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A Contextual Approach to Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: Judicial Power and the Basic Structure Doctrine in Malaysia

  • Jaclyn L. NEO (a1)

Abstract

This article takes a contextual approach to analyzing judicial engagement with the doctrine of unconstitutional constitutional amendments. It argues that in assessing judicial reception of the basic structure doctrine, and the content of the constitutional identity that such a doctrine seeks to preserve, a normative universalist or even functionalist approach is not sufficient. Instead, such a doctrine should be justified and understood contextually. It is necessary to contextualize constitutional identity in order to give it a robust character, rather than assuming a set of characteristics most often associated with liberal democratic constitutionalism and without understanding the political, social, and economic conditions in which the constitution operates. This article thus uses the example of Malaysia and how the courts have engaged with the basic structure doctrine to show how a contextual approach could have greater explanatory effect, including on why certain issues are more strongly contested in some countries than in others.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore; Director, Centre for Asian Legal Studies. I would like to thank my two anonymous reviewers for this Journal for their reviews and for encouraging me to develop some parts of the article further. I would also like to thank Louis Lai and Philip Teh for their research assistance. This article was developed from a draft prepared for a conference organized by the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG) at Thammasat University on ‘The Basic Structure in Asian Constitutional Orders’. I would also like to thank an anonymous reviewer for the CPG for his/her helpful comments.

Footnotes

References

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1. Holmes, Stephen, ‘Constitutions and Constitutionalism’, in Rosenfeld, Michel & Sajó, András (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press 2012) 189.

2. For a discussion of this question see eg Schmitt, Carl, Constitutional Theory (Seitzer, Jeffrey tr, Duke University Press 2008); Schauer, Frederick, ‘Amending the Presuppositions of a Constitution’, in Levinson, Sanford (ed), Responding to Imperfection: The Theory and Practice of Constitutional Amendment (Princeton University Press 1995); Jacobsohn, Gary, Constitutional Identity (Harvard University Press 2010); Albert, Richard, ‘Constitutional Amendment and Dismemberment’ (2018) 43 Yale Journal of International Law 1; Roznai, Yaniv, Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: The Limits of Amendment Powers (Oxford University Press 2017). For a more recent, expanded development of the concept, see Landau, David, Dixon, Rosalind & Roznai, Yaniv, ‘From an Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendment to an Unconstitutional Constitution? Lessons from Honduras’ (2019) 8 Global Constitutionalism 40.

3. Grundgesetz [German Basic Law], art 79 § 3: ‘Amendments to this Basic Law affecting the division of the Federation into Länder, their participation on principle in the legislative process, or the principles laid down in Articles 1 [human dignity] and 20 [the rule of law, republicanism, democracy, social state, and federalism] shall be inadmissible.’ These clauses cannot be changed through constitutionally-prescribed means. For an examination of the implications of these clauses, see Preuss, Ulrich K, ‘The Implications of “Eternity Clauses”: The German Experience’ (2011) 44 Israel Law Review 429.

4. ibid 441.

5. Note however the influence of German constitutional doctrine on India's basic structure doctrine: Krishnaswamy, Sudhir, Democracy and Constitutionalism in India: A Study of the Basic Structure Doctrine (Oxford University Press 2009) xxvi–xxvii.

6. [1973] AIR (SC) 1461.

7. ibid para 619 (Sikri CJ) (emphasis added).

8. In South Asia, the basic structure doctrine's influence has been discussed in eg Siddique, Osama, ‘Across the Border: A New Avatar for India's Basic Structure Doctrine’ (2010) 615 Seminar: A Monthly Symposium on 60 Years of the Indian Constitution (1950-2010) 52; Hoque, Ridwanul, ‘Constitutionalism and the Judiciary in Bangladesh’, in Khilnani, Sunil, Raghavan, Vikram & Thiruvengadam, Arun K (eds), Comparative Constitutionalism in Asia (Oxford University Press 2013) 303. For an exposition of the basic structure doctrine in India, see Khosla, Madhav, ‘Constitutional Amendment’, in Choudhry, Sujit, Khosla, Madhav & Mehta, Pratap Bhanu (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (Oxford University Press 2016) 233. In Southeast Asia, besides Malaysia, the basic structure doctrine has also been considered by the courts in Singapore: see eg Jaclyn L Neo, ‘Towards a “Thin” Basic Structure Doctrine in Singapore’ (I-CONnect Column) (I-CONnect, 17 Jan 2018) <http://www.iconnectblog.com/2018/1/towards-a-thin-basic-structure-doctrine-in-singapore-i-connect-column/> accessed 29 Apr 2020; Keong, Chan Sek, ‘Equal Justice under the Constitution and Section 377A of the Penal Code: The Roads Not Taken’ (2019) 31 Singapore Academy of Law Journal 773.

