Laman Webantu   KM2A1: 4477 File Size: 8.6 Kb *

FEER: See You In Court [SEA]
By Murray Hiebert

16/5/2001 5:32 pm Wed


See You In Court

A series of civil suits suggests growing litigiousness Murray Hiebert's original article--which ran in the REVIEW on January 23, 1997--is reprinted here to provide the context for the trial court's opinion, which is summarized in the accompanying box.

By Murray Hiebert in Kuala Lumpur

Issue cover-dated September 23, 1999

When it comes to litigation, Malaysia has a long way to go to catch up with, say, the United States. But a spate of recent suits suggests that it's heading that way.

The most recent case is playing out in a small court room in the southwestern suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, where the mother of a 17-year-old high-school student is suing the International School of Kuala Lumpur, claiming he was unfairly dropped from the school's debate team. Damages sought: a record 6 million ringgit ($2.4 million).

The case has sparked intense interest among legal circles, educators and foreign investors in the Malaysian capital. For starters, the thin, bespectacled student, Govind Sri Ram, is the son of a prominent Court of Appeals judge, Gopal Sri Ram. And many are surprised at the speed with which the case raced through Malaysia's legal labyrinth. The trial began on January 6, less than seven months after a writ was filed with the High Court. "Normally, in a civil case, you're lucky to get a hearing within five years,'' a veteran lawyer notes.

The main point of interest for lawyers is that the case is breaking new legal ground. "It's the first time in Malaysian history that someone is suing on the basis of unfair discrimination,'' notes one. "Malaysia has no laws on discrimination.''

Educators are also following the case closely. A hefty award for the plaintiff would be a major financial burden on the school--and could hinder Malaysia's efforts to attract foreigners. The institution, after all, was established 30 years ago to educate the children of foreign businessmen and diplomats. (Young Govind is among the 7% of the school's 1,650 students who are Malaysian citizens, most admitted because their parents have spent years working overseas.)

"This is the first knowledge I have of any international school being sued for anything,'' says the administrator of another international school in Kuala Lumpur. "Usually parents discuss problems with a teacher, and if that fails they go to the headmaster and come to some decision.''

Govind's mother claims in her writ that the school "unlawfully discriminated'' against her son by excluding him from a debate team that took part in a forensics tournament in Taipei last year. The mother is seeking damages from teacher Julie Dean, who served as coach of the school's debate team, and Gail Vendeland, the school board's chairwoman.

The writ says Dean "intentionally relied on insufficient evidence'' to accuse Govind of "tampering'' with material he had obtained from the Internet while preparing arguments for the tournament. The teacher allegedly acted against Govind at the instigation of other students who had "vested interests'' in preventing him from participating, Govind's lawyers wrote.

In a separate 12-page letter to the court, Govind's father says team-mates discriminated against his son because they "never forgave Govind'' for the victory that qualified him to compete in Taipei.

The school's defence statement denies that Govind was actually excluded from the tournament. It says the school could not send him to Taipei because the competition called for two-man teams and Govind "at the material time had no partner.'' The defence contends that Govind's partner had refused to compete alongside him because of questions about the source of some of Govind's preparation material.

The school also denies that Govind was dropped "on the basis that the Plaintiff had falsified evidence.'' The lawyers wrote: "Another member of the school team had queried a quotation by the Plaintiff from the Economist magazine, as they or any opposing team in a tournament were entitled to do under the rules governing the debate.''

A suit like Govind's may sound rather un-Malaysian, but it's not the first. Consider the libel case brought in 1994 against journalist M.G.G. Pillai by Berjaya Group Chairman Vincent Tan. A judge heard the case within seven months, then ruled that four articles which appeared in the monthly magazine Malaysian Industry in 1993 and 1994 were defamatory and calculated to disparage Tan's personal and business reputation. The upshot: Tan was granted 2 million ringgit in damages, the largest award in Malaysian legal history. Pillai lost his appeal, so he's headed for the Federal Court, which will hear his case on January 27.

In another case, two Malaysian companies, MBf Capital and MBf Northern Securities, filed a 60-million-ringgit defamation suit on January 10 against lawyer Param Cumaraswamy over statements attributed to him by International Commercial Litigation in November 1995. The suit against Param was the 13th filed over the same article. Among the other suits it spawned, Berjaya's Tan sought 100 million ringgit in damages from legal firm Skrine & Co. and its partner Tommy Thomas, and 70 million ringgit in damages from Asian Wall Street Journal reporter Raphael Pura. (The Journal is owned by Dow Jones & Co., owner of the REVIEW.)

Meanwhile, Govind Sri Ram continues studying at the International School of Kuala Lumpur, despite his suit. He's also back on its debate team, but teacher Dean is not his adviser. Govind initiated an injunction against Dean in September, prompting the school to agree that she would not serve as coach as long he is on the team.

The Trial Judge's View

Issue cover-dated September 23, 1999

Low Hop Bing, the trial judge who found the accompanying article in contempt for scandalizing the court, wrote a lengthy 1997 opinion affirmed on Saturday. In explaining the jail sentence for the author, he made the following points. Explanatory material is inserted between brackets:

It was a "baseless unwarranted and unsubstantiated untruth'' to suggest that the court had fast-tracked the case because it was brought by the family of a prominent appeals judge. Mr. Hiebert had not named the "veteran lawyer'' quoted in the third paragraph [the source, a well-known Malaysian trial lawyer, had insisted upon anonymity]. The case had been brought to trial on a date consented to by all parties.

It was a "baseless lie'' to suggest the suit was based on "unfair discrimination'' and that Malaysia had "no laws on discrimination,'' since its constitution had a guarantee of equal treatment under law.

Mr. Hiebert had perpetrated "an absolutely serious and blatant lie against the plaintiff and his parents'' by referring to "a separate 12 page letter to the Court'' by Govind's father. The father, an appeals judge, had not written to the court: He had written a 12-page letter to the school, which had been exhibited in court. [The Far Eastern Economic Review had apologized for this error; an editor in Hong Kong had deleted the word "exhibited'' from the original copy, giving the sentence an unintended and incorrect meaning.]

The judge inferred from other passages--reporting the concerns of educators, suggesting that parents usually discuss problems with teachers rather than suing them and describing other Malaysian cases--that the reporter had written the article "to solely misinform the general public and to intimidate and pressurize the Court'' and to "give the impression that the Plaintiff is an ungrateful boy.''

In imposing a prison sentence, the judge commented, "In my view for far too long there appears to be unabated contemptuous attacks by and through the media on our judiciary . . . It is high time that our judiciary shows its abhorrence to such contemptuous conduct as is illustrated by the facts of this case.''

'[The article was written] to solely misinform the general public and to intimidate and pressurize the Court'

--Trial judge, Low Hop Bing