Comment | By Wong Chun Wai

Kicking up a fuss over a dance

I am finding it hard to comprehend the brouhaha over the episode where Attorney General Tommy Thomas, Chief Justice Tan Sri Richard Malanjum and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong, who is in charge of law, danced at a recent law fraternity dinner.

What’s the fuss here? So there were several officers from the legal fraternity and their fellow lawyers doing the fun and infectious twist at their own private party.

As one lawyer posted cheekily over social media – if there is any complaint, it should be their bad dance moves.

If I may add, there doesn’t seem to be any political or legal twists to their dancing. They looked like they were having a good time. Period.

The controversy erupted simply because of the political divide and conflicting values.

We have the pro-Umno and Islamist lawyers waving the conservative religious flags, admonishing such display of emotion – in this case, dancing – which in their narrow minds is something that must be forbidden. But let’s not forget where we are. This is not Afghanistan or Iran.

Last week, a video clip of the three dancing at the gala dinner, hosted by the Sabah Law Society in conjunction with the Opening of Legal Year 2019 in Kota Kinabalu went viral.

The clip also showed activist lawyers Siti Kasim and Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan dancing to the classic Chubby Checker 1960s hit Let’s Twist Again.

Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri said it was not wrong to dance but having all of them dance on the same stage could bring about a negative perception.

He noted that the Judiciary was supposed to be “exclusive” and its members should not be seen associating or having an external relationship with others.

Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki described the incident as “an embarrassment to the judicial and legal institutions of this country”.

He said those who are part of the country’s judicial and legal institutions, particularly judges, should be sensitive in their social interactions.

Another prominent lawyer, my non-Malay friend, expressed his displeasure to me, saying the British Bar would certainly not have approved of such dancing, saying they would probably endorsed only “ballroom dancing”.

With all due respect, I wonder how many of the Bar members could take part in ballroom dancing.

And seriously, why should our poor lawyers put up with pretentious, elitist, colonial inherited stiff-upper-lip aloofness or neo-Taliban influences at Malaysian Bar dinners, where any form of music and dancing are banned?

Critics who cried foul over the dance episode claimed that all the fraternising has tarnished the image of the Judiciary, with some politicians describing it as unethical, calling for the resignation of the judges to maintain the good name of the Judiciary.

Of course, many of these holier-than-thou, hypocritical lawyers and politicians did not ask their party leaders about ethics when they were looting off millions of ringgit from the people.

One or two argued that “this could be seen as having an influence on the judgments they make in court”.

If there is one thing I agree with Ismail is his remark that “judges are not angels, they are humans who can sometimes be influenced by friendships and other relationships”.

And that comes to the point: Some of the actions of top court officials in the past have raised suspicion especially in their political biasness and at times, even religious beliefs, which have raised questions over their decisions.

They were so powerful at one time that the public is expected to just accept their decisions, and many of us are afraid to openly criticise the judgments for fear of committing contempt of court.

There has even been complaints of corruption, or gratification, involving court officials such as judges, judicial officers and deputy public prosecutors, made to the MACC. In 2009, there were 39 complaints but the numbers dwindled subsequently.

There have been ministers of law and AGs, who were accused of taking political orders (rightly or wrongly) at the expense of the country’s interests – and none of us remember any episode with them dancing!

Perhaps they danced away to the tune of their political bosses, in private, which has resulted in greater political twists.

Looking at the Judges’ Code of Ethics 2009, Section 8 (1), a judge shall ensure that his extra-judicial activities do not cast reasonable doubt on his capacity to act impartially as a judge; or interfere with the proper performance of his judicial duties.

(2) A judge shall avoid close association with individual members of the legal profession, particularly those who practise in the judge’s court, where such association might give rise to a reasonable suspicion or appearance of favouritism.

(3) A judge shall refrain from any conduct as a member of any group, association or any organisation or participate in any public discussion, which, in the mind of a reasonable person, may undermine confidence in the judge’s impartiality with respect to any issue pending before the court.

Without doubt, our judges, especially the Chief Justice, need to conduct themselves with proper decorum, but none of the above protocols fit into what transpired at last week’s Bar dinner in Sabah.

We should be more worried if our judges regularly spend time with lawyers or top businessmen at golf courses or in the privacy of cigar smoke-filled rooms.

In 2010, the Detroit Legal News reported that judges took part in a sold-out “Dancing With The Judges” fundraiser, organised by the Macomb County Bar Foundation, the charitable affiliate of the Macomb County Bar Association, and there are many of such dancing events.

Legendary US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has even invited TV host Stephen Colbert for a workout at the gym for a show.

Let’s not get too excited with our judicial officials dancing to the tune of Chubby Checker’s evergreen hit song. We should only be worried if they get tempted to dance to the tunes and caprices of ruling politicians.