9. ibid 949 (Ray J).

10. ibid.

11. Preuss (n 3) 430.

12. See generally Landau, David, ‘Abusive Constitutionalism’ (2013) 47 UC Davis Law Review 189.

13. Albert, Richard, ‘Constitutional Amendment and Dismemberment’ (2018) 43 Yale Journal of International Law 1, 12.

14. ibid 4.

15. ibid.

16. Ravi s/o Madasamy v Attorney-General [2017] SGHC 163, [2017] 5 SLR 489.

17. Yong Vui Kong v Public Prosecutor [2015] SGCA 11, [2015] 2 SLR 1129.

18. Tushnet, Mark, Weak Courts, Strong Rights: Judicial Review and Social Welfare Rights in Comparative Constitutional Law (Princeton University Press 2008) 5.

19. Chang, Wen-Chen et al. , Constitutionalism in Asia: Cases and Materials (Bloomsbury Publishing 2014) 68.

20. Spigno, Irene, ‘Methodologies of Comparative Constitutional Law: Contextual Approach’, in Grote, Rainer, Lachenmann, Frauke & Wolfrum, Rüdiger (eds), Max Planck Encyclopedia of Comparative Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press 2017) <https://oxcon.ouplaw.com/view/10.1093/law-mpeccol/law-mpeccol-e47?rskey=tBzFgO&result=117&prd=MPECCOL> accessed 29 Apr 2020.

21. Hirschl, Ran, ‘From Comparative Constitutional Law to Comparative Constitutional Studies’ (2013) 11 International Journal of Constitutional Law 1, 2.

22. ibid.

23. On the importance of context in comparative constitutional law, see generally Hirschl, Ran, ‘The Question of Case Selection in Comparative Constitutional Law’ (2005) 53 American Journal of Comparative Law 125.

24. See Stone, Adrienne, ‘Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: Between Contradiction and Necessity’ (2018) 12 ICL Journal 357.

25. Jacobsohn, Gary Jeffrey, Constitutional Identity (Harvard University Press 2010) 7.

26. ibid.

27. Scheppele, Kim Lane, ‘Constitutional Ethnography: An Introduction’ (2004) 38 Law & Society Review 389, 390.

28. For an exposition of constituent power, see generally Loughlin, Martin, ‘The Concept of Constituent Power’ (2014) 13 European Journal of Political Theory 218.

29. Federal Constitution of Malaysia, art 4(1).

30. ibid art 38(4), 159(5).

31. ibid art 38, Fifth Schedule.

32. ibid art 10(4), which authorizes Parliament to pass laws prohibiting the questioning of any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty, or prerogative established or protected by the provisions of Part III (on citizenship), art 152, art 153, or art 181.

33. ibid art 161E.

34. Loh Kooi Choon v Government of Malaysia [1977] 2 MLJ 187 (Federal Court).

35. Dicey, AV, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (Liberty Fund 1982) 39–40, 7881.

36. See eg Albert, Richard, ‘The Expressive Function of Constitutional Amendment Rules’ (2013) 59 McGill 225.

37. For an analysis of tiered constitutional amendment procedures, see Dixon, Rosalind & Landau, David, ‘Tiered Constitutional Design’ (2018) 86 The George Washington Law Review 438.

38. This contrasts with Tew's argument that the contestation was primarily about the scope of rights: Tew, Yvonne, ‘On the Uneven Journey to Constitutional Redemption: The Malaysian Judiciary and Constitutional Politics’ (2016) 25 Washington International Law Journal 673, 692694.

