Article by Lim Guan Eng in Penang on Monday, 13th October 2008: 

Let justice be done, though the heavens fall   

Ever since Penang was listed as a World Heritage Site for Living Cultures UNESCO on 7 July 2008, much has been made of our religious harmony and cultural diversity enshrined in our ancient architecture and fine buildings. Many do not know that our legal system and courts in Penang has heritage value too.

Penang was where the modern Malaysian court system, and therefore the Malaysian judiciary and Bar has its origins. In 1801, John Dickens was appointed as the first magistrate in Penang and in 1807, a Royal Charter by was granted to Penang providing for the setting up of the first Supreme Court. Many eminent judges and lawyers have come from, served in or practiced in Penang such as the first female lawyer P.G. Lim, DAP National Chair Karpal Singh and the present Chief Justice Tun Datuk Seri Utama Abdul Hamid is from Penang. The Penang High Court, one of the earliest purpose built courts built around 1903, has recently been restored to its former glory.

In fact Penang was the pioneer in one of the precepts of Rukunegara – upholding the rule of law. In front of the Penang High Court, is the Logan Memorial built more than a century ago in honour of a lawyer that gave free service to the people, The memorial has beautiful carvings of four statues representing the four cardinal virtues; Temperance, Wisdom, Fortitude and Justice. It stood as a silent moral guide to the judges and lawyers who passed by the High Court of the importance in upholding the rule of law.

The rule of law serves as one of the fundamental guarantees or rights given to a citizen. It is an assurance that all people, regardless of wealth, stature, race, religion or allegiance are subject to the laws of the country and will be treated equally and fairly by it. It is a guarantee of substantive and procedural justice. This aspect of the rule of law is in fact entrenched in the Malaysian constitution. Article 8(1) of the Constitution provides that “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”.

However, words, even when found in so important a document as the Constitution, are by themselves, inadequate protection. The rule of law can only flourish in society when the primary institutions that are responsible for making, implementing and upholding the law are equal to the task given to them. The Legislature, the Judiciary, the Executive, the police force, the Bar – each of these play vital separate and independent roles in ensuring that the rule of law is upheld.

The focus on institutions to uphold the law however sometimes tends to ignore the role that ordinary citizens should play in ensuring its preservation. We have been independent for over fifty years of independence, and yet many Malaysians have never read the Federal Constitution. To many, the law, the Judiciary, the Police – all these are to be feared and cannot be questioned. That should not be the case as our rights enshrined in the Constitution should not be the sole preserve of lawyers but all loyal responsible citizens.

The law exists to protect all persons and so each citizen should know what his or her rights are. Rule of law can only be protected with active public participation in the justice system and the ongoing debate on legal rights, strengthening public institutions such as a free press and judiciary as well as empowering the public through information and knowledge that is available, accessible and affordable.

In Malaysia, the integrity of many of these institutions has been questioned. This lack of faith is not helped by the departure of men of integrity such as ex-Law Minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who could no longer tolerate the government’s willingness to use the draconian Internal Security Act which allowed for detention without trial against innocent Malaysians instead of abolishing such inhumane laws. Zaid also could no longer accept the unwillingness of the present BN government to undertake the necessary judicial reforms to make the judiciary independent.

Would there be another public official or judge who would be willing to stake their public career exercising the four cardinal virtues by upholding justice, applying wisdom, practicing temperance and showing fortitude as Datuk Zaid has done? Would we ever hear again the immortal words of FIAT JUSTITIA, RUAT COELUM or "Let justice be done though the heavens fall"— that were powerfully invoked by Lord Mansfield in 1772 when he freed the slave in the Sommersett’s case.

Slavery was common in Great Britain and this abominable practice was prohibited by England’s Chief Justice Lord Mansfield who refused to be cowed by the threat of chaos should he rule for the slave. As Lord Mansfield famously intoned,
“The constitution does not allow reasons of state to influence our judgement. God forbid it should! We must not regard political consequences, however formidable they might be; if rebellion was the certain consequence, we are bound to say, Justitia fiat, ruat coelum—Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

Heavens did not fall as there was no chaos accompanying the abolition of slavery in England. Instead men’s liberty and dignity was protected and promoted when the rule of law was upheld and justice allowed to prevail. This is an important reminder that political considerations and even threats of violence must always take a back seat to the rule of law if we are to march successfully towards a civil and civilized society.

* Lim Guan Eng, Penang Chief Minister Penang & DAP Secretary-General