Malaysia’s Prime Minister Goes after his Nemesis

A royal commission investigation into judicial corruption in Malaysia has turned into a weapon in the struggle for primacy between Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his rebellious predecessor and relentless critic, Mahathir Mohamad.

The commission’s findings, which call for an investigation of Mahathir and other top officials for abuse of the judicial system, were first printed in The Star, the Kuala Lumpur-based daily controlled by the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest ethnic political party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

Either Badawi or possibly Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, whom Mahathir has also loudly turned against, are widely believed to have used their own channels to leak the findings to the local media, which would never have dared use them without a wink and a nod from the government, since the charges strike at the very top of the United Malays National Organisation, the leading ethnic party in the coalition.

Although Mahathir retired from power six years ago and had been largely regarded as a spent force for much of that time, he has begun a steady accretion of influence over the last two months, especially since disastrous national elections on March 8 that resulted in the worst showing for the Barisan Nasional since the country won independence five decades ago. The coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time and has been flailing ever since.

The 82-year-old Mahathir, who has been in a state of outrage at Badawi almost since the time he left power, has turned up the heat considerably on his successor, demanding his resignation and seeking to form spheres of influence of his own within UMNO to rebuild his power and continue as a kingmaker.

After first stalling for several days, (see: Asia Sentinel, May 15) the Malaysian cabinet Friday ordered the release of the report, which alleged that prominent government and judicial figures including the former prime minister were involved in the manipulation of appointments of top judges for political purposes. Along with the release of the report, the cabinet ordered the Attorney General, Abdul Ghani Patail to investigate those identified in it, including Mahathir.

Mahathir reacted with typical brio, challenging the government to charge him and saying he welcomed the controversy. “I want them to charge me in court…if I am charged, then I can explain what I had done,” he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

The report contains allegations of what had been reported since last September, when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim made public an eight-minute segment of a 2002 videotape showing the well-connected lawyer VK Lingam in conversation with Ahmad Fairuz, Sheikh Abdul Halim, then the country’s third-ranking judge. The release of the videotape played a major role in energizing opposition to the ruling Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition of ethnic parties, in elections earlier this year that wiped out the coalition’s historic two-thirds majority and resulted in its biggest defeat since independence.

The conversation appeared to indicate that Mahathir was closely involved in the appointment of malleable judges although appointments are supposed to be made by the court system itself. The videotape shows that some of Mahathir’s closest cronies, particularly gaming tycoon Vincent Tan, were involved as well. Ahmad Fairuz later became chief justice of the Supreme Court, now called the Federal Court.

After weeks of stalling, during which its own “independent” inquiry commission investigated the allegations but never issued a report, the government finally acceded to the appointment of the Royal Commission of Inquiry. The five-person commission was first scheduled to report its findings on March, 11, but it was delayed. The panel agreed in a two-volume report that the video was authentic, that indeed Lingam was speaking with Ahmad Fairuz, and that there was sufficient evidence of misdoing to refer the matter for prosecution.

Among those who could face charges, along with Mahathir, are attorney V K Lingam, Vincent Tan, UMNO Secretary General Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansur and former chief justices Ahmad Fairuz and Eusoff Chin, who was accused of taking a trip to New Zealand in Lingam’s company. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohamad Zaid Ibrahim said the six would be investigated on allegations of obstruction of justice as well as offenses under the Sedition and Official Secrets Acts.

The question now revolves around what Abdul Ghani will do. Although Mahathir left power in 2002 in favor of Abdullah Badawi, the government is heavily populated with individuals appointed or selected by Mahathir during the latter’s 22 years in power, and Abdul Ghani is regarded as one of those most loyal to the former prime minister. It was Abdul Ghani, for instance, who served as chief prosecutor in 1998 in the trial of Anwar on charges of sexual perversion and corruption after Mahathir fired Anwar as deputy prime minister. The charges were widely regarded as trumped up by human rights organizations.

Ever since Mahathir engineered the firing of the Tun Mohamad Salleh Abbas, the Lord President of the Supreme Court and two justices in 1988, the judicial system has remained largely in the thrall of UMNO politicians. Certainly, the courts and the justice system itself have shown little independence since that time. A case in point is the long-drawn-out trial of three men for the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was shot in the head twice and blown up with explosives in October 2006. The three are the closest friend and two bodyguards of Deputy Prime Minister Najib. In a sworn statement Abdul Razak Baginda, Najib’s friend, confessed that he had gone to Najib’s chief of staff to ask the two bodyguards to take care of his jilted lover for him. But so far neither Najib nor his chief of staff has been asked to testify, and many questions remain over his involvement, or lack of it.

The royal commission has also recommended that the government establish a Judicial Appointments Commission to take the power of judicial appointments back from political figures and to undertke a series of other reforms to clean up the system.