Harun M. Hashim

Who was Harun M. Hashim?

The life of Tan Sri Harun Mahmud Hashim, 74, is like a tapestry embroidered with events lived in historic times, the life of a man with a chequered career.

Patient, incorruptible, dignified and respectful to those who appeared before him, he was held in high regard by fellow judges, lawyers and the public.

Described as a fearless champion of justice and a brave prosecutor who never hesitated to withdraw charges if there was insufficient evidence, this man has won accolades for his ingrained sense of dignity and fair play.

Hearing a criminal case, he once said: "The duty of a judge is to administer justice ...justice for the accused as well as justice for the victim. This is very important. Parliament makes the law and the job of judges is to interpret the law. Sometimes this may result in an injustice, and you have to do something when injustice is staring you in the face." In another case, on sentencing, he said: "The most difficult part of a magistrate's or judge's job is to impose an appropriate sentence in each case. That is why it is important that a judge be given wide discretion on this matter." Harun earned himself a reputation as a controversial judge for being outspoken in reviewing the Federal Constitution and some of his opinions, such as introducing an elected Dewan Negara or repealing the country's Emergency laws, have not gone down well with some.

He declared Umno unlawful on Feb 4, 1988. He dismissed the suit against Umno brought by 11 members and in his decision declared that the party was an unlawful society when its 38th general assembly and election took place on April 24, 1987. He said: "Very sadly, I have to make a finding in law that, at the material time, Umno was an unlawful society."

Harun has heard numerous cases, both criminal and civil, but one which stands out, which goes only to emphasise his meticulous nature, is that of a Colombo Plan expert who was charged with murdering his wife. This man bought a parang from the then Selangor Emporium in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, chopped her up, put her in a trunk and buried her in his garden.

This case, which was referred to as the "body-in-the-trunk case", was well into trial before a jury when a police witness testified that the accused told him he had murdered his wife.

Harun reprimanded the officer for giving such prejudicial evidence before a jury, and irrespective of the time and effort which had gone into the trial, he immediately ordered a re-trial before a different jury, ruling that if the trial continued it would not be fair to the accused.

Harun, a handsome figure of a man with wavy steel-grey hair, admitted to being outspoken even to his superiors but they respected him for his reliability. He said: "When you are right, or think you're right, you have to speak up and be honest with yourself." You could see that he enjoyed his cases. But at times his remarks were laced with sarcasm and there was a bluntness in his remarks which made many a lawyer cringe.

But if Harun displayed this characteristic, he was not unjustified. He read his files thoroughly before going on the Bench and expected those appearing before him to do the same. He often told lawyers appearing before him to make submissions only on selected points and issues which needed to be clarified, but this often threw counsel, who came prepared to submit from A to Z, out of gear and left them flustered. But if a lawyer could make the submissions that Harun wanted, he would have earned the judge's respect and admiration.

Off the Bench, Harun was a simple man: witty, very friendly and approachable, full of little stories, many of them amusing. One such story was about greetings people extend to one another. Having spent a few years in India, he said when two Indians met they asked each other whether they had eaten. This was because there was so much poverty and many wonder where the next meal was going to come from. Therefore, they were preoccupied with food. When two Malays met, they asked: "Apa khabar?" This was because in olden days, people in rural areas did not have newspapers and information was passed by word of mouth. They were keen to know what was happening around them. When the British met, they usually spoke about the weather which was miserable on most days. And Arabs greeted one another with: "Peace be with you." Therefore, he said, cultural patterns were determined by circumstances.

Harun used to recall with pride the day he was elevated as a High Court judge on March 27, 1971. He took his oath of office before the then Chief Justice H.T. Ong. A short while later, he sat on the Bench of the High Court dressed in the robes and wig which he inherited from his father. He said when London tailors asked his father for his measurements when he became a judge, his father gave Harun's measurements. And his father told him: "Son, you will be wearing these one day." Harun has not only related this story to his friends but also mentioned it in his column The Benchmark, which had appeared weekly in the New Straits Times. He went on to say that in those days the judge had to pay out of his own pocket for the wig and robes which amounted to a considerable sum.

His father M.M. Hashim, was trained as a lawyer and notched many years in the Kelantan Legal Service before ending up on the Bench where his intolerance for any sort of noise during proceedings earned him the nickname "Moody Hashim". Harun was appointed a High Court judge in 1971 and president of the Industrial Court in 1980.

He returned to the High Court in 1985 and was appointed a Supreme Court judge the following year, an office he held until his retirement in 1994.

He was instrumental in bringing about changes in the judicial system. The setting up of the Industrial Court, the Small Claims Court and the various sections within the High Court to deal with different matters were his brainchild.

Harun, born in Edinburgh in 1929, was sent to India in 1943 where he studied at the University of Travancore in Kerala, India, where he also learnt to speak Malayalam, Hindi and French.(He also spoke Tamil and Cantonese.) He joined the Kelantan Civil Service and served as Assistant District Officer and magistrate. He later read law at Lincoln's Inn, London, and was called to the English Bar in 1958. He returned in 1962 and joined the Judicial and Legal Service serving as a deputy public prosecutor and federal counsel in the AttorneyGeneral's Chambers. He rose to be president of the Sessions Court, and it was while serving as Kedah/Perlis State legal adviser that he was asked to head the newly set up Anti-Corruption Agency in 1967 which he did for four years until his appointment as a High Court judge in 1971. In recognition of his honesty and integrity as the country's first ACA head, he was awarded the inaugural National Integrity Medal by the Kuala Lumpur Society for Transparency and Integrity in November 2000. During Harun's term of office, he greatly improved public confidence in the ACA.

After retiring from government service in 1994, Harun continued to be active in the legal fraternity and was appointed a member of the Syariah/Law Committee of the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim) and a judge and permanent panel member of the Federal Territory Syariah Court of Appeal.

In 1996, he was appointed Dean of the Law Faculty, International Islamic University.

In November 2001, Harun launched a compilation of his articles which appeared in the New Straits Times in a book entitled The Benchmark.

He was also editor-in-chief of the Annotated Statutes of Malaysia, editor-in-chief of the Malaysian Court Practice and chairman of the editorial advisory board of the Current Law Journal. In 2000, he was appointed Suhakam vice-chairman.

In the international arena, Harun participated as an international observer of the parliamentary election of Sri Lanka and as a technical adviser to the Cambodian Development Council.

Published at: The Malaysian Bar, 1 October 2003

Written by: Lakshmi Natarajan