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Monday, May 31, 2021

Of being an attorney-general

 


In a recent interview with Astro Awani, former attorney-general Tommy Thomas was asked if there will be another non-Malay attorney-general in future.

This is a very provocative and highly sensitive question that can only ignite emotional debates, given its explicit racial element. Every right-minded Malaysian would be entitled to participate in addressing this question. So I have absolutely no issue for Thomas (above) to address this question and speak his mind, just as I am entitled to do likewise. But I am appalled by the views he expressed.

He said there was no reason why not if the prime minister of the day wanted to choose the best and the brightest. In that cabinet of the future Thomas went on to postulate, there will be 10 Chinese, five Indians and five from Sabah and Sarawak.

My goodness, this brash and arrogant lawyer thinks only non-Malays are smart and bright enough, worthy of becoming an attorney-general or ministers in the cabinet. He described himself as “Pakatan AG “ yet could not speak Bahasa to save his life. It is reported that he regarded lawyers in the AG's Chambers as incompetent. No wonder he was despised by many lawyers in his own department.

Unfortunately, this despicable remark showed utter contempt and insensitivity to Malays. The brightest and the smartest he was looking for are not attributes or qualities that belong solely and exclusively to non-Malays. 

The quality that is most difficult to find in a good AG is impartiality, integrity, honesty and not afraid to say no to “directives” from the prime minister. Did we see those qualities in Thomas?

But he publicises himself well. He wrote a memoir soon after he resigned (and his partner wrote a book about how to get a judgment in default when selling a superyacht belonging to Jho Low ). Thomas now gets invited to speak at forums and even lectures us about the best and the brightest on Astro Awani.

However, the simple and stark truth is that he was chosen to be AG because DAP wanted him as AG. Not because he was the best around. Credit to him, he lobbied hard for the post. He wanted it very badly. He even alluded to this in his book. 

In DAP, he has friends in Lim Guan Eng and Tony Pua (they met frequently at Pietro) and both helped him become an attorney-general. It is not difficult to understand why. Thomas was confident that his DAP lobby was strong enough, but for insurance, he tried other avenues. 

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Thomas even called me and bought me thosai for breakfast at Devi’s Corner, Bangsar. He wanted me to slow talk Dr Mahathir Mohamad to appoint him as attorney-general. I told him I was not close to Mahathir.

Many people thought I was close to Mahathir since he came to my house three times during the election year, and I organised the "Save Malaysia Campaign" for him at Shah Alam Convention Centre. There he was seated together with Pakatan Harapan leaders for the first time. I had also persuaded him to accept DAP’s invitation to its National Convention and even took a train ride with him to the Bersih rally to endear himself to the NGOs. 

I did all that because I wanted Harapan to win the last general election. I was never close to Mahathir, not in the way I was and am still close to Najib Abdul Razak, whom I regard as a friend despite our differences and his mishandling of 1MDB.

The real reason I am writing this blog is to ask Thomas to give clarity about the things that happened during his tenure. In his book, he said Mahathir asked him to resign as soon as he was appointed. 

To lend credence to that, there was a report from Free Malaysia Today that he had resigned two months after he was appointed, which Thomas then denied. None of us has forgotten the statement by Dr M that he regretted appointing Thomas as AG.

Dr M wanted Sri Ram as AG

On Astro Awani last week, Thomas said he was ever so grateful to Mahathir, whom he claimed, had stood by him for 20 months. Now, which is which Thomas? Your listeners and readers surely need the truth to be spoken and clarity to be given as the saying goes: “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”

Allow me the liberty to express this opinion. Under pressure from DAP, Mahathir relented and appointed Thomas as AG. Thomas was not his preferred choice. Soon after, he then called Thomas to resign telling him that the Malays were up in arms against his appointment. 

The real reason was not the pressure of the Malays, as Mahathir could take any pressure put on him. Tun wanted Gopal Sri Ram as attorney-general. Sri Ram was the lawyer Mahathir trusted to bury Umno in 1987, as he was able to convince the late judge Harun Hashim that since a few (out of thousands) Umno branches were not registered, then the whole party became illegal.

The demise of Umno enabled Mahathir to form Umno Baru, and in the process excluded all his opponents from the party. You could say that Sri Ram had rendered invaluable service to Dr M. Naturally when the second big assignment came along, ie to finish Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor off, who else is better than Sri Ram to do the job effectively?

Naturally, Thomas refused to resign. It would be cumbersome for Mahathir to remove him as attorney-general, as the process and the ensuing publicity would put him in a bad light. So the next best thing was to ask Thomas as AG to give a fiat to Sri Ram to be the chief prosecutor for 1MDB. 

Deputy Public Prosecutor Gopal Sri Ram

Thomas, as a good obliging AG, followed the instructions to the letter, even though he himself would have preferred V Sithambaram to do it. Sri Ram was far from being the favourite of Thomas.

What many of us do not understand is why Thomas was so adamant that he had given the fiat for Sri Ram to prosecute Rosmah in her corruption case, when it is clear that the current Attorney-General Idrus Harun had done that. 

What is Thomas talking about when he said he had an overriding fiat and a blanket fiat that he said he could give to anyone, including Sri Ram? There is no more the need to follow Dr M’s instructions. Do what is right. The fiat Thomas had given earlier was not for Rosmah’s case. It is as plain and simple as that.

Thomas was also not above playing politics. The dropping of the charges against Lim Guan Eng and taking no further action (NFA) on the famous Sandakan video to protect the current senior minister are events under his watch. My sense is that if he had done the right thing, who knows, Harapan may still have some credibility with the people and perhaps still be in power.

Surely there are other competent criminal lawyers who can be appointed by the current attorney-general. We may detest the conduct of any accused person or persons, but he or she must be accorded a fair trial. 

A fair trial includes following the right process under the law, such as validly appointing a lawyer to prosecute the case. Sri Ram certainly knows what is fair and how to act fairly.

So, will we get another non-Malay to be our attorney-general in future? There is a possibility but after Thomas, it will be harder. If this does come to pass, I hope that the person will not exhibit the same traits of brashness and arrogance as Thomas.

There are many competent lawyers in the AG's Chambers that deserve respect and are fully capable of becoming the AG. The person has to be impartial and not consider himself an AG for any ruling party. He or she must always remember the heavy burden of being a public prosecutor.

It will help if this person has humility in his bones and speaks Bahasa well. Most importantly, he or she must have the courage to disregard and stand up to the dictates of the prime minister, if necessary. 

Always putting Malaysia first and the interests of the people as paramount is one cardinal rule that will be difficult for lawyers who are full of themselves to observe. - Mkini


ZAID IBRAHIM is a former law minister.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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