An outrageous story from a court
The most amazing things can happen in a court. Malaysia is a multiracial country. The official language is Malay, although English is allowed to be spoken in courts. Most workmen are not fluent in aristocratic Malay, well at least, not back in 1994, when our story takes place.
One day the Chief Clerk of the Firm, and the Master of All He Surveys, beckons me to his desk. It is about six in the evening.
He points to a file – with his nose.
“There’s a trial tomorrow”, he declares, while checking the Firm’s Diary. “Get it done. Don’t mess it up. Or the Old Man will kill you”.
With these encouraging words I was sent off with the file. I did not sleep a wink the whole night.
The KL Magistrates Courts were, in those days, located in a series of exhausted wooden buildings. They were on stilts. When you walked the corridors your footsteps could be heard a mile away.
After a few hurried words with the client, I approach the Interpreter to ensure our trial is going on.
Her desk is surrounded by some delighted, and some confused lawyers. We are told that the magistrate had taken ill. The next thing to do is to ‘get another date’. So we all pull our diaries out.
“No can do”, says the court Interpreter.
“Get a date from the Relief Magistrate next door”.
So off we troop to the neighbouring Magistrate’s court.
It is a traffic court. As usual, it is packed. The lawyers from my court add to the crush.
Proceedings have already begun. The magistrate is young and bleary-eyed. Possibly been up all night, looking after the baby.
A senior lawyer from our side rises, and addresses her.
“Your Honour, we need to get another date for all the postponed cases in the other court. If you could you could assist …”
The magistrate’s eyes flick up.
“Not until I’ve finished this court’s list of cases. So all of you have to wait”.
Despair is written on many faces. We settle down as best as we can. I squeeze into a bench, next to a foul smelling chap who bares his yellowed teeth at me.
And thus I get to observe how traffic offences are “dealt with”. I had never been in a traffic court. But I have heard that they could send you to the chokey in a jiffy.
A Chinese name is called. A man rises. He has on a pair of dirty jeans. His shoes have seen better times. The magistrate snaps:
“Do you realise this is a court of law. Why aren’t you properly attired? Do you think this is a market? Well, do you?”
The guy mumbles an apology. The magistrate looks at the bored Prosecuting Officer.
“What are the charges?”
The Prosecutor hands over a list of yellow sheets to the Court Interpreter. She reads out the indictments with considerable pleasure.
“Caught driving without a licence”.
The various sections of the Road Traffic Act are read out. The Magistrates asks in Malay,
“Do you plead Guilty or Not Guilty?”
The guy says, “Guilty”.
The magistrate puts him through a “UNCP query”. She asks him,
“Do you Understands the Nature and the Consequence of your Plea”?
“Yes, I do”.
“Okay, so recorded”.
She records – and then reads out – the conviction.
“Would you like to say anything in your mitigation before I determine the sentence?”
The guy mumbles in bad Malay. He says it was his mistake. He says he is sorry.
She waits for him to finish.
“Fined RM250.00. In default two days imprisonment”.
The guy pays the fine to a policeman at a desk, gets a receipt, signs a book, and leaves.
A middle aged Malay gentleman gets called up next.
He’s got brown teeth, and a pock-marked face.
Round necked t-shirt, not tucked in.
A frayed leather belt pokes out its end below the t-shirt.
Once white, now stained, tennis shoes.
More tongue lashing for improper turnout. That lasts all of 3 minutes.
This guy has a death wish.
He is giggling.
He’s turning around and surveying the gallery.
He smiles at the magistrate.
The storm clouds are gathering, and he is oblivious.
She spits out the operative question:
“What are the charges?”
The prosecutor says,
“Learner driver, expired licence, carried a pillion rider, tail light dead”.
The clerk sings out the charges, delighted to send someone to sit on a boiling cauldron.
The accused continues swaying at the waist.
She looks up and asks in a sibilant voice,
“What’s your plea?”
Her tone jumps a few octaves.
“And stand still while I am talking to you!”
She’s got his attention.
He nods meekly.
“What’s that?” she snaps.
He has come to a dead, dead stop.
He’s watching her like a cobra with an opened hood.
