ceramic Society.

A born optimist, he embraced whatever challenge came his way - like the time he was on his way home after obtaining a B.A in Law (1939) and LLB (1940) from Cambridge but found himself stranded in Sri Lanka when the news came that the Japanese had landed in Kota Baru on Dec 8, 1941. He went on to work at, and later to head, the Malay sections of the All India Radio in New Delhi and the BBC in London.

The twists in his life became fodder for his jokes.

One story Suffian was fond of telling related to his appointment as a magistrate in Malacca in 1948 - he could not be paid because there was no allocation for the post.

"But I was saved from bankruptcy in the nick of time by some financial expert in the Resident Commissioner's Office who spotted a vacancy in the Marine Department.

"Thus, it was that I became to everybody's astonishment, including mine, harbour master in Malacca - simply to enable me to be paid my salary! I was a kind of sea lawyer,'' he would burst out laughing.

One of the best guides to Suffian's thinking and the principles he held are in the Braddell Memorial Lecture he delivered at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Aug 20, 1982, on Four Decades in The Law - Looking Back.

In his usual simplistic and witty style he discussed the early expatriate judges and lawyers, the Malayanisation of the judiciary, legal education, the judicial and legal service, the Attorney-General, the Bar and more importantly, the characteristics important for persons working in each of these areas.

He joked at the end that with the doctorate which the NUS had conferred on him, he could now call himself "Dr Suffian and practise as a bomoh in my kampung on the banks of the Perak River''.

A very important and integral part of Suffian's life was his wife Toh Puan Bunny who passed away in 1997.

"It was love at first sight but it was seven years later we decided to marry,'' said Suffian who met Dora Evelina "Bunny'' Grange, an English farmer's daughter at a tea dance at Cambridge in 1939.

"I think I saw a 'light' when I met Suff. Before long I decided to follow that 'light' and I am still following him,'' Bunny used to say.

Everyone who knew them said that the childless couple were made for each other.

"While Tun Suffian was recognised internationally in countless ways as Malaysia's leading jurist, he derived tremendous support from Toh Puan Bunny who was a delightful and very kind person with a sense of humour even more mischievous than Tun Suffian's,'' said Andrew Harding, professor of Law at University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Just like Suffian, Bunny was involved in social and welfare activities wherever they were stationed - whether it was sailing down the rivers in Pahang to teach sewing to the villagers, or the dayaks when they were in Brunei. Once they settled in Kuala Lumpur, Bunny spent a lot of time at the orang asli hospital in Gombak.

Everyone who knew Suffian could tell that his personality had not changed since he was a lad in the kampung. "He was the finest flower of the human race,'' said former Court of Appeal Justice Datuk Mahadev Shankar.

Suffian's former staff, when he was adviser at Standard Chartered Bank - Pat Yam and P.J. Mathai - readily attest to Suffian's humility despite the numerous awards he had received.

The only change was the bitterness in his voice whenever he talked of "that shameful episode'' - his reference to the dismissal of Salleh Abas.

His view of the Executive then was a sharp change from the days when he was involved in all the important early constitutional cases.

"In Ah Thian v Govt of Malaysia (1976), Tun Suffian ruled that any written law, even a state constitution or state-passed law, in conflict with the Federal Constitution may be invalidated,'' said Dr Das.

However, he admitted, that "while the early Bench was prepared to adopt Indian decisions in dealing with constitutional matters, it seemed reluctant to go as far as the Indian decisions in matters relating to life and personal liberty (Art 5) and the equality doctrine (Art 8)''.

They adopted a conservative approach in re Karam Singh (1976) in a case involving detention under the Internal Security Act, where Suffian ruled that a detention order would not be overruled unless the detainee could show mala fide in the authority's assessment of whether he was a security threat.

According to Dr Das in his book Governments and Crisis Powers (1996), this same conservative approach was seen in re Andrew Thamboosamy (1976) in a case involving immigration detention, when Suffian held that the courts should be slow to embarrass the Executive into any course of action when the challenge involved policy considerations.

"Suffian took an approach which today would be considered quite out-of-date with regard to some recent decisions of the Court of Appeal in judicial review cases,'' said Dr Das, adding that Suffian was an "outstanding judge''.

"While Suffian maintained simplicity, brevity and clarity, he accepted the literal interpretation of the Constitution instead of a holistic one,'' said Dr Shad Faruqi, professor of Law at Universiti Teknologi Mara.

"Not many saw that they cannot be pedantic. You must breathe life into the Constitution, extract its juices. In the earlier years, the judiciary's interpretation was more in favour of the Executive than human rights. Many judges were in favour of stability and security instead of liberty,'' he added.

Otherwise, Dr Shad said that Suffian was a trail-blazer who "did not only discuss the law but put it in the context of politics and economics''.

"While Tun Suffian had an intelligent appreciation of the appropriate role of the Executive and the legislature, he could in no sense be described as a judicial activist or one who tried to push the judiciary beyond its constitutional role,'' said Harding.

"He maintained the rule of law in his decisions. He could be more easily criticised for passivism than activism.

"After he retired, however, he was progressive and liberal, and an advocate of constitutionalism and human rights.

"But his greatness lay not so much in his decisions - which strongly maintained justice and the rule of law - as in his personality. He was ever warm, open-minded, deliciously humorous, and supportive; never malicious, small-minded or subservient,'' Harding stressed.

Former Universiti Malaya law dean Datuk Dr Sothi Rachagan said that Suffian's decisions on judicial review should be assessed in the context of that era.

"He was radical enough in his era in maintaining judicial independence in an independent state,'' he added.

A retired judge who did not want to be named said that the early Bench believed that "the government needed help since we were fighting subversive elements who would not extend the same courtesy to us''.

"Those were the days when the judiciary was confident that the Executive would respect the rule of law and the fundamental freedoms,'' he added.

"Tun Suffian had a genuine veneration of the separation of powers and felt that as long as the government did not abuse its position, he had to give it emphatic consideration,'' said Dr Shad.

And things did change for Tun Suffian, who had admitted in the 1970s, "I am not a reformer by vocation. I am a gradualist and traditionalist.''

But Suffian had also at another time said: "I learn as I go along. I am not a fanatic so I sometimes change my views.''

Apart from his vocal statements, in 1990 he was chairman of an Election Watch to oversee that general election then was free and fair.

At that time, he had responded to criticism saying: "We are not anti-government. We are anti-injustice. Neither are we pro-opposition. We are pro-justice.''

"And Tun Suffian did give a revolutionary decision in the Special Court in the case between Singapore businesswoman Faridah Begum Abdullah and the Sultan of Pahang when he held that there are implied limits on the power of Parliament to amend the Constitution,'' Dr Shad pointed out.

While his contributions are many, state recognition has been almost remiss. Dr Sothi said that when Suffian opened the Law Faculty's new auditorium which had been named after him, Suffian had said in his speech that no one had ever named anything after him.

"But he was the logical choice for us. It was satisfying and delightful that we were making up for a deficit,'' said Dr Sothi.

And this is what Suffian himself would liked to be remembered for: "I hope that I shall be remembered as a man who was fair and just, both within and without the courtroom and as a man who has given back to the community something in return for the great deal he has received from them.''

Pix: Tun Suffian ... a man of unimpeachable standards.

Notes: STF - : This week's Millennium Markers honours an exemplary man who scored a number of firsts, including becoming the first Malayan solicitor-general and being the first judge to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award (1975); one who was widely-respected not only by distinguished peers and subordinates within the judiciary but also by people away from the legal profession.

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