Sunday interview Before being appointed to the Dubai International Financial Centre court, Norma Yakoob was Malaysia's first female high court judge.
Out of retirement, into a Dubai courtroom
If the burden of being the first woman to be appointed as a judge in the UAE was a heavy one, it was sitting lightly on the slender shoulders of Tan Sri Dato' Seri Siti Norma Yakoob to give her the full ceremonial titles she has earned during 43 years in the Malaysian judiciary. Quite simply, she is used to "firsts". There is nothing of the suffragette about the former chief judge of Malaysia, who has been appointed as one of the six judges of the new Dubai International Financial Centre court. It would not be in the nature of this calm, dignified woman, with her warm smile and charming manners, to make a fuss. She just gets on with the job and leaves it to others to make public waves. She was her own country's first female high court judge and the first and only woman to rise to the position of chief judge, the third most senior appointment in Malaysia under the chief justice and the president of the court of appeal. Now, at the age of 68, when many another might consider putting their feet up and enjoying retirement and the company of her grandchildren, she is chalking up one more "first". A year after her official retirement in January 2007, she found herself standing in front of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in a room in the opulent Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, taking a new oath of office along with five other judges who will sit in the DIFC court. "When I retired last year I never hoped or expected to do anything. I thought I would have a quiet holiday for three months and then I would be kicking my heels and wondering what to do with myself but then I was approached by a senior member of the Malaysian Bar about doing some work overseas. "So I asked him what I would have to do and he said, 'Sit in court and decide cases', which of course I have been doing all my working life. I said I would certainly be interested and asked for three things - that they speak English, that the laws applicable must be the Common Law in England and, finally, it must be made clear that not only am I a woman but a Muslim woman on top of that. If they can satisfy me that they will accept me, I will say OK. "Eight months after my retirement I got a phone call from the registry of the DIFC courts to tell me that they would be offering this appointment to me subject to the Sheikh's approval. They were looking for somebody from one of the Commonwealth countries whose legal systems are based on Common Law. The chief justice of the DIFC is from England, the deputy chief justice is from Singapore and there is a judge from New Zealand. We all met up to take the oath together on Jan 31 2008 with Dr Omar Bin Sulaiman, the governor of the DIFC, who assured me there was no problem about my being a woman. Even so, when the Sheikh walked in I heard him say, 'Oh it's a woman' as if he was surprised. "I didn't realise that they hadn't had a woman sitting in judgement in the UAE before, but I understand that now Abu Dhabi has appointed a woman judge, although I haven't met her. It's recognition and acknowledgement that we females can do the same work." Her titles speak for themselves. Tan Sri is the second highest civilian title bestowed by the king on the recommendation of the federal government. There are never more than a certain number at any one time. Dato' roughly corresponds to the British knighthood or damehood.
