Nation mourns loss of a great legal mind

KUALA LUMPUR – Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah and Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah have expressed their condolences to the family of former Lord President Tun Dr Mohamed Salleh Abas, who passed away today.

Their Majesties said they were saddened by his passing and hoped that his family would be patient and resolute in facing this situation.

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“Their Majesties truly appreciate his service and deeds to society and the country and regard his death as a big loss to the nation,” according to a statement posted on Istana Negara’s Facebook account.

The King and Queen also prayed that his soul would be blessed by Allah SWT and be placed among the righteous.

Highly respected

The death of highly respected former Lord President Tun Dr Mohamed Salleh Abas has robbed Malaysia of a great legal mind.

The huge loss came at 3.20 am today when Mohamed Salleh, who was the chairman of as-Salihin Trustee Berhad, breathed his last as he succumbed to pneumonia at the Intensive Care Unit of the Sultanah Nur Zahirah Hospital in Kuala Terengganu. He was 91.

Days earlier, Mohamed Salleh was reported to have tested positive for Covid-19.

Born on Aug 25, 1929, in Besut, Terengganu, Mohamed Salleh, who graduated with a degree in law from the University of Wales, United Kingdom, joined the legal service in 1957, before returning to Britain to obtain a Master’s degree in international law and constitutions at the University of London.

Mohamed Salleh had a long and illustrious in career in the public service. He started out as a Sessions Court Judge in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, before being appointed as Deputy Public Prosecutor and Solicitor-General at the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

He was appointed as a Supreme Court (now Federal Court) judge at the age of 50 and became the Chief Judge of Malaya in 1982. He was appointed as Lord President (now known as Chief Justice) in 1984 and held the post until 1988.

The former judge was elected as Jertih assemblyman when he won the seat in the 1999 General Election (GE) on a PAS ticket but did not contest again in the 2004 GE due to health problems.

He leaves behind wife Toh Puan Junaidah Wan Jusoh, five children and 26 grandchildren. His first wife, Toh Puan Azimah Mohd Ali, died in 2016.

Mohamed Salleh was also one of the prominent figures who helped to draft the Rukun Negara (National Philosophy) in 1970.

The Rukun Negara, which was proclaimed on Aug 31, 1970, by the fourth Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the late Tuanku Ismail Nasiruddin Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Zainal Abidin, became the basis for harmony among Malaysians in the aftermath of the bloody racial riots of May 13, 1969.

Mohamed Salleh was once reported as saying that his wish was for the Rukun Negara to continue to be respected and practised so that Malaysia remains a stable country and he also wished that the younger generation will spread their wings to the international level so that people will have more respect for Malaysia.

Dark days of judiciary

A judicial crisis, described as “the darkest days of the Malaysian judiciary”, saw Mohamed Salleh’s removal from office in August 1988 after he wrote a letter to the King on behalf of fellow judges expressing disappointment with certain accusations made by then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“You will destroy democracy if you destroy the judiciary” was the strong message sent by Mohamed Salleh when commenting on the crisis.

Five judges of the then Supreme Court were also suspended in July that year but three of them were reinstated three months later.

The crisis was sparked by the tabling of a bill in the Dewan Rakyat to amend Articles 121 and 145 of the Federal Constitution seeking to divest the courts of the judicial power of the Federation.

Mohamed Salleh had also expressed his hope that the crisis would serve as a reminder to the present and future generations on the need to have a strong and independent judiciary.

In 2008, Mohamed Salleh received an ex-gratia payment from then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Zaid Ibrahim over his removal as Lord President in 1988.

The government had decided to give ex-gratia payments totalling RM10.5 million to those who were sacked during the judicial crisis as way of addressing some of their personal considerations and the hardship they had to go through.

The legal fraternity has paid tribute to former Lord President Tun Dr Mohamed Salleh Abas, who died today at the age of 91.

He died of pneumonia at the Sultanah Nur Zahirah Hospital (HSNZ), Kuala Terengganu at 3.20 am.

In sharing her thoughts, Chief Justice Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat described his demise as a big loss to the legal profession.

