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ATimes: New scandal hits legal fraternity [CLP]
By Anil Netto

5/12/2001 1:52 am Wed

December 4, 2001

Southeast Asia


New scandal hits legal fraternity

By Anil Netto

PENANG - Before the recent outrage over the controversial replacement of Malaysia's attorney-general could subside, a fresh storm has plunged the legal fraternity into renewed turmoil.

The integrity of Malaysia's qualifying examinations for lawyers, the Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP), has been called into question with revelations of tampering of grades and possible examination leaks. A week ago Monday, 921 law graduates had their CLP exam results reinstated after they had been annulled two weeks earlier. The Legal Profession Qualifying Board admitted that the main reason it had nullified the July examinations was that grading marks had been tampered with - though the impression given earlier was that there had been a leak. An unspecified number of answer scripts had been illegally marked down or up.

Fingers pointed at board director Khalid Yusoff, whose duty it was to submit master result sheets to the board. "Upon investigations to verify the effect of [alleged exam leaks], board members found a substantial number of irregularities between marks awarded by examiners and those disclosed by the director," said board secretary Abdul Wahab Said. The established practice, he said, is that the director oversees the CLP examinations and then tables the examination results for the board's approval.

To clear up the mess, the board reissued the results using the actual marks awarded by the examiners: 113 students who passed in the main examinations in July found to their dismay that they had now failed; the number of clear passes was slashed by about half from 232 to 119; those with conditional passes fell from 228 to 170; while the failures soared from 461 to 632. Those with conditional passes can re-sit the examinations. The October supplementary Evidence paper, however, was nullified. The overall pass rate slumped from 25.2 percent to 12.9 percent - said to be the lowest in the CLP's history.

That did not go down well with everyone. "Why did the board go only half way to re-grade or rectify the marks-tampering in the CLP examinations this year, adjusting the answer scripts 'illegally marked up' but not those 'illegally marked down'?" asked Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party. In a statement, he called the affair a great injustice to "victims who deserved to pass but whose results had been tampered into failing".

Law graduates have to clear the CLP before they can be admitted to the bar and enter public practice. While studying for the CLP, lawyers do their "chambering" with a legal firm, often in return for low wages. But the CLP examinations have been notoriously difficult to pass, with only a small minority clearing it at their first attempt. Many Malaysian graduates who obtained their law degrees from England, for instance, have thrown in the towel after failing the CLP examinations despite the hard work they had put in. Hundreds of law graduates give up after a couple of attempts at the CLP and some of them move on to fairly successful careers in the private sector as legal advisers, human-resources managers and directors, company secretaries, and lecturers.

The ramifications of the CLP scandal go well beyond the tampering with results. The affair throws into question the validity of the CLP results in recent years and undermines the image of the legal profession. No one can be sure whether grade-tampering was carried out in previous years or if it was only confined to this year's CLP examinations. It also casts doubts on the integrity of other public examinations in the country, especially in the light of previous periodic leaks involving school examination papers.

It has also highlighted the authorities' apparent impotence in tackling abuse of power and high-level corruption. What is galling for some is that so far no action has been taken against the culprit(s) responsible for the grade tampering, though several others were arrested for an alleged leak. Outgoing Attorney-General Ainum Mohd Saaid, the board chairman, said the qualifying board had yet to decide on Khalid's status as director.

What's more, efforts to stamp out corruption are often hampered by the apparent impotence of the Anti-Corruption Agency in tackling high-level corruption especially if they involve prominent figures.

"The Qualifying Board and the police are treating Khalid Yusoff, the CLP examinations director, with kid gloves when he should have been sacked from the CLP secretariat, arrested and prosecuted for being responsible for the CLP marks-tampering scandal," said Lim.

Some argue that the CLP examinations fiasco is just a symptom of a larger malaise plaguing the country. In a system where ethics are sometimes nudged aside, where quick returns and profits tend to override everything else, and integrity and hard work are not always recognized, it is not surprising that such a scandal could happen.

The CLP scandal is another blow to the morale of the legal fraternity, still recovering from the news that Gani Patail, a leading member in the team that prosecuted jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, is to take over from Ainum as attorney-general midway through the latter's term of office.

It will take much time and a lot of damage control to improve the battered image of the legal fraternity in Malaysia.