Judge Yakoob, or Tan Sri Norma Yakoob as she is known in Kuala Lumpur, will not be moving to the UAE. She expects to sit in court four times a year or as needed by the DIFC, coming for a week at a time. Procedures and schedules are still being worked out as cases start trickling in and the commercial sector begins to understand that there is somewhere they can go to redress grievances. "We are still finding our way around, working out our schedules and cases and deciding how often we should meet per year," Yakoob says. "Things may happen when we are not there, and when you need a judge quickly somebody has to be available. "We have discussed video conferencing but it's not reliable. You don't see the expression on the person's face or their body language. "There's no question of punishment. We make a judgement. There is damage assessment and I think we may introduce arbitration, which is a more private way of settling disputes. Many companies don't like to be publicised as it damages their reputation. I do a lot of arbitration in Malaysia," she says. The appointment is for a three year period during which Yakoob can either sit alone or with two other members, forming a panel with appellate jurisdiction. Her first full sitting is scheduled for November and cases will all be of a commercial nature. "The constitution had to be amended in 2004 and a law passed specifically setting up the makeup of the new court. This is all part of the building up of Dubai as an international centre along the lines of London or Hong Kong. It will open the doors for a lot of trading. With so many foreign companies and law firms opening offices there, along with chartered banks in partnership with local banks, there is a need for specialised courts using a combination of civil law and sharia law. It's a division of the high court dealing purely with commercial cases just as we have family courts. It works on the same basis so that you get judges who are highly specialised." Yakoob was speaking at her spacious offices overlooking Kuala Lumpur's Mid Valley City, where she is chairman of the board of RAM Holdings Berhad, a credit rating agency. It was her first interview since her appointment and she was clearly looking forward to returning to the courtroom. Despite a glittering legal career that saw her take appointments as court of appeal judge, federal court judge and, finally, chief judge, it wasn't always a straight path to the top of her profession. Her being a Muslim woman in the legal profession was not to everybody's liking. In fact, twice in her career, an appointment was delayed while religious concerns were thrashed out. "In 1983, my appointment to the high court was stalled. There was thinking that being a Muslim I couldn't sit in judgement for religious reasons, but somehow common sense prevailed, although I had to wait for several months while it was discussed. I knew it would have to happen one day. For me it was more of a sense of annoyance than anything else. I wasn't able to express any opinion and just had to wait patiently. Judges aren't supposed to get involved in these kinds of controversies. "The appointment of judges here in Malaysia is quite unusual. The chief justice nominates a name and sends it to the prime minister. Depending on whether he agrees, it's submitted to the conference of rulers (a council comprising the rulers of the nine Malay states). They will approve it and then the King will give his mandate and make the appointment. It's very confidential. It's a question of perception and acceptance. Maybe the idea of a woman in the judiciary was too new when it was first mooted. Once it had sunk in people just got used to it. "Becoming chief judge also took some time. There was opposition to my appointment that carried on over a period of several months. I thought I would be passed over but I think the king said it didn't matter that I was a woman. I just took it all in my stride. Life must go on," she says. Yakoob says she is honoured to have been chosen as a judge in the DIFC court and hopes it reflects well on her country. Ironically, she comes from a region that has specific laws relating to women and inheritance. In Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, where she grew up, land is left to the women of the family and not the men. Her father was a civil servant. Her mother married at the age of 15 and bore 10 children, eight girls and two boys. Yakoob was the ninth. "Negeri, where we come from, has its own peculiar laws. It is a very matriarchal society in its approach to the law. In a Malay family a woman has more clout in the sense that she holds the reins and manages everything in the family. She is the one to whom the property is bequeathed. I didn't realise how this thing worked until my mother died. She left eight pieces of property. When I asked my father what about my two brothers he said, 'No it can only go to the females of the family'. Long ago the males of the family would go away and work or join the army as soldiers, leaving the women to look after things. Nowadays things are different." The young Yakoob had her early education at Malay School Rahang, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and King George V, Seremban. In 1962 she decided to study law. Her father sent her to London where she gained a placement at Gray's Inn. "I don't think I had any preconceived ideas or ambitions about what I wanted to do. My elder sister studied domestic science at Bath College. Another sister did that in New Zealand and one brother did forestry in Australia. Our parents encouraged us to spread our wings. My father would say he was not a rich man able to give us endless opportunities. He had been to the UK himself to work. At one point in his life my father worked as a mining engineer. He worked out that sending me to London was the quickest way for me to qualify. Law was not a profession that the government was willing to give a scholarship, so my father paid for my fees. "My mother never studied, she always said she would have 'been somebody' if she had studied. She was a strong minded person anyway. She loved smoking, which was quite unusual. When we had visitors to the house she would smoke with them." Yakoob was always aware that a career in the judiciary would carry with it responsibilities and she was always careful about how she behaved and whom she chose as friends. "I started working at the age of 22. I have always remained loyal to the judiciary, throughout my various appointments. There's a slow build-up of acceptance so that once we sit in judgement we have to be sure who our friends are and who we are seen with. You never know when friends might appear before you. If it happened I would just excuse myself from making a judgement."
