I got to know Salleh Abas when I joined the Attorney-General’s Chambers in 1977 as a deputy public prosecutor (DPP). I was given a room in the same wing as the rest of the DPPs and senior federal counsels.
We were then housed in the Sultan Abdul Samad building, where the clock tower is, opposite the Selangor Club.
Tun Salleh 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.
Tun would do his own research and often he would take notice of the research I was doing. He was perhaps intrigued to notice the youngest and most junior DPP working till late in the library just outside his door.
Most often Tun was ably assisted by the chief librarian Sivaswami.
I got to know Tun better as I stayed in the library, often beyond midnight. Tun and Siva would be there late especially on big cases. Siva was kind and most helpful to me.
Tun was hardworking, very clever but conservative and strict. I was the only junior officer who could see Tun to consult. Tun would be all ears and heart to discuss the legal issues. I was free to see even the AG then, Hamzah Abu Samah.
Tun would not easily see anybody. Although he entertained to meet up with his legal officers, he was not approachable to outsiders, certainly not informally.
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.
Once I approached Tun for permission to do chambering so that I could be called to the Bar as well. I remember this was about the time of the appeal in relation to the Kerling temple homicide case.
He told me in a stern fashion not to do that as I might be subject to the control of two disciplinary bodies, the service as well as the Bar. He was a deep thinker and had unusual foresight.
I was relieved when he became the lord president as I thought the country’s system of justice was in good hands.
Tun was religious, yet moderate, very English in his legal upbringing and methodical in his work and thinking. He presided over the John Berthelsen, Raphael Pura and Wall Street Journal appeal in the Supreme Court. [Editor’s note: Berthelsen and Pura were correspondents for the Wall Street Journal who were expelled in 1986 by then-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who was also the home minister. The Supreme Court later ruled that Mahathir’s action was illegal.]
I represented these three although I was just a year in private practice. My preparation for the appeal was purposely hampered by the AGC and the police raiding my law office a day before the appeal on frivolous reason purportedly for OSA offences, total poppycock!
The truth was the AGC was not happy with my representing WSJ and the journalists and the fact that I was doing well and kicking asses.
The AG sent a DPP with a team of police officers from D9 to raid my office. They found nothing but arrested me as I resisted search and arrest as their search warrant was severely defective and on the face of it, mala fide.
I appeared the next day in the Supreme Court to argue this landmark appeal. Although fully prepared in my head, my papers were not arranged perfectly due to the harassment and the illegal raid of the police the day before.
Tun was chairing the quorum as the lord president, flanked by Mohammad Azmi and Eusoffe Abdoolcader. The well-known QC Geoffrey Robertson was helping me out. He was in the audience.
Tun and Eusoffe heard me for a brief while but turned their attention to how the AGC was going to answer. Surprisingly, the AG himself did not turn up but sent counsels Zaleha Zahari and Selvintheran Nathan do his battle.
The judges headed by Tun and Eusoffe went for the jugular and finally decided that the government was wrong to cancel the work permit of the journalists without due process.
Tun was so livid to learn of the harassment I went through the day before at the hands of the AGC and the police. He suggested in open court that I should consider suing the AGC and the government, which I subsequently did and obtained compensation out of court.
The Berthelsen decision was the beginning of Mahathir’s nightmare and the start of Tun’s trouble that led to his impeachment.
In truth, Tun committed no wrong whatsoever. His moral strength and credibility which could not be compromised was Mahathir’s dilemma.
Tun Salleh was a small size man, but he was a giant in law and justice.
Nobody that matters can disagree that he was not only incorruptible in fact, but was also perceived as such and much more.
Rest peacefully, Tun. Al-Fathihah.
Muhammad Shafee Abdullah is a lawyer with more than four decades’ experience.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.