39. See generally Richard SK Foo, ‘Malaysia - Death of a Separate Constitutional Judicial Power’ [2010] Singapore Journal of Legal Studies 227; Yap, Po Jen, Courts and Democracies in Asia (Cambridge University Press 2017) ch 3.

40. Lee, HP, Constitutional Conflicts in Contemporary Malaysia (2nd edn, Oxford University Press 2017) 22.

41. This deference is best understood as respect, rather than submission, or as due deference. This distinction between deference as submission and deference as respect is drawn from Dyzenhaus’ work. See Dyzenhaus, David, ‘The Politics of Deference: Judicial Review and Democracy’, in Taggard, Michael (ed), The Province of Administrative Law (Hart Publishing 1997) 279, 286. See also Young, Alison L, ‘In Defence of Due Deference’ (2009) 72 The Modern Law Review 554, 559564.

42. See Karam Singh v Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri, Malaysia [1969] 2 MLJ 129 (Federal Court), where the Court held that the question of whether it is necessary for a person to be detained without trial for national security reasons is ‘a matter for the person or subjective satisfaction of the executive authority’.

43. Loh Kooi Choon (n 34).

44. [1980] 1 MLJ 70 (Federal Court).

45. George Seah, ‘Crisis in the Judiciary: The Hidden Story’ (Aliran Monthly, 1 May 2004) <https://aliran.com/archives/monthly/2004a/4m.html> accessed 29 Apr 2020.

46. Mohd Noor Bin Othman & Ors v Mohd Yusof Jaafar & Ors [1988] 2 MLJ 129 (High Court).

47. PP v Dato’ Yap Peng [1987] 1 CLJ 550 (Supreme Court).

48. Zairil Khir Johari, ‘The Story of Malaysia through its Constitution’ (New Mandala, 22 Aug 2017) <www.newmandala.org/story-malaysia-constitution/> accessed 29 Apr 2020.

49. Federal Constitution, art 121(1) (before 10 Jun 1988).

50. Abas, Tun Salleh & Das, K, May Day for Justice: The Lord President's Version (Magnus Books 1989); Harding, Andrew J, ‘The 1988 Constitutional Crisis in Malaysia’ (1990) 39 International & Comparative Law Quarterly 57; Sinnadurai, Visu, ‘The 1988 Judiciary Crisis and its Aftermath’, in Harding, Andrew & Lee, HP (eds), Constitutional Landmarks in Malaysia: The First 50 Years 1957–2007 (LexisNexis 2007) 173; Lee, HP, ‘The Malaysian Constitution after 50 Years – Retrospective, Prospective and Comparative Perspectives’ (2007) 9 Australian Journal of Asian Law 307.

51. [2007] 6 CLJ 341 (Federal Court).

52. Panel of Eminent Persons, ‘Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons to Review the 1988 Judicial Crisis in Malaysia’ (The Malaysian Bar, 26 Jul 2008) <www.malaysianbar.org.my/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=1715&Itemid=332> accessed 20 Jul 2018.

53. ibid para 17.3.

54. ibid.

55. [1976] 2 MLJ 112 (Federal Court). The Federal Court is the highest court in Malaysia and is empowered to issue binding interpretations of the Federal Constitution.

56. Loh Kooi Choon (n 34).

57. ibid 190.

58. As India is a fellow Commonwealth country that has inherited similar legal and constitutional traditions, Indian Supreme Court decisions have always had traction in Malaysia. This is especially since the fundamental liberties section in Malaysia's Federal Constitution draws from the Constitution of India. See Joseph M Fernando, The Making of the Malayan Constitution (MBRAS 2002) 212.

59. Loh Kooi Choon (n 34) 189.

60. ibid 193.

61. ibid.

62. cf Young (n 41).

63. See however Jonathan Sumption, QC, ‘Judicial and Political Decision-Making: The Uncertain Boundary’ (2011) 16 Judicial Review 301.

64. Loh Kooi Choon (n 34) 190.

65. ibid 188.

66. ibid.

67. ibid.

68. ibid.

69. Kesavananda (n 6) 317.

70. Phang Chin Hock (n 44).

71. Act No 82 of 1960.

72. Phang Chin Hock (n 44) 72.

73. ibid 73.

