Rejoice, for this is genuine Rule of Law


October 24, 2018

Rejoice, for this is genuine Rule of Law

Opinion  |  Dean Johns

 COMMENT | Feelings of schadenfreude, the expression for which we’re indebted to German, and is defined in English as ‘pleasure at learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures or humiliations of others’ may not be a terribly noble, but it’s a fact of life that this happens to be one of the many ways in which we humans are flawed.

Or at least I’m happy to admit that I am.

If there’s one class of fellow humans I hate, it’s liars, frauds and fakes. And thus I’m over the moon at the spectacle of former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak, former first lady of Malaysia Rosmah Mansor and current UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi facing their moments of truth.

Of course, none of them has admitted the truth of the countless charges or masses of evidence against them.Nor, admittedly, as some readers are sure to rightly remind me, are they required to do so, given their right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

A situation that is far more generous than prevailed back when fake UMNO-BN “justice’” was meted-out against innocent witness Teoh Beng Hock, who fatally “fell” from a 14th-floor window at MACC headquarters; Scorpene-scandal translator Altantuya Shaariibuu who was shot and then disposed of with C4 explosive and countless “suspects” summarily executed in suspicious “shoot-outs” with the police.

But these UMNO-BN suspects have at least been questioned, investigated, accused and charged, and thus I feel justified in feeling a small frisson of schadenfreude in anticipation of a far bigger one when they eventually face trial and thus the possibility of conviction and imprisonment.

And not just imprisonment, as that would be mere retribution. They should also be required to make restitution to Malaysia and Malaysians of all their fraudulently-acquired assets.

Unfortunately, such a desirable and indeed delightful result is way in the future for the few big fish the law has netted so far, but there are plenty of smaller-fry alleged UMNO-BN fraudsters for the forces of law and order to bring to book and thus sustain our schadenfreude in the meantime.

In fact, many of them, both already and yet-to-be charged, are apparently so incurably addicted to falsehood, fakery and fraudulence as to be beyond redemption.

Najib (centre in photo), for example, had the effrontery, not to mention the deficiency of any sense of irony, to claim that he turned up in court yesterday to lend Zahid his “moral” support.

And for his part, Zahid himself saw fit to engage in his customary fake piety, proposing that the same God he formerly credited with choosing him for high political office is now putting him to a test that he intends to pass by clearing himself of the charges he faces.

‘Trying times’

Meanwhile, as usual, his sanctimonious accomplices and supporters in his alleged preying on the populace were urgently praying and urging others to pray to the same God.

UMNO Vice-President Ismail Sabri Yaakob urged “all Malaysians, supporters and members of UMNO to stand firm (in support of Zahid) and pray.”

Image result for Wanita UMNO Chief Noraini Ahmad

And similarly, Wanita UMNO Chief Noraini Ahmad declared that “the movement was praying for Zahid in hope that God would help him through this (sic) trying times.”

 

Zahid’s wife, Hamidah Khamis  had a somewhat different take on the Divinity’s role in the situation, making the point that “calamities as a punishment from God would hit Malaysia if problems such as the LGBT movement and alcoholic parties” – as well, implicitly as Zahid’s prosecution – “were not prevented.”

All such fantasies on the part of the fraudulent are nothing but further fuel for us schadenfreude fans, of course. But, to finish this column on a more positive note, as dedicated as I and doubtless many others are at seeing as many frauds as possible getting their just desserts, we’re also delighted that lots of genuine people will benefit.

Our honest, upstanding friends in the legal fraternity, for example, who have years of prosecution and defence briefs to look forward to now that the genuine rule of law appears to be back in force.

Not to mention the majority of true, honest-to-goodness Malaysians who have spent so many years waiting, and some of them possibly even praying, for freedom at last from UMNO-BN-style lies, fraud, fakery and also far worse.


DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published compilations of his Malaysiakini columns include “Mad about Malaysia”, “Even Madder about Malaysia”, “Missing Malaysia”, “1Malaysia.con” and “Malaysia Mania”.

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

 

Malaysia’s Attorney-General Tommy Thomas Speaks to Malaysiakini and The Edge –Parts 1& 2


 

October 11, 2018

Malaysia’s  Attorney-General Tommy Thomas Speaks to Malaysiakini and The Edge –Parts 1& 2

Image result for tommy thomas attorney general's book

INTERVIEW | Newly appointed Attorney-General Tommy Thomas gave Malaysiakini and The Edge an exclusive interview last Thursday – the day senior lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah was charged with money laundering.

In his first major interview since he was tapped as A-G, the 66-year-old barrister and author of two books spoke about his gargantuan duties three months into his appointment as the top legal officer in the country.

In particular, Thomas talked about the difficulties and challenges faced by the Attorney-General’s Chambers (A-GC) in the 1MDB case, the civil action taken by the new Malaysian government in Singapore, United States and Switzerland to recover the assets of the failed sovereign wealth fund, the criticisms in his appointment of outside lawyers to handle the 1MDB and SRC International prosecution and the retrieval of Jho Low’s jet in Singapore.