She has been married for 40 years to Datuk Seri Meor Ayob bin Mior Shaffie, a mining consultant. She and her husband have two sons and a daughter and seven grandchildren. Family life is clearly a priority these days and she likes nothing better than filling her refrigerator with chocolate and ice-cream for her grandchildren. "They love coming to me because I always have their favourite things in the fridge. I suppose that's what grandmothers are for." The importance of her family was thrown into sharp focus in the late Sixties when she was president of the sessions court. Death threats from Tang gang members were sent to her and for six months Yakoob's every move was covered by a team of bodyguards. "My life was threatened once when I had a lot of high profile criminal cases where the punishment is short of death. I had no power to sentence to death, only life imprisonment. This was a robbery with firearms. At the time Kuala Lumpur was paralysed by gangs of Tangs. They were gangsters who went around shooting at everybody. One of them was arrested and he was brought before me to be tried and sentenced. Shortly after that case I was threatened and a piece of cloth soaked in blood was thrown through my front door. "Of course I had to report it to the police and my children were very young at the time, still at kindergarten, so I was very worried about them. The authorities insisted that I had three bodyguards, with two escorting me wherever I went, and one inside the house. They wanted to pitch a tent in the garden but I thought that the neighbours would be upset, so they just became part of the family and we put them up inside the house. The phones were monitored the whole time. "Each time I left the house I was followed by men with walkie talkies saying, 'The bird is now leaving the nest'. I had to change my routine all the time. If I wanted to go to the hairdresser one of them would come with me and I would have to introduce them as a long lost cousin. I remember my mother saying that if it was so difficult why didn't I resign, but it made me more determined to continue. "It lasted about six months. I think the man was eventually executed. In the midst of all that a high ranking police officer was shot so they thought that if the gangs could get him they weren't taking any chances with me. It's just one of the hazards of being a judge." Another occupational hazard was the necessity of passing sentence on another human being, something that she never did lightly and which weighed heavily on her mind, like the first time she had to sentence a man to be flogged. Such cases were of enormous interest to the media, especially those involving drugs, gangs and robberies with violence. "At the sessions court the maximum sentence was life imprisonment and flogging. The first time I gave somebody the sentence of flogging I couldn't sleep afterwards. I didn't regret the decision because it was robbery with violence. Sometimes the law makes the sentence mandatory. "When there are personalities involved it becomes high profile. It really saps your energy and we are always concerned about the perception in the press and foreign press. "One case I tried involved people charged with treason to the king. They formed a militant group with a jihad attitude and placed bombs in several places, disrupting the flow of electricity. They were all charged and found guilty of treason and three were sentenced to death. It touched me, in a sense." Her attitude to the death penalty is pragmatic. It is the law in Malaysia and naturally she accepts that. "If they asked me to attend an execution I would have to do it. It's part of the job. But I have never been asked. In this country, I agree with the death penalty, especially with cases involving drugs because of the damage they cause to the young people in society. I don't know whether the death penalty has frightened people but it's still part of the law here. I have grandchildren of a young age. I don't want them to be exposed to these temptations." She started to specialise in financial law in 1988 and sat in the commercial division until 1994 before she become an appeal court judge. She was appointed to the federal court in 2001 and became chief judge of Malaya in 2005, holding the position until her retirement. She is a prochancellor of the University of Malaya, and also sits on the board of KAF Investment Bank, where she helps decide how funds are spent on corporate local responsibility programmes and educational projects. Yakoob was once asked what qualities she believed a good judge should possess. "Patience and incorruptibility" was her response. Over lunch organised at short notice at the exclusive Banker's Club in Kuala Lumpur, we were joined by two female members of the Malaysian judiciary and it was clear the respect and affection in which she is held. One of the women, a judge herself and a close friend, said quite simply: "Whatever Tan Sri wants us to do we do. She is a very special person and we are very proud of her."