Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim
(As excerpted and edited from Prof. Salleh Buang’s “In Service of the Law – Simplicity & Greatness – Tun Suffian’s Legacy”)
Born on November 12, 1917 in a small village on the banks of Perak River, he was raised by religious parents - Haji Mohamed Hashim (a Kathi), and Zaharah Ibrahim (a full-time housewife). Born of disciplined parents, he grew up to be a very disciplined youth - and in later life, a highly disciplined and motivated Judge. He spent 4 years in a Malay school in Lenggong before he was sent to Clifford English School in Kuala Kangsar at the age of 11. Extremely bright, he was always at the head of his class, and on three occasions, received double promotions.
He finished High School in 1933, winning a Queen’s Scholarship in 1935. He was the first Malay to do so.Yes, his academic and intellectual prowess was apparent early in his life. On his scholastic achievement, his English school principal remarked “Suffian has by his success brought credit not only to the school and the state, but also to the whole Malay race. He has provided a striking example of what a Malay boy can accomplish - without money and without influence - if he possesses ability and determination”. In the United Kingdom, he studied at the Cambridge University, finishing with a Bachelor of Arts Degree with Honours in 1939 and a Bachelor of Laws in the following year. With two first degrees in hand, Suffian continued to read law at the Inns of Court. In January 1941, he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, London. At the age of 24, young and talented Suffian had become an English Barrister. With high expectations, he set sail home.
Suffian the Journalist
On his trip home to (then) Malaya, the young barrister found himself stranded in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Malaya was then at war, and recently placed under Japanese occupation. To continue his journey home would be highly dangerous. Unable to return to his homeland, Suffian sought employment elsewhere. He worked for 3 years as newscaster and commentator for the Malay Unit of All India Radio, after which he went back to England. Back on familiar territory, he quickly found employment at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as its Malay sub-editor and language supervisor.
These were indeed turbulent times. But the young lawyer was able to adapt himself. He made full use of his short career as a journalist to improve his speaking and writing skills. It bore tremendous results in later years. It was in 1946, whilst he was still working in England, that he was offered a position in the Malayan Civil Service. Suffian the civil servant Anticipating his career with the Malayan Civil Service, Suffian went back to Cambridge University and then the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies London University to study public administration. These were (and still are) highly reputable institutions of higher learning in England. He attended classes and training sessions designed to prepare him for service as a District Officer. He studied a wide range of subjects, including surveying, field engineering, accounting and social anthropology. Ironically, some two years later, in 1948, when Suffian arrived home in Malaya, the post that was waiting for him was not that of a District Officer but a Circuit Magistrate in Malacca. On this unexpected employment, Suffian later wrote “I had not touched the law for 7 years, but thanks to the kind and tactful advice of my clerks and interpreters I soon acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the art of dispensing justice”.
These words bore the hallmark of a simple man, on his way to greatness in later life. Great men never failed to admit that they have been helped by their peers as well as underlings. Yes, just like being the first Malay to win a Queen’s Scholarship, Suffian was the first Malay to hold the post of a Magistrate in this country. At the end of his first month as a Magistrate, the young judicial officer (with his wife, Dora Evelina Grange, whom he married in May 1946 in England) found that the government had forgotten to make arrangements for him to receive his salary. This unpleasant oversight was however quickly solved by appointing Suffian to hold concurrently the post of Harbour Master for the port of Malacca. Doing two or more jobs at the same time proved to be a recurrent feature of his life in later years, as we shall read later on. On January 1, 1949, Suffian was officially transferred from the Civil Service to the Legal Service.
Meteoric rise in the Legal Service
The first few years in the Legal Service was spent as a Deputy Public Prosecutor in Kuala Lumpur and then Johore Bahru. Soon thereafter he became the first Malaysian to hold the post as a Legal Advisor, and subsequently the State Secretary, of Pahang.
It was whilst serving as Pahang’s State Secretary that Suffian became directly involved in the Special Commission on Salaries for the Civil Service. The Report furnished by this Commission to the government later became known simply as the “Suffian Report” - detailing recommendations regarding salaries and conditions of service affecting some 200,000 government servants at that point in time. That Report became the first major milestone in his unstoppable march to greatness. Drafting the Constitution of an Independent Nation In 1956, on the eve of independence, Suffian was sent to Johore as its State Legal Advisor. It was then that the Conference of Rulers decided to give him another major task. He was asked to advise them in drawing up our Constitution - the most important document for a nation about to achieve independence. Suffian was then only 39 years old, and he had been in the Legal Service for only 9 years. In the eyes of others, he must have done a superb job. Three years later, in 1959, the then Sultan of Brunei requested him to draft a Constitution for Brunei. Elevated to the Bench Meanwhile, in 1958 Suffian was promoted as Senior Federal Counsel in the Attorney-General’s Chambers, Kuala Lumpur. He was the youngest, yet the most senior, legal officer in the Legal Service. One year later, in 1959, he became the first Malaysian (and first Malay) to hold the post of Solicitor-General. He was then only 42 years old.