74. ibid.

75. ibid.

76. ibid.

77. ibid. 74.

78. ibid. 75.

79. ibid.

80. Loh Kooi Choon (n 34), 188.

81. See Speech by Justice Michael Kirby, Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists (LawAsia, 1988) <https://www.michaelkirby.com.au/images/stories/speeches/1980s/vol19/752-Lawasia_-_Malaysia_-_The_Judiciary_and_the_Rule_of_Law.pdf> (accessed 30 Apr 2020), where he observed the historical link and the English tradition among Malaysian judges and lawyers, many of whom were trained in England. This common law thinking has also influenced judicial approaches in Singapore: see eg Neo, Jaclyn & Lee, Yvonne CL, ‘Constitutional Supremacy: Still a Little Dicey?’ in Li-ann, Thio & Tan, Kevin YL (eds), Evolution of a Revolution: Forty Years of the Singapore Constitution (Routledge 2008) 153.

82. Lee (n 40).

83. See n 49 above.

84. Act 611 of 2001.

85. Kok Wah Kuan (n 51) para 11.

86. ibid.

87. ibid para 18.

88. ibid para 37.

89. ibid para 38.

90. ibid para 39.

91. ibid.

92. For a review of these cases, see Li-ann, Thio, ‘Jurisdictional Imbroglio: Civil and Religious Courts, Turf Wars and Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution’, in Harding, Andrew & Lee, HP (eds), Constitutional Landmarks in Malaysia: The First Fifty Years 1957-2007 197 (2007); see also Shah, Dian AH, Constitutions, Religion and Politics in Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

93. [1999] 1 MLJ 489, 496 (Supreme Court).

94. List II of the Ninth Schedule referred to in the Federal Constitution, art 74 authorizes state legislatures to enact religious (Syariah) laws on ‘Islamic law and personal and family law of persons professing the religion of Islam’, as well as offences against the precepts of Islam.

95. [2007] 4 MLJ 585 (Federal Court). The majority judgment is written in Malay; all references to the majority judgment in this article are based on my reading and are not direct quotes.

96. ibid para 10.

97. ibid para 10.1.

98. See chapter on ‘Malaysia’ in Human Rights Resource Centre, ‘Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in ASEAN’ (Human Rights Resource Centre 2015) <http://hrrca.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Book-of-Keeping-the-Faith_web.pdf> accessed 29 Apr 2020.

99. Lina Joy (n 95) para 14.

100. Faruqi, Shad Saleem, Document of Destiny: The Constitution of the Federation of Malaysia (Star Publications 2008) 564.

101. Besides the cases discussed here, see also eg Muhammad Hilman bin Idham & Ors v Kerajaan Malaysia & Ors [2011] 6 MLJ 507 (Court of Appeal); Kerajaan Malaysia v Shimizu Corp & Ors [2018] MLJU 169 (High Court).

102. [2010] 2 MLJ 333 (Federal Court).

103. Act 166 of 1976.

104. Sivarasa (n 102) para 3.

105. ibid para 5.

106. ibid para 11.

107. ibid para 12.

108. ibid para 26.

109. ibid para 33.

110. ibid para 26.

111. ibid para 15.

112. ibid para 8.

113. ibid (emphasis added).

114. ibid para 8.

115. [2017] 5 CLJ 526 (Federal Court).

116. Act 486 of 1960.

117. Semenyih Jaya (n 115) para 62. See also Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim v PP [2010] 7 CLJ 397 (Federal Court).

118. Semenyih Jaya, ibid para 67.

119. R v Secretary of State for Home Department; ex parte Simms [2000] 2 AC 115, 131. See also Dyzenhaus, David, Hunt, Murray & Taggart, Michael, ‘The Principle of Legality in Administrative Law: Internationalisation as Constitutionalisation’ (2001) 1 Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal 5, 6, 18.

120. See eg Potter v Minahan (1908) 7 CLR 277 (High Court, Australia) 304 (O'Connor J); Lim, Brendan, ‘The Normativity of the Principle of Legality’ (2013) 37 Melbourne University Law Review 372; Meagher, Dan, ‘The Common Law Principle of Legality in the Age of Rights’ (2011) 35 Melbourne University Law Review 449, 477.