“Plead guilty… I, I … plead guilty”.
Same UNCP invocation.
He understands, he says.
She records a conviction. She asks him if he would like to say anything in mitigation.
He says he is sorry. He doesn’t look it.
“Three charges! RM250.00 per charge. Total fine RM750.00, a fortnight imprisonment in default!”
There is an audible gasp from the gallery.
“That’s half my salary,” I think. “Where the heck is he going to get the money?”
An elderly, glazy-eyed lady steps into the breach. Perhaps his mother. She is smouldering. She hands the policeman a wad of notes.
There is a lot of shuffling.
He almost sprints out of the court.
The magistrate taps the bench with the back of her pen.
An Indian name gets called.
A guy, about 50, rises.
There is a murmur of approval from the gallery. Long sleeved-shirt, tucked in. Beautifully pressed.
The sleeve’s folding lines could’ve cut you in half. Well-worn dark trousers.
The leather belt is old, but neatly inserted. Clean-shaven.
His shoes have been through the wars. You can’t polish a shoe that has a million creases. But it is obvious that he has tried to put some shoe-polish on it.
A black socks peeks through a gap.
He stands, hands at his side, impassive. Like he is singing the national anthem.
He is holding a cloth bag.
He speaks average Malay. Bad grammar. But he manages.
The magistrate is busy studying her docket.
“What’re the charges?”
The prosecutor thrusts a wad of thick sheets into the Interpreter’s hand. She flicks the pages over, slowly. She is relishing it.
“Caught driving a motorcycle at high speed.”
“Licence expired at least a week.”
“Expired Road Tax.”
“No headlights. No tail lights.”
“Not wearing safety helmets… and … Oh..”, she pauses, and turns to the magistrate, beaming:
“… had a pillion rider at that!”
I am calculating in my head:
“Seven into RM250 equals RM1,750. He can’t pay. He is too poor. Off to the charnel house then”.
The magistrate drawls:
This guy hangs his head.
“Guilty” he says, in a quiet voice.
So on through with the UNCP.
A conviction is recorded. There is only acid when she speaks:
“Well, quite an interesting list of offences you’ve got there.”
“What have you got to say about yourself before I pass the sentence?”
Traffic sounds filter in. The court fan squeaks. Someone coughs diffidently.
“Your Honour, please forgive me. The fault is mine. I have been stupid. My wife was expecting. The water bag had burst. I have no car. All I have is a motorcycle. Because I was saving up for the baby, I could not pay for the licence, or the road tax, or the broken lights. I had one helmet and I got her to wear that. She was the pillion rider.”
He rummages into his cloth bag. He extracts an old helmet and a new one. He shows them to the Magistrate. He continues:
“I have now bought a new helmet for her.” He shows her what looks like a receipt.
He pulls out a couple of documents from his pocket. These turn out to be freshly paid road-tax, renewed licence, and receipts for repairs of the tail light.
He hurries on, as if afraid she’d stop him from speaking:
“I have now taken steps to rectify my errors.”
“My salary is RM1,200.00 per month.”
“After expenses, I have but RM200 left, and I cannot afford to pay a lot of money.”
“I have an infant, and I am the only breadwinner.”
He stops, inflated.
The magistrate appraises him quietly. She writes furiously on her record book.
The air conditioning is humming. The Interpreter is gloating. She is expectant. You can hear that in the way she is turning over her papers – it is an anticipatory rasp. Rasp. Rasp. Rasp. Like a razor at work.
Eventually the magistrate looks up.
People in authority are frightening when they speak quietly. In their tone there is an implacable power of finality. You are not in control. They are. Well, she has got that voice on now.
“These are serious offences we have here.”
Then for about 5 minutes she gives him a tongue lashing — all hellfire and brimstone.
He continues to hang his head.
Eventually, the Magistrate says,
“RM30.00 per offence, RM210.00 for all 7 offences, 2 days imprisonment in default”.
I thought I heard a collective sigh go up at the gallery.
The Interpreter looks cheated.
When I returned home I tell Boss:
“If that guy had ever gotten into law school, most of us would have had to leave the Bar”.