James Chin is a Malaysian academic. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of institutions he is associated with. He can be contacted at

What is RM100 million?

MAY 28 — People laugh at the Americans because they have a litigation culture. Remember this famous story:

"Judge: Cleaner owes me US$65 million (RM227.5 million) for pants

WASHINGTON, May 3, 2007 - The Chungs, immigrants from South Korea, realised their American dream when they opened their dry-cleaning business seven years ago in the nation’s capital. For the past two years, however, they’ve been dealing with the nightmare of litigation: a US$65 million lawsuit over a pair of missing pants.

Jin Nam Chung, Ki Chung and their son, Soo Chung, are so disheartened that they’re considering moving back to Seoul, said their attorney, Chris Manning, who spoke on their behalf. The lawsuit was filed by a District of Columbia administrative hearings judge, Roy Pearson, who has been representing himself in the case.

According to court documents, the problem began in May 2005 when Pearson became a judge and brought several suits for alteration to Custom Cleaners in Northeast Washington, a place he patronised regularly despite previous disagreements with the Chungs. A pair of pants from one suit was not ready when he requested it two days later, and was deemed to be missing. Pearson asked the cleaners for the full price of the suit: more than US$1,000. But a week later, the Chungs said the pants had been found and refused to pay. That’s when Pearson decided to sue."

You really have to laugh or cry over the American legal system. The good news is that the courts threw out the case and the judge was criticized for his actions. The bad news is that this sort of stuff occurs in America almost on a daily basis. One of the reasons why medical care is so expensive in America is because doctors have to pay huge insurance because many unhappy patients sue them.

Of course you can argue that everyone has the right to sue in order to correct a wrong. I don’t have a problem with that, but I have a slight problem if the problem is political.

Malaysian politicians seems to be using the courts to settle political issues, or worse to shut down valid criticisms. I cannot remember a time when there are so many lawsuits related to politics.

In the past 24 hours, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim today filed a RM100 million libel lawsuit against Foreign Minister Datuk Anifah Aman over the latter’s allegation that he had been offered the deputy prime minister’s job in a Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government. The minister said this while doing a Q&A with Hilary Clinton in Washington DC on an official visit.

Anwar is also suing his former boss, ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for accusing him of being homosexual. Mahathir is alleged to have said “Imagine having a gay prime minister. Nobody would be safe”.

Previously Anwar has already successfully sued the author Khalid Jafri for “Fifty Reasons Why Anwar Ibrahim Cannot Be Prime Minister” (“50 Dalil Kenapa Anwar Tidak Boleh Jadi PM”), which was widely circulated soon before he was sacked.

He also won damages from ex-Inspector General of Police Rahim Noor who physically assaulted him while Anwar was in custody in 1998. There are of course many other lawsuits filed against Anwar by his opponents.

Anwar is not the only one. In the past month, MCA supremo Ong Tee Keat is reported to have sued Hau Wai (Special Weekly), a Chinese language magazine.

It seems that to be a successful politician today in Malaysia, you must be either be suing half a dozen people or have a dozen lawsuits against you. Better to have both; that is, you are being sued and you are also suing someone.

The real action is when the media gets involved. Politicans not only sue the press but worse, individuals working in the press are suing back.

Remember Teresa Kok? She is suing Utusan Melayu and its editor for publishing an article that caused an impression that she is a bad politician, anti-Islam and a racist, which also caused her to be detained under the ISA (Internal Security Act).

She is asking for RM30 million. Kok has also filed a RM30 million suit against former Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khir Toyo and Utusan Melayu over the recent Kinrara mosque “azan” (call for prayer) issue. She claimed that Khir had on January 26 allegedly maligned her on the matter in the blog “pembelamelayu.blogspot”.

She has a third suit against Utusan, and Datuk Chamil Wariya for smearing her name and endangering her life by publishing a short story titled “Politik Baru YB J”. This suit is for RM100 million.

Utusan of course is suing Kok back. Actually, Kok has been sued by her detractors many times over the years.

Selangor MB Datuk Seri Khalid Ibrahim has threatened to sue former Selangor MB Khir Toyo and Najib. Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh have been involved in dozens of lawsuits relating to their political work.

I wish someone, maybe a retired lawyer, would go through the records and write down all the defamation cases involving politicians. I am sure the figures involved (not the actual payout) would be more than a billion ringgit.

Now even the Bar Council is getting into the game. The Bar Council, according to news reports, is suing the Home ministry and the police for the May 7 detention of five legal aid lawyers over the 1black Malaysia campaign.

You really have to wonder if our political system has failed us since the actual participants feel that the system cannot deal with it and therefore they have to sue.

At the end of the day, the courts really is not the place to settle political dispute. If the courts can settle political disputes then we don’t need parliament.

The problem here is that our political system does not really work and our court system is suspect when it comes to political cases. Hence you have a double whammy here.

So what is the solution? Sit back and enjoy the fireworks. Very often the court hearings will reveal things that the politicians are hiding from us. Since all evidence entered into a court case must be true, politicians are “forced” to tell as much of the truth as they possibly can without incriminating themselves. Politicians are not used to this, so a court case is usually a sober experience for them.

One final thing. With so many lawsuits relating to politics, it seems to me that one of the prerequisite to be a politician nowadays is a law degree. Don’t you agree?

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