121. Semenyih Jaya (n 115) para 74.

122. ibid para 75.

123. ibid paras 79–81.

124. ibid paras 88, 90.

125. ibid para 90.

126. ibid para 52.

127. Wilson TV Tay, ‘Basic Structure Revisited: The Case of Semenyih Jaya and the Defence of Fundamental Constitutional Principles in Malaysia’ (2019) 14 Asian Journal of Comparative Law 113, 115.

128. [2018] 1 LNS 86 (Federal Court).

129. See eg Lina Joy (n 95).

130. Jaclyn L Neo, ‘Return of Judicial Power: Religious Freedom and the Tussle over Jurisdictional Boundaries in Malaysia (I-CONnect Column)’ (I-CONnect, 15 Mar 2018) <http://www.iconnectblog.com/2018/03/return-of-judicial-power-religious-freedom-and-the-tussle-over-jurisdictional-boundaries-in-malaysia-i-connect-column/> accessed 20 Feb 2020.

131. Indira Gandhi (n 125) para 104.

132. ibid (emphasis added).

133. ibid (emphasis added).

134. ibid para 48.

135. ibid para 51.

136. ibid para 53. This follows the position taken by the Privy Council in Hinds v The Queen [1977] AC 195.

137. ibid para 92.

138. ibid.

139. The use of judicial codes as a way to communicate judicial values of impartiality and independence is another strategy to restore public confidence in the judiciary. See Neo, Jaclyn L & Whalen-Bridge, Helena, ‘A Judicial Code of Ethics: Regulating Judges and Restoring Public Confidence in Malaysia’, in Devlin, Richard & Dodek, Adam (eds), Regulating Judges: Beyond Independence and Accountability (Edward Elgar 2016) 279.

140. Shaila Koshy & M Mageswari, ‘Judicial Crisis was a nightmare, says retired judge’ The Star Online (20 Sep 2015) <https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/09/20/judicial-crisis-was-a-nightmare-says-retired-judge/> accessed 29 Apr 2020.

141. ibid.

142. Notably, shortly after Indira Gandhi, the Federal Court decided another case in which it affirmed that the jurisdiction to hear cases on conversion out of Islam lies with Syariah court, which is in line with the Lina Joy decision. As the written grounds of decision in this case have not been made publicly available, it is not possible to examine whether and how (if at all) the Federal Court reconciled this decision with its account of judicial power in Indira Gandhi. See eg Sharon Ling, ‘Federal Court rules jurisdiction to hear apostasy cases lies with syariah court’ The Star (27 Feb 2018) <https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/02/27/federal-court-dismisses-conversion-appeals-case-to-be-heard-in-civil-court/> accessed 29 Apr 2020.

143. Scheppele (n 27) 390, 393–394.

144. Jaclyn L Neo, Dian AH Shah & Andrew Harding, ‘Introduction to I-CONnect Symposium: Malaysia Boleh! Constitutional Implications of the Malaysian Tsunami’ (International Journal of Constitutional Law Blog, 21 Jun 2018) <http://www.iconnectblog.com/2018/06/introduction-to-i-connect-symposium-malaysia-boleh-constitutional-implications-of-the-malaysian-tsunami/> accessed 13 Apr 2020.

145. Dian AH Shah & Andrew Harding, ‘Constitutional Quantum Mechanics and a Change in Government in Malaysia’ (International Journal of Constitutional Law Blog 8 Apr 2020) <http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/04/constitutional-quantum-mechanics-and-a-change-in-government-in-malaysia/> accessed 13 Apr 2020.

* Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore; Director, Centre for Asian Legal Studies. I would like to thank my two anonymous reviewers for this Journal for their reviews and for encouraging me to develop some parts of the article further. I would also like to thank Louis Lai and Philip Teh for their research assistance. This article was developed from a draft prepared for a conference organized by the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG) at Thammasat University on ‘The Basic Structure in Asian Constitutional Orders’. I would also like to thank an anonymous reviewer for the CPG for his/her helpful comments.

A Contextual Approach to Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: Judicial Power and the Basic Structure Doctrine in Malaysia

  • Jaclyn L. NEO (a1)

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