Language, The Law and the Elephant in the Room

What has happened to the language of the Malaysian courts?

I remember this very distinctly:

I arrived early at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court but since my client, the accused or more commonly referred to as the OKT (Orang Kena Tuduh), had yet to arrive – the police said he was on the way from the Sungai Buloh Prison –I just sat at the back row of the bar table, waiting. The OKT’s family members were already sitting at the public gallery.

The bell rang, the learned judge came out from her chambers, and we all stood up and bowed to the bench respectfully. The court interpreter went on to call the first case on the list, the Deputy Public Prosecutor stood up and introduced herself to the honourable court, followed by the defense counsel – all the usual court etiquettes – the charge sheet was read out aloud before the OKT was enquired as to his plea, he pleaded guilty, and the fakta kes and barang kes were tendered. The learned judge then asked whether there was any rayuan before she were to proceed with the sentencing, and that was when the learned defense counsel, a young chap, stood up very elegantly, exhibiting his perfectly tailored suit to the world at large, and I remember there was some sort of an aura emanating out of his composure, the grand stature of no less than a learned member of the bar, an advocate and solicitor of the high court of Malaya. Well, that was until he started to address the court:

“Dengan izin, Yang Arif… err… Puan Hakim,” he stumbled, “saya pohon untuk membuat submission, err, hujahan mitigation… maksud saya hujahan mitigasi bagi pihak OKT….”

And so he went on with all the well settled but necessary principles of mitigating factors why the OKT, despite being guilty as charged, ought to be showered with mercy and humanity and given the lightest possible sentence

And here comes the killer, his closing remark:

“Oleh yang demikian, Puan Hakim,” he concluded, “saya mohon agar mahkamah memberikan hukuman yang sewajarnya kepada OKT.”

Yup, you read that right. The learned defense counsel, prayed for hukuman sewajarnya for his client.

The judge frowned. It was apparent that the deputy public prosecutor tried hard not to laugh, but she cracked a smile anyway. The court interpreter was no less amused. The police officer by the side tried as hard to remain sober though he wasn’t as successful. And so were those in the public gallery – was there a giggle somewhere in between?

The defense counsel, on the other hand, was clueless, his face as straight as a die. Did I say anything wrong? was perhaps what he was thinking nervously.

“Kamu nak mahkamah jatuh hukuman sewajarnya kepada OKT?” asked the judge.

“Ya, Puan Hakim. Pohon OKT dihukum sewajarnya.”

“Kamu ni peguambela atau pendakwaan?” pressed the judge. “Kamu tahu tak apa dia hukuman sewajarnya yang kamu minta untuk anak guam kamu ni?”

And it became really embarrassing when the judge had to actually explain the meaning of the word to the learned defense counsel, and bear in mind that this was in the complete presence of his client, not to mention everyone else in the courtroom including the OKT’s family members who had paid for the lawyer’s fee. It was a simple Malay word, not even close to being bombastic. When he asked for ‘hukuman sewajarnya’, any reasonable person who speaks the language would understand that he was asking not for a minimum sentence, but rather for the deserved sentence for the heinous crime that was committed. In other words, he was actually doing the prosecutor’s job rather than mitigating his client’s case.

Sadly, though, this kind of anecdote does not stand in isolation in our courts. It happens all the time, almost every day. Lawyers come to court armed with the knowledge of the law, yet many a time they are simply ill-equipped with the language of the courts. “Law is a profession of words,” wrote Professor Shad Saleem Faruqi in his column in The Star, “[and] language is the essential tool of every legal enterprise.” How then, pray tell, could a lawyer argue and advocate his client’s cause without having the ability to converse effectively in the language of the courts?

How does a lawyer argue and advocate for their client without using the language of the courts? | Image: Lady Barrister by Tim Bulmer | Source:



The language of the courts, my dear readers, is the national language as stated insection 8 of the National Language Act  – the Malay language, as enshrined in article 152 of the Federal Constitution. Thus the language of the courts is Bahasa, not English. And the authoritative texts of the law are the Malay texts and are not in English, in accordance with section 6 of the National Language Act. All these have been clearly and repeatedly reiterated in many judicial precedents, one of which being the infamous Court of Appeal’s decision in the case of Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim v Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad [2010] 1 CLJ 444. In that case, the judge of the court, Abdul Malik Ishak JCA, held that “all proceedings…in the Federal Court, Court of Appeal, the High Court or any subordinate court shall be in the National Language.”

Before you jump into arguing that that was a political case with political bearing and was not at all impartial, and as such was a bad precedent, please take the following into consideration: prior to that case, our courts had already consistently stressed the importance of the national language to be used in courts. In 1997, for instance, in the case of Zainun Dahan v Rakyat Merchant Bankers Bhd & 1 lagi [1997] 4 CLJ SUPP 279, Nik Hashim JC held as follows:-

“Penggunaan bahasa Melayu di Mahkamah tidak boleh dipermudahkan dan diambil ringan. Perlembagaan Persekutuan (‘Perlembagaan’) menetapkan bahasa kebangsaan negara ialah Bahasa Melayu (Perkara 152). Dengan peruntukan undang-undang di atas, maka keraguan atas penggunaan Bahasa Melayu dalam prosiding Mahkamah tidak boleh dipersoalkan lagi. Jadi, penggunaannya hendaklah dilaksanakan dengan ketatnya oleh semua pihak.” (emphasis mine)

Despite the supreme status of the national language as enshrined under the constitution, the provision of which was thereafter articulated in the National Language Act and further provided under our Rules of Court, the fact simply remains that many lawyers, if not most of them – and let’s not forget judges as well – simply refuse to comply with this basic and fundamental constitutional provision. At the very least, they may speak of the provision, but don’t actually put it into practice. Even if they wish in good faith to comply, they are ill equipped to do so.

