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Beatson’s World : 3.5 minute read by Farriz Mashudi 11/07/2020

“Let’s talk about fetters on the exercise of discretion.”

The bespectacled professor with his wavy hair and pointed expression made no sense. An esteemed author of one of two top textbooks on the reading list, without question, Administrative Law was his thing. But what could he mean?

It sounded almost fantastical, far-fetched madness like ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ author, Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in the sequel ‘Through The Looking Glass’ and her six impossible things to believe before breakfast.

In related fiction, ‘Yes, Minister’ and the even better follow-up series, ‘Yes Prime Minister’ were brilliant as comedy. But was the good professor saying it was actually supposed to be real?

‘Fetters’ as in curtailment of government powers? “Yes, in its administrative, Executive role,” Beatson confirms, wondering what the problem is.

Mind-blowing stuff, this.

Plonked on the sofa in his study at Merton College in Michaelmas Term, barely 4.00 p.m. it was already dark. Call it dystopian fantasy; Call it my pea brain; Call it culture shock. It’s hard, quite impossible actually, to imagine civil servants advising elected politicians in power, rather than the other way around.

Had anyone ever seen it in real life? I for one never had.

Step aside Che Guevara.

Could somebody please put JACK BEATSON on a T-shirt.

“Ties in nicely with ‘Controlling Police Powers’, that you’ll be ironing out in PIL” he adds, in one fell swoop making Public International Law and controlling how countries conduct themselves sound like regular housekeeping. Tell me these weren’t revolutionary ideals.

But truly, I couldn’t get a grip, let alone comprehend what sounded like a radical manifesto. As a government scholar, I hardly dared imagine it possible. Were we even allowed to think these things? This colonised under-ripe ciku fruit (sweet with a tender brown flesh, and a particular favourite of mine) — your proverbial greenhorn, had never seen the type of governance Beatson espoused, ever being practised back home.

We didn’t ‘get it’, after all, not on the ground, and not in any possibly conceivable aspect of the phrase.

Government officers (the capital ‘G’ pretty much mandated) were to be respected, and politicians — the absolute top of the heap — even more so, merely for being incumbent seat-holders. Written in stone up in the air somewhere, this was never questioned.

But Beatson was saying politicians were to be challenged by civil servants if told to do something wrong; AND civil servants themselves could be constrained for exceeding their own limited powers.

I had to shake my head in disbelief back then. Who would have thought there was such a thing as amazing as Administrative Law? It didn’t seem to exist where I came from.  

Everyone on our street, and the next road up, and across town and in others like ours were afraid of the police. Who would protect us from them? Seriously.

People would joke about their customary habit of stopping cars just before every big religious holiday, and habitually paid the ‘coffee money’ or ‘police tolls’, whatever you wished to call them.

“The mice are out looking for cheese again,” the neighbours would warn.

If they could be paid more in salary, I wondered, would they still be like this?

My head spinning in the tutorials, it was all I could do to foil Beatson with prepared questions. Hard ones. Nodding dumbly, doing my best to look smart, as he deftly explained them away. — WHOOSH… Could you hear it? Legal theories on natural justice and citizens’ rights swirling at the speed of sound over my head, in one ear and as swiftly out the other, not a single neuron latching on.

Completely un-relatable, the scenarios he described being not in the least familiar, my condition wasn’t understandable, least of all to myself. “What’s so difficult to grasp?” the personal tutor asks, just doing her job. And as she rightly predicts, it was my downfall in Finals.

Not until years later, talking to legal interns in the Middle East, did I recognise it staring me back in the face.

“What is the crazy lady going on about?” their blank looks seemed to cry. And that was just about seat belts and traffic laws, supposedly simple stuff.

“What’s the point of laws?” they asked, quite rightly, “When people ignore them, and simply do what they like.”

Same as me, they had no good examples to guide or cite.  If lack of enforcement was their main problem, my own black hole was due perhaps to lack of training not only for civil servants — but also the public — on the separation of powers, the cornerstone of Beatson’s World.

Might we wake up one day to see these three pillars a common sight everywhere across the globe? :

#1 PARLIAMENT comprised of fairly elected accountable politicians;

#2 JUDICIARY independent of Parliamentary persuasion, from present or past leaders; and an

#3 EXECUTIVE (civil servants and government departments including the police) performing its duties with rightful restraint, without fear of repercussion or improper pursuit of favour.

A retired Lord of Appeals now, what might Sir Jack Beatson’s advice be for when all best efforts have failed? Should have had this on my list of tough questions for him.


Who are the winners? Who loses? – Questions mount over Malaysia’s high-profile trials.

Photos by Pixabay, Francesco Ungaro, Engin Ukyurt,, Kostya Naddubov, Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

The world waits for the upcoming decision of Judge Mohd Nazlan Ghazali (Jesus ’87 – ’90) on 28/07/2020.

From the grounds of Merton College, mind-boggling Oxford drama of a different kind features in LATEST POST: Of Pimms And Pollen

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