Tribute to Gopal Sri Ram: Selected Contributions to Malaysian Constitutional Law

On 29th January 2023, a senior member of the Malaysian Bar, Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram (“GSR”) passed away.[1]

GSR was a former Court of Appeal and Federal Court judge and during his time on the bench, GSR contributed massively to the development of Malaysia’s constitutional law.

This article intends to highlight some of GSR’s notable constitutional cases and dicta during his time on the bench, and is by no means exhaustive.

1. Sivarasa Rasiah v Badan Peguam Malaysia & Anor [2010] 2 MLJ 333 (FC):

 “[5] … Provisos or restrictions that limit or derogate from a guaranteed right must be read restrictively. Take art 10(2)(c). It says that ‘Parliament may by law impose … (c) on the right conferred by paragraph (c) of Clause (1), such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, public order or morality’. Now although the article says ‘restrictions’, the word ‘reasonable’ should be read into the provision to qualify the width of the proviso. The reasons for reading the derogation as ‘such reasonable restrictions’ appear in the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Dr Mohd Nasir bin Hashim v Menteri Dalam Negeri Malaysia [2006] 6 MLJ 213; [2007] 1 CLJ 19 which reasons are now adopted as part of this judgment.” (Emphasis mine)

“[8] … it is clear from the way in which the Federal Constitution is constructed there are certain features that constitute its basic fabric. Unless sanctioned by the Constitution itself, any statute (including one amending the Constitution) that offends the basic structure may be struck down as unconstitutional. Whether a particular feature is part of the basic structure must be worked out on a case by case basis. Suffice to say that the rights guaranteed by Part II which are enforceable in the courts form part of the basic structure of the Federal Constitution. See Keshavananda Bharati v State of Kerala AIR 1973 SC 1461.” (Emphasis mine)

“[12] … The expression ‘morality’ is not defined by the Constitution. However, in Manohar v State of Maharashtra AIR 1984 Bom 47 (a case cited by learned senior federal counsel) it was held that morality in the equipollent Indian Constitution art 19(2) and (4) :

is in the nature of public morality and it must be construed to mean public morality as understood by the people as a whole.” (Emphasis mine)

“[13] … Article 10 contains certain express and, by interpretive implication, other specific freedoms. For example, the freedom of speech and expression are expressly guaranteed by art 10(1)(a). The right to be derived from the express protection is the right to receive information, which is equally guaranteed. See Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India v Cricket Association of Bengal AIR 1995 SC 1236.” (Emphasis mine)

“[19]  Accordingly, when state action is challenged as violating a fundamental right, for example, the right to livelihood or the personal liberty to participate in the governance of the Malaysian Bar under art 5(1), art 8(1) will at once be engaged. When resolving the issue, the court should not limit itself within traditional and narrow doctrinaire limits. Instead it should, subject to the qualification that will be made in a moment, ask itself the question: is the state action alleged to violate a fundamental right procedurally and substantively fair. The violation of a fundamental right where it occurs in consequence of executive or administrative action must not only be in consequence of a fair procedure but should also in substance be fair, that is to say, it must meet the test of proportionality housed in the second, that is to say, the equal protection limb of art 8(1). However, where the state action is primary or secondary legislation, that is to say, an Act of Parliament or subsidiary legislation made by the authority of Parliament, the test of constitutionality is only based on substantive fairness: no question arising on whether the legislation is the product of a fair procedure. This is because the doctrine of procedural fairness does not apply to legislative action of any sort. See Bates v Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone & Ors [1972] 1 WLR 1373; Union of India v Cynamide India Ltd AIR 1987 SC 1802.”

“[21]  Article 8(1) provides that: ‘All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.’ As may be seen, the article guarantees two separate and distinct rights, namely, (a) equality before the law; and (b) equal protection of the law. It cannot be over emphasised that in accordance with well settled principles of constitutional interpretation each of these rights must be treated as a separate and distinct right despite an overlap as will be seen later in this judgment. Indeed, each right is derived from a distinctly different source. The framers of our Constitution (like the framers of the Indian Constitution) derived the equality clause from the Constitution of the Irish Free State. The equality doctrine in reality is drawn from Dicey’s rule of law one of the pillars of which is that persons are equal before the law.” (Emphasis mine)

2. Shamim Reza bin Abdul Samad v Public Prosecutor [2011] 1 MLJ 471 (FC):

“[3] … We therefore accept that the right to a fair trial is a constitutionally guaranteed right.” (Emphasis mine)

