BOOK REVIEW: My Story: Justice in the Wilderness
By Tommy Thomas. The Strategic Information and Research Development Center. Soft cover, with index, U$20.35 on Amazon
Tommy Thomas, a distinguished private lawyer who served as Malaysia’s attorney general during the 20 months of Malaysia’s ill-fated Pakatan Harapan regime, has penned arguably one of the most controversial local books since Mahathir Mohamad – who doesn’t come off well in it – wrote “The Malay Dilemma” in 1970, which cemented the two-time prime minister as a Malay nationalist. Thomas’s book, “My Story: Justice in the Wilderness, is the first insider’s account so far of the Pakatan Harapan government’s “achievements, disappointments, missed opportunities and failures.” There are plenty of the latter, many of them perpetrated by Mahathir, whose ultimate sudden resignation in February 2020 represented a “monumental betrayal” of the country.
There is little shock to the fact that the disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak is threatening a defamation suit. Thomas pretty bluntly accuses Najib of being personally responsible for the gruesome 2006 murder of Mongolian party girl and interpreter Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was shot in the head by two of Najib’s bodyguards who then blew up her body with army-grade explosives in a patch of forest near the suburb of Shah Alam. The evidence amassed by prosecutors, he said, “implicated not only Najib Razak as the person who gave [one of the bodyguards] the order to kill, but also his aide-de-camp, Musa Safri, for assisting or abetting Najib” in setting the bodyguards after her. Thomas dismissed the threat of suit and reserved the right to demand costs if the case goes to trial.
Much of the first part of the book is given over to autobiography. But there is plenty more. As national prosecutor, Thomas gives an insider’s account of the government’s still-continuing attempt to bring Najib and other alleged crooks to bay in the massive 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, in which at least US$4.5 billion disappeared from the government-backed sovereign investment fund due to massive corruption and mismanagement led by Najib. But there is far more to Thomas’s relationship to governments over several decades as one of Malaysia’s most prominent litigators. He was chosen by Pakatan Harapan leaders to take over as attorney general from Mohamed Apandi Ali, an UMNO lackey whose principal job appeared to be protecting Najib from prosecution.
That Pakatan Harapan stumbled from crisis to crisis from the May 2018 election until it was brought down by the unexpected resignation of Mahathir Mohamad in February 2020 is hardly news. As Thomas said, “three principal causes can be identified for the collapse of PH. First, the poor management of the coalition. Secondly, the visceral distrust by the Prime Minister [Mahathir] of the designated successor for his office, Anwar Ibrahim. Finally, PH’s failure to respond to the adroit dominance of the public space by the right-wing faction led by UMNO, with the result that Malay support for PH declined substantially over time. The common theme in the three causes is distrust among politicians elected on a common platform; not just between constituent parties, but intra-party, particularly within Bersatu and PKR.”
Beyond that Thomas gives considerable weight to an even graver allegation which has quietly cycled through Kuala Lumpur’s elite for decades – that the horrific events of 1969, when race riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur in which hundreds died, were deliberately fomented by Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the father of Najib Razak and Malaysia’s third prime minister. “So why did hundreds of Malay youths brandishing parangs, krises and knives turn on their fellow citizens, the Chinese, and to a lesser extent, the Indians, on the evening of Tuesday, May 13th, 1969?” the book asks. “The evidence points to a coup by Tun Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister and UMNO’s Deputy President. Although Tun Razak had served as a deputy to Tunku for some twelve years after Merdeka, he was anxious to take-over.”
The upshot of those race riots was the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action and social re-engineering program put into effect in 1971 to bring ethnic Malays out of poverty and give them a slice of Malaysia’s economic pie. Fifty years later, it is still in effect, having hobbled Malaysia’s economy, installed a privileged race and proven to the world that affirmative action programs are largely useless. But if the race riots of 1969 were deliberately kicked off by Najib’s father to exacerbate Malay grievances and to put ethnic minorities in their place, particularly the Chinese, that means the entire reason for the New Economic Policy was built on a lie.
Lie it may have been, but the riots and the subsequent events have begot Ketuanan Melayu, the specious idea that one race has precedence in the country and that other races are thieving guests. Ketuanan Melayu has remained a cancer on the country’s complicated race relations and its economy, exploited without end by the United Malays National Organization, which remains the country’s biggest political party despite decades of mind-boggling corruption.
That racial equation has been perpetrated and furthered by Mahathir Mohamad, the twice-retreaded prime minister, who Thomas accuses of having wrecked the Pakatan Harapan coalition out of personal ambition. Despite considerable time spent working with Mahathir, Thomas appears to have little use for him. A firebrand nationalist, Mahathir had been cast out of UMNO and politics for the racist attitudes expressed in The Malay Dilemma, to eventually be rehabilitated and brought back to politics by Tun Razak Hussein, despite expressed doubts by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malay prince who is known as the father of the country.