“Allahyarham (the late) Tun Mohamed Salleh contributed immensely to the Malaysian Judiciary during his time as Lord President. His demise is indeed a great loss to the judicial fraternity speciffically and the nation as a whole,” Tengku Maimun said in a media statement.

Wrote many landmark judgments

Meanwhile, former Chief Justice Tun Md Raus Sharif said the late Mohamed Salleh was a towering Malaysian and that his many accomplishments and contributions to the country were well documented, in particular when he was the Solicitor-General at the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

Md Raus said as a Supreme Court (now Federal Court) judge and later as the Lord President (now known as Chief Justice), Mohamed Salleh he had written a number of landmark judgments.

“His judgments which reflected his judicial independence accompanied by legal clarity and intellectual analysis constitute a major contribution to Malaysian jurisprudence and justice system. My condolences to the family of the late Tun, ” he said.

Sharing the same thoughts, former Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria said Mohamed Salleh was known for his dedication and sharp legal mind and also was highly respected by those who had served under him.

“As a judge and subsequently as the Lord President, he presided over a number of landmark cases and after his removal from the office of Lord President he continued to serve as a legal practitioner.

“His passing will be felt not only among the legal fraternity but by all those who knew him,” he said, adding that he was saddened by the news of the passing of Tun Mohamed Salleh this morning.

Arifin said he first met Tun Mohamed Salleh in 1974 after he returned from his studies abroad and Allahyarham encouraged him to join the legal and judicial service, which he did.

Tough boss

Recalling his days working with Mohamed Salleh, former Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi said Allahyarham was his boss and that he was an honest person and a very knowledgeable one.

“Back when I was at the Attorney-General Chambers (AGC), everyone was frightened of him. Although he was a strict man, I admired and respected him,” he said.

Former Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali said Mohamed Salleh was his mentor and his boss when he was then the Solicitor-General of Malaysia.

“Though he was a tough boss, he was a very good man and had a kind heart. I remember requesting him to preside over the ceremony of my call to the Malaysian Bar in 1982. He was then a Supreme Court judge but he obliged and came down to sit as High Court Judge in Kuala Terengganu.

“Later, when he was facing a Tribunal to remove him, I personally called him and advised him to attend the said Tribunal. He refused and took a defiant stand that the Tribunal was not properly constituted. Later on, as history unfolded, he was given due justice and his position was restored and he was compensated,” he said.

Mohamed Apandi also described Tun Mohamed Salleh as a man of principles, honest, of highest integrity and pious.

“It was a privilege for me to know him and serve under him. We have lost a true honest man. May Allah bless his Roh (soul) and place him amongst the solihin (pious),” he added.

Formidable advocate

Former Federal Court judge Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram said Mohamad Salleh’s passing leaves a huge vacuum in the legal profession.

Sri Ram said that when Mohamed Salleh was Solicitor-General, he ran the AGC in a professional manner as no politician dared to impose his will on any member of chambers.

“When he was on the bench he was very conservative when it came to personal liberty and freedom of speech. As far as I can recall, he always protected the Executive from any challenge by a citizen.

“His judgment in Government of Malaysia v Lim Kit Siang continues to pose a huge problem for citizens who want to challenge the legality of Executive action. He returned to practice and was a formidable advocate. Having appeared against him in both civil and criminal cases I can say with confidence that he was a brilliant lawyer. He will be sorely missed,” said the retired judge when contacted.

Prominent lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah described Mohamed Salleh as a hardworking man, very clever but conservative and strict.

“I was the only junior officer who could see (the late) Tun to consult. Tun would be all ears and heart to discuss legal issues. I can say with conviction that Tun was incorruptible, the most honest man I have ever dealt with in my entire life.

“He trained many to have moral courage and dignity. He was a small- sized man, but he was a giant in law and justice. I got to know Tun when I joined the AGC in 1977 as a deputy public prosecutor. I was given a room in the same wing as the rest of the DPPs. We were then housed in the Sultan Abdul Samad building( where the clock tower is, opposite the Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur).

“He was the Solicitor-General then. I would see him literally daily as his office was at the perimeter of the law library of the AGC. He would do his own research and he would be at the law library late especially on big cases,” he said.