KUALA LUMPUR (March 7): As Chief Justice Tan Sri Richard Malanjum is expected to retire next month on April 12, the Government's search for his successor to hold the top judicial post has begun.
Justice Malanjum, appointed as the top judicial officer in the country on July 11 last year, will reach the constitutional mandatory retirement age of 66 years and six months, and is nearing the end of his six months extension.
Under Article 125(1) of the Federal Constitution, a Federal Court judge shall hold office until he attains the age of 66 years or such later time, not being later than six months after he attains that age, as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong may approve.
It is understood that the Judicial Appointment's Commission chaired by Malanjum had recently met and proposed several names as his successor and possibly to fill other senior posts in the judiciary, to the Government and Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
However finding the right and long-term replacement for Justice Malanjum may hit a snag as the other top judicial officers are expected to retire soon.
After Malanjum, the Chief Judge of Malaya Tan Sri Zaharah Ibrahim, who is the number three in the judiciary, is expected to retire in May; she is already in her fourth month of extension.
That leaves the number two in the judiciary, the Court of Appeal president, Tan Sri Ahmad Ma'arop who will turn 66 this May, and should he be granted the six months' extension, will only retire this November.
Or the Government can opt to pick the present Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak, Datuk Seri David Wong Dak Wah, who is considered the most junior among the top three.
Wong who succeeded Malanjum, as the Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak will only turn 66 in August and if granted the six months' extension can still be in the judiciary until February 2020.
But the impending retirement of the top four within a year, may result in a huge vacuum that has to be filled by others in the judiciary.
It also does not augur well that three of the Federal Court judges, who normally would be chosen or elevated to the top four posts are also facing retirement soon this year.
They are Federal Court judges Tan Sri Ramly Ali, Datuk Seri Balia Yusof Wahi and Datuk Alizatul Khair Othman Khairuddin.
With this, the search by the Pakatan Harapan Government for the replacements, and the next batch of top judges could be on but it may be difficult to find the right candidates. Some lawyers perceive the task is made even more difficult following the setting up of a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to look into the problems in the judiciary.
The terms of reference on the RCI have yet to be defined or announced by the Attorney-General's Chambers.
The RCI has been agreed by the Government in light of the allegations made by present Court of Appeal judge, Datuk Hamid Sultan Abu Backer in his explosive affidavit claiming he has information in relation to numerous incidences of judicial interference in the Malaysian judiciary, including allegations of judicial interference in former Bukit Gelugor MP and DAP chairman, the late Karpal Singh’s sedition appeal decision at the Court of Appeal.
Hamid had last year during the International Law Conference organised by the Malaysian Bar also revealed how he was reprimanded by a senior judge for writing a dissenting judgment in the M Indira Gandhi case involving the conversion of her children to Islam by her former spouse.
The judiciary as the last bastion for the people to seek justice in any country, should be independent from the executive and the legislature influences, and what more from judges. This is not only important to uphold the rule of law but to attract and have the confidence of foreign investments to come here.
However, the Government may receive a boost as the World Justice Project recently placed Malaysia in the 51st position among 126 countries surveyed in terms of the Rule of Law index. This was up five notches from last year.