3. Lee Kwan Woh v Public Prosecutor [2009] 5 MLJ 301 (FC):

“[8]  In the second place, the Constitution is a document sui generis governed by interpretive principles of its own. In the forefront of these is the principle that its provisions should be interpreted generously and liberally. On no account should a literal construction be placed on its language, particularly upon those provisions that guarantee to individuals the protection of fundamental rights. In our view, it is the duty of a court to adopt a prismatic approach when interpreting the fundamental rights guaranteed under Part II of the Constitution. When light passes through a prism it reveals its constituent colours. In the same way, the prismatic interpretive approach will reveal to the court the rights submerged in the concepts employed by the several provisions under Part II. Indeed the prismatic interpretation of the Constitution gives life to abstract concepts such as ‘life’ and ‘personal liberty’ in art 5(1).” (Emphasis mine)

“[12] … A court when interpreting the other provisions of our Constitution, in particular, those appearing in Part II thereof, must do so in the light of what has been correctly referred to as ‘the humanising and all pervading provisions of art 8(1)’ (see Barat Estates Sdn Bhd & Anor v Parawakan a/l Subramaniam & Ors [2000] 4 MLJ 107).

The effect of art 8(1) is to ensure that legislative, administrative and judicial action is objectively fair. It also houses within it the doctrine of proportionality which is the test to be used when determining whether any form of state action (executive, legislative or judicial) is arbitrary or excessive when it is asserted that a fundamental right is alleged to have been infringed. See Om Kumar v Union of India AIR 2000 SC 3689.” (Emphasis mine)

“[17] … It is clear from this passage that the rules of natural justice, which is the procedural aspect of the rule of law, is an integral part of arts 5(1) and 8(1). In short, procedural fairness is incorporated in these two articles.” (Emphasis ours)

4. Palm Oil Research and Development Board Malaysia & Anor v Premium Vegetable Oils Sdn Bhd & Another Appeal [2005] 3 MLJ 97 (FC):

“42 … It is the solemn duty of the judicial arm of Government — the courts who are the guardians of constitutional rights – to interpret the fundamental rights provisions in Part II of the Constitution prismatically, so that our citizens obtain the full benefit and value of those rights. And it is in this simple way, through the exercise of the court’s interpretive jurisdiction that our public law gains momentum. Accordingly, it cannot be over-emphasised that on no account should our courts adopt a narrow and pedantic approach to constitutional interpretation.” (Emphasis mine)

“48 In the context of the present appeal, it is art 8(1), particularly the second limb of that Article, which is the relevant constitutional provision which houses the ultra vires doctrine.

49 Article 8(1) has two limbs. The first limb guarantees equality before the law. In other words, it requires fairness in all forms of State action.

50 The second limb guarantees equal protection of the law. This is the limb directly relevant to the present appeal. The act or omission of a member of the administration (whether a Minister or a civil servant) which is either: (i)�beyond the power conferred upon him or her by an Act of Parliament; or (ii) constitutes an abuse of that power, denies to the person affected thereby, equal protection of the law and consequently runs foul of art 8(1). Accordingly, the doctrine of ultra vires in respect of acts whether purely administrative or in the exercise of a power to produce delegated legislation finds its place within the second limb of art 8(1).” (Emphasis mine)

“61 In Malaysia, the Federal Constitution has entrusted the law making power to Parliament and the State Assembly of each of the several States of the Federation. While the courts through the common law recognise the power of Parliament to delegate some of its legislative power, it is equally the constitutional duty of the courts to ensure that no excessive delegation takes place. Hence the well settled principle that a provision in a statute conferring power on a member of the executive to enact subsidiary legislation must be construed strictly. This is particularly so where the subsidiary legislation is one that imposes a financial levy — call it a tax or charge or cess or whatever you may — upon the whole or any section of the public.” (Emphasis mine)

Note: GSR, though then a Court of Appeal judge, was empaneled to sit in a Federal Court hearing pursuant to Article 122(2) of the Federal Constitution.

5. Fung Beng Tiat v Marid Construction Co [1996] 2 MLJ 413 (FC):

“First, it is crystal clear from art 121 of the Federal Constitution that there are two separate High Courts in Malaysia exercising distinct territorial jurisdiction over different geographical areas of the country. There is the High Court in Malaya and there is the High Court in Sabah and Sarawak. Each has jurisdiction over disputes that arise within its territory. As presently advised, there is absent in any Federal legislation that confers power upon the one High Court to transfer proceedings to the other.” (Emphasis mine)

Note: GSR, though then a Court of Appeal judge, was empaneled to sit in a Federal Court hearing pursuant to Article 122(2) of the Federal Constitution. GSR also delivered the judgment of the Federal Court in this case.