And the problem is this: many lawyers, senior practitioners and old timers included, have failed to acknowledge this very fact. They keep complaining about the poor grasp of English among young graduates and junior practitioners, yet they never even care about the fact that the English language is never a necessity, legally speaking. Fluency in Bahasa, on the other hand, is a must, and if you aren’t fluent, you simply shouldn’t be practicing law at all, not in this country.  For how else could you expect to conduct your practice effectively unless you have the ability to communicate in the language of the courts?


Ignoring the elephant in the room does no one any good. | Source:

Due to the refusal to acknowledge this fact, we have been witnessing outright infringements of the provisions of article 152 of the Federal Constitution as well as section 8 of the National Language Act and order 92 of the Rules of Court 2012, continuously and repeatedly, by the very persons who should be the guardians of the law and constitution — the honourable judges and the pompous lawyers themselves.

We see, for instance, Yang Arif Abdul Malik who on the one hand held the importance of using the National Language as the language of the courts, yet on the other hand wrote that very judgment itself in English! Yes, talk about walking the talk!

And don’t even get me started with the Bar Council who pride themselves for being the protector and saviour of the various constitutional provisions, always on their toes to bark against any infringements – especially against the government – yet in their various circulars refer to the national language as Bahasa Malaysia, instead of the proper constitutional term, Bahasa Melayu. You might think this petty – it’s only about terminology, you might say – but please bear in mind that this is coming from the very entity which claims to uphold the constitution impartially, without fear or favour yet if you flip through the constitution from the first page to the very last, there isn’t any such reference to Bahasa Malaysia! Bahasa Malaysia is a political term coined by politicians to suit their political agendas. It has never been constitutional, for the national language has been and will always be Bahasa Melayu as prescribed by article 152. So there you go, talk about hypocrisy!

And we have senior lawyers who simply refuse to oblige dutifully to this law, and repeatedly used the reason that “the justice of the case” calls for the use of English in courts, when in reality, they are merely hiding their own deficiency in the national language. Talk about respecting the rule of law

This brings me to the following anecdote, which shall also be my concluding remark:

It was, as it so happened, in the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court as well, but this time it was a civil matter instead. It was regarding a claim that had something to do with purported medical negligence. The counsel for the plaintiff was a senior and reputable member of the bar, with15 over years of standing. I shall not name him, but believe me you, his stature and reputation is beyond question. He started off with questioning the witness in Bahasa as required under the law. Yet, since he kept on stumbling every few words, he then asked to be allowed to proceed in English.

“For the interest of justice,” he told the judge with a straight face.

That ridiculous ground was objected to by the defendant’s counsel: What interest of justice are we talking about here?

The learned judge agreed with the defendant’s counsel and ruled that since the witness took his oath in Malay, it shows that he preferred to testify in Malay rather than English. It follows therefore that it would only be proper for the questioning to be conducted in the national language as well. So the counsel for the plaintiff had no choice but to continue as such. This turned out to be a huge handicap for him. There came a point where he was putting various suggestions to the witness, and the witness was required to answer as to whether he agreed or disagreed with those suggestions, and something along these lines transpired:

“Adakah kamu setuju bahawa ‘standard of care’ di hospital kerajaan dengan ‘standard of care’ di hospital swasta adalah sama?” asked the plaintiff’s counsel.

“Ya, saya setuju,” answered the witness.

“Adakah kamu setuju kalau saya katakan ‘standard of care’ itu di samping, hospital kerajaan juga kena samakan dengan ‘workload of patience’ perbandingan hospital swasta?” asked the plaintiff’s counsel – whatever he meant with that horrendously constructed sentence.

“Tidak setuju.”

“Hah, tak setuju?” The dissatisfaction was apparent. The Plaintiff’s counsel wanted a yes, but instead was given otherwise. So he repeated the question, only this time, against the earlier ruling of the court, that question was asked in English: “Do you agree if I say that whilst the standard of care required in the government hospitals remains the same, their workloads on the other hand, in terms of the number of patients involved, far exceeds that of the private hospitals?”

“Ya, saya setuju.”

“Oh, so now, when I ask in English, you agree?”

“Saya tidak berapa faham bila ditanyakan dalam Bahasa Melayu tadi sebab soalan peguam berbelit dan tidak memberikan sebarang makna yang munasabah,” came the witness’ reply.


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Posts by Aidil Khalid

An introvert who reads Murakami and adores Pramoedya's literary touch. Tweets randomly at @aidil_khalid

Posted on 2 July 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to Language, The Law and the Elephant in the Room

  1. 1Kenui

    Not so fast, my friend. You are forgetting Sabah and Sarawak. Language of the courts there remains English. Don't be so quick to generalise about "this country", unless by "country" you mean West Malaysia only.

    • Aidil Khalid

      Yes, you are certainly right at that. Pardon my overlooking that fact. The word "country" in paragraph 20 of the writing should have been "West Malaysia" instead.