“I was privileged to have visited Tunku on many occasions. I was part of its small delegation which visited Tunku at his home in Bukit Tunku, Kuala Lumpur when Operation Lalang and the Judicial Crisis (see below) occurred. Tunku was pained by the extent of injustice unleashed by the Mahathir administration. Tunku never hid his disappointment and disapproval of Prime Minister Mahathir,” Thomas writes. “Tunku would have been absolutely disgusted by the way his beloved nation evolved fifty years after he was eased out of office.”
The aforementioned Operation Lalang, in 1987 with Mahathir as “the political master and responsible minister,” rounded up more than 100 opposition political figures, intellectuals, journalists and others in what Thomas calls “this brutal exercise of state power against [Malaysia’s] own citizens innocent of any criminal wrongdoing.” Eventually, as he writes, “all the detainees were released, with most of the opposition leaders returning to public life. A climate of fear, the desired goal of [the national police chief] and the Home Minister, descended onto Malaysia after 27th October 1987, and was to shape and mold the thinking of Malaysians for years thereafter. These were the dark days of our history.”
I played a personal role in the aforementioned Judicial Crisis. As correspondents for the now-defunct Asian Wall Street Journal, the Dow Jones flagship in Asia, my colleague Raphael Pura and I in October of 1986 had written stories over several days detailing misuses of public funds and outright corruption. Mahathir, enraged, ordered us out of the country. Pura was at that point overseas, but my family and I were given 72 hours to leave.
Dow Jones appealed the expulsion, bringing in two of the UK’s most distinguished Queen’s Counsels, Geoffrey Robertson and Louis Blom-Cooper to represent us. Dow Jones lost at the trial and appellate court levels and the case was elevated to the Supreme Court. “By chance, we were having a Bar Council meeting when we received news that the appeal was being heard on an urgent basis by the Supreme Court. A delegation of six lawyers from the Bar Council rushed to the Supreme Court to hold a watching brief for the Bar. I was in that team,” he writes. “None of the counsel had any chance of submitting. It was a tour de force performance by our greatest judge at his very best. Justice Eusoffe Abdoolcader, took over the proceedings. The other four judges sat back in awe, and allowed him to run the show.”
The hearing, both for leave and the merits, took less than fifteen minutes. “John Berthelsen was allowed to re-enter Malaysia if he wished. Justice Eusoffe released his grounds of decision within a week, as he was accustomed to. His judgment has stood the test of time as a legal classic in our law reports. But radical, the decision was not. Justice Eusoffe merely applied established Malaysian case law to the facts of the case.”
As Thomas writes, that case infuriated Mahathir even more, leading up to his eventual sacking of top members of the court. “For at least a year leading up to the suspension of Salleh Abas, Dr Mahathir conducted a campaign of public criticism of Justice Harun, who was unjustly vilified in the UMNO-controlled press. The Bar, civil society and opposition parties condemned Dr Mahathir for carrying out a smear campaign against Justice Harun,” he writes. The upshot, however, was that Mahathir destroyed the integrity of Malaysia’s until-then highly respected judicial system and turned the courts into nothing more than an arm of the government.
Presumably Mahathir would grow to rue that decision and his emasculating the press as well when Najib Razak, in his attempts keep Pakatan Harapan from electoral success 30 years later, sought to use both the law and the press to keep the opposition at bay.
“I have probably had more than fifty- one-to-one sessions with [Mahathir],” Thomas writes. “Yet I do not know the man. I am convinced that Tun’s habit of listening, rather than speaking, is partially not to show his hand or to share his thoughts. A mysterious politician and an enigmatic character accurately describe Tun.’ Mahathir, he writes, “had returned as a hero to save Malaysia from the greedy and dishonest clutches of Najib Razak. Tun ought to have acted as a statesman, unifying the different races.”
He didn’t do it. Nor did he push to reform crucially repressive laws whose repeal was called for in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto presented to the voters in 2018. “If ever there was a case of a missed opportunity for law reform, it was the failure of the PH government to repeal these oppressive provisions. An apology is owed to the people of Malaysia. I express regret for my role in not accomplishing this objective. These laws were not repealed simply because there was insufficient political will on the part of the PH cabinet. Those advocating repeal were not clear in their minds as to what they wished to achieve, and how.”
If evidence was ever required for the quip often uttered, he said, “that a society gets the laws it deserved, certainly influential segments of Malaysian society did not act with sufficient diligence to repeal the oppressive provisions of these two Acts. We have no one to blame but ourselves.” There is plenty of blame to be apportioned. Mahathir and the merry Pakatan Harapan band wrecked the chance for reform totally. Now a new thug is attempting to consolidate power, to the country’s detriment.
Juxtaposed against Apandi, TT is a towering presence in terms of prestige, intellect, integrity & independence.
A ‘good read’ or ‘bad read’ is up to individuals to decide. ‘Triumphant’ success or ‘miserable’ failure can’t be attributed to any single person either in public governance scenarios. Neither did TT aim to ‘seek commendations/ significance’ for writing about his experiences. It is after all just a candid memoir!