In rank, the Solicitor-General is only second in line, directly below the Attorney-General. At that time, the Attorney-General was a political post. Suffian served as Solicitor-General for a very short period, hardly two years. In 1961, at the age of 44, Suffian was elevated to the Bench. He served a year as a High Court Judge in Kuala Lumpur, after which he was transferred to Kedah.
Active participation in the international arena Suffian’s love for writing never left him, despite his busy work schedule. In 1963, some two years after he became a Judge, he translated the Federal Constitution from English into Malay. A few years later, he wrote two comparatively unknown books, one on the Malaysian legal system and the other on citizenship.
It was his classic, “An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia”, that caught the public imagination and aroused public interest. This was published in 1972, a year before he was made Chief Justice of Malaya. That book, which remains one of his lasting legacies to the nation, has recently been revised by a team of local writers, and continues as a source of reference amongst law students in the local universities. A foot in the ivory tower Undaunted by his heavy work schedule on the Bench and in the international arena, Suffian accepted yet another appointment in 1964. He became the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Malaya. He was then only 47 years old. As Pro-Chancellor, he presided over the Court and Council of the university. He was also required to act in the absence of the Chancellor (then the Sultanah of Kedah, a former Raja Permaisuri Agong). Since the role of the Chancellor was merely advisory and ceremonial, much of the actual serious work had to be done by the Pro-Chancellor, Suffian himself. Although his primary duties were towards Universiti Malaya, Suffian was prepared to help in other directions whenever his services were required. In 1968, he headed a team of experts to draft the Constitution of Universiti Sains Pulau Pinang. A year later, he did the same thing for Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi.
From 1972 to 1974, Suffian was also actively involved in the Higher Education Advisory Council. For more than a decade, since the early seventies, Suffian was also the External Examiner in Law for the University of Singapore. Reaching the top of the Judiciary Hardly 12 years after he became a Judge, Suffian reached the second highest rung in the ladder of the local judiciary. On November 1, 1973 he officially became the Chief Justice of Malaya. And as if that is not good enough example of his meteoric rise, just two months later, on January 5, 1974, he was made Lord President of Malaysia. On June 4, 1975 he was conferred the highest title in the country. He was made a Tun. Suffian held this supreme post in the judiciary (as the fourth Lord President) until his mandatory retirement at the age of 65, in 1982. When asked about his future plans after retirement, he was reported to have said (perhaps with tongue in cheek) that he wanted “to grow bananas and fruit trees and orchids” as well as write. He had, by that time, already written that well-known classic, “An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia”, published by the Government Printers, and subsequently translated into Bahasa Malaysia and published as “Mengenal Perlembagaan Malaysia” by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur.
Suffian the author
Suffian’s love for writing never left him, despite his busy work schedule. In 1963, some two years after he became a Judge, he translated the Federal Constitution from English into Malay. A few years later, he wrote two comparatively unknown books, one on the Malaysian legal system and the other on citizenship. It was his classic, “An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia”, that caught the public imagination and aroused public interest. This was published in 1972, a year before he was made Chief Justice of Malaya. That book, which remains one of his lasting legacies to the nation, has recently been revised by a team of local writers, and continues as a source of reference amongst law students in the local universities. Tun Suffian’s numerous honours and awards Tun Suffian received numerous honours from the both the Federal and the state governments of Malaysia.Besides being a receipient of the title ‘Tun’ from the King upon his elevation as Lord President, his other awards included the Most Honorable Order of the Crown of Brunei in 1959, an Honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Singapore and an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Malaya, the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship in 1964, an Honorary LL.D (Singapore) in 1972, an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature by the University of Malaya in the same year, the Maysaysay Foundation Award in 1975, the Honorary Fellowship of the University College of Buckingham, UK in 1979, and just before his demise, he was made a Fellow of Caius College, his alma mater at Cambridge.
His final days
Suffian spent his final days in the home (and under the tender care) of two good friends Tunku Dato’ Dr. Sofiah Jewa and her husband Dato Dr. Yaacob Merican and their family in Kampung Tunku, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. His health failed him but his spirits remained unbroken. He died on September 26, 2000 and was laid to rest at the Royal Mausoleum, Kuala Kangsar,
Perak Darul Ridzuan, as decreed by H.R.H. Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak, who himself was a former Lord President, equally distinguished in the field of law and justice. He was then almost 83 years old. He is no longer with us, but his thoughts and ideals on the law still endure, alive and well in our hearts and minds.
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