Celebration of Law Day in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong

Kuala Lumpur

I hope you all will excuse the delay in my recent posts, but travelling from continent to continent got the better of me. Now that I’m home in San Francisco for a bit, I have the chance to catch up. And the intervening period has given me a chance to digest and reflect on my extraordinary experiences with UIA in the new year 2020.

Hong Kong

First stop in early January was Kuala Lumpur and then Hong Kong for their respective openings of the Legal Year.  Both events gave me the chance to meet with Bar Leaders from around the world, especially those from Asia, and to learn about the pressing legal issues confronting lawyers in both places.

The legal ceremony in Kuala Lumpur was rich with tradition and Malaysian culture – a video of daily life in the country, a Muslim choir that sang national songs, and a ceremonial march to the tribune by the country’s bar leaders and judges. Most gripping, however, was the direct back-and-forth dialog of the speeches by the Bar Association President Abdul Fareed, and the Chief Justice, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, a diminutive woman with enormous stature who radiates intelligence. I had met them both the night before at a friendly dinner featuring local cuisine. But here before the assembled guests Fareed demanded more transparency in an official investigation into allegations by a federal judge of corruption and misconduct in the judiciary, and the Chief Justice responded in her remarks that unfounded criticism by lawyers before completion of the investigation undermines public trust in the judiciary. The tense point/counterpoint in the context of official ceremonial speeches seemed like democracy at work, regardless of the merits.

With the Malaysian Chief Justice
The March of the Malaysian Judges to the Dais
Malaysian Judges

Hong Kong put together one of the most organized sets of events I have ever attended – with Swiss watch precision. On Sunday bar association presidents gathered around a round table to hear presentations by US, Indian, Chinese, Australian, Korean, Polish leaders and others on such issues as the role of lawyers in ensuring the fair administration of justice and, in particular, legal aid access to those unable to afford representation, an issue that crosses all national boundaries. Some jurisdictions rely on governmental provision of legal services, others rely on bar associations and impose ethical obligations on their members, and still others use a combination of these different methods. Hong Kong Law Society President Melissa Pang and Hong Kong Bar Association President Philip Dykes led the discussion.

Inspection of the Ceremonial Guard
Hong Kong judges on stage
With Melissa Pang, President of Hong Kong Law Society, and Wiebe DeVries, Former President of AIJA, International Young Lawyers’ Association

The next day we were treated to the extraordinary ceremony itself at the Hong Kong City Hall, complete with Inspection of the Ceremonial Guard by the Chief Justice. A key theme of the speeches that followed was the different approaches proposed for dealing with those who violated the law in connection with recent protests — with some advocating a harsh approach in response to lawlessness and others recognizing that the sheer number of protestors and nature of their actions would require more surgical application of prosecutorial discretion. I was most impressed by the calm, firm, and reasoned remarks of Chief Justice, Geoffrey Ma, who took office in 2010 and will step down in 2021.

One disturbing footnote to my trip to Hong Kong was that during a group discussion about Hong Kong’s economic expansion and openness, word came that Human Rights Watch Exec Director Ken Roth (no relation) had been denied entry to Hong Kong that very morning on the basis of a report he was going to be announcing critical of China’s handling of human rights issues.  I raised the question before the Hong Kong and Chinese bar association heads how Hong Kong could claim the mantle of an open society in light of that denial.  I was met with uncomfortable silence, though Bar Association President Dykes acknowledged it was a disturbing development and would need to be looked into.

Hong Kong is a vibrant, dynamic city. I witnessed protests outside my hotel but they seemed half-hearted, with police standing around casually and tourists and locals picnicking on the square nearby. No doubt this is a city in transition in which the HK bar associations and lawyers are playing a major role.

Street protest in Hong Kong with police, tourists and picnickers.

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