On the difficulties his Chambers faced, Thomas said, “I would say is that never in the history of the Chambers has there been so much demand for prosecution, which is because of the past misdeeds that have accumulated over the years, problems that I’ve inherited.”

On 1MDB, the A-G said the Chambers had formed a special team to handle one of the most complicated legal cases ever faced by the country.

He talked about launching legal actions in the United States, Singapore and Switzerland, where lawyers there have been appointed to begin the civil recoveries of the 1MDB assets, with the objective to put the proceeds in a specially set-up fund.

“We have opened an account, a special segregated new account, controlled by MOF (Ministry of Finance). It’s the MOF and the new directors of 1MDB who are controlling it. It is specially set up. After the GST RM19 billion hole, there has to be a specially protected, segregated trust account earning interest and controlled by honest signatories,” he said.

Although there have been calls for enforcement agencies such as the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to be given prosecutorial powers, Thomas is against the idea.

“I’m against those who say MACC must prosecute. They don’t know how much power that will give to MACC, if that happens. The existing system is perhaps the least worst. But the disadvantage of this is if the agencies do not give us the investigation papers (IPs) then the AGC cannot do much. We cannot do anything until the IPs are given. So until today, there is not a single IP on 1MDB given to us.”

The AG also talked about the criticisms in his appointment of senior lawyer Sulaiman Abdullah to lead the prosecution against former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak in the SRC International case and former Federal Court Judge Gopal Sri Ram on 1MDB.

“Domestically, the A-G’s Chambers has in the past appointed local lawyers. AG’s Chambers appointed Datuk KC Vohrah, Tan Sri Cecil Abraham and Dato’ Sunil Abraham and their firm, Zul Rafique, for many civil matters.

“In fact, the SRC (prosecution) team was happy (with Sulaiman) because most of them were tutored by Sulaiman at (the) university. They look to Sulaiman as their intellectual guru. One must look at it in terms of what Malaysia needs. The people of Malaysia want justice, they want speedy justice. The people of Malaysia deserve the best and the brightest to appear for them,” he said.

Thomas also explained how it would be difficult for him to lead the prosecution on SRC and 1MDB. He offered the example of a case he once handled.

“When the trial starts, you have to be full time with the trial, because at night you have to prepare cross-examination questions. When the trial is over, you have to do research and draft exhaustive written submissions. I was a hands-on barrister who took my court commitments seriously and professionally.

“Knowing that first hand, you cannot combine that with the demands of the A-G, where the PM wants to see you, the cabinet wants to consult you, Parliament is sitting, and so on. It’s just not possible, you cannot combine all these demanding tasks with the work of counsel in court.”

Thomas also spoke about how he has changed his opinion about Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a man whom he criticised many years ago. According to him, Mahathir is a “reformed PM”. Upon taking office as AG, he said the world’s oldest prime minister told him, “Tell me if there’s something wrong, tell me if I can’t do it.”

“So I said, ‘Yes, Tun, I will’.”

Here is the first part of the interview. The second and final part will appear tomorrow.

Question: What’s your assessment of your first 100 days?

Thomas: The challenges have been much greater than I expected. What I said on the first day remains, which was (that) I have three priorities.

Firstly, everything to do with 1MDB, which is not just the criminal aspect, for there’s the civil recovery as well. Secondly, the lopsided contracts and thirdly, law reform.

Those have always been my focus, and remain my focus. But (it was only when) I came into the office and sat down and started doing work, that I realised the awesome responsibilities that are attached to the office.

And I think you will not know it unless you are sitting here. It’s difficult for anyone from the outside – certainly not a private practitioner, as I was. Even somebody from this Chambers – there are about 1,200 lawyers here – even they won’t understand the huge amount of responsibilities (of the AG). So that has surprised me.

How about the competency of your officers? There have been some criticisms that there’re not enough competent people dealing with the prosecution. Do you find that a problem?

I think that’s unfair. We have tremendous specialisation, but of course, lacking in some areas. For example, in things like AMLA (Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Act), which is very critical in the next few years, and Mutual Legal Assistance – again very critical because we’ve got to deal with different countries – we got top-class specialists.

And for the contracts review, we also have excellent people as I’m personally dealing with them. In so far as prosecution is concerned, what I would say is that never in the history of the AGC has there been so much demand for prosecution, which is because of the past misdeeds that have accumulated over the years – problems that I’ve inherited.

Whether it’s 1MDB or not, there is a long line of cases waiting once the IPs are delivered to me. Even if you got 1,000 world-class prosecutors, it’s just not enough. That tells you – it’s a commentary on the alleged crimes that have been built up over the years. So the pressure is awesome. That’s why we’re setting up the 1MDB unit, we’re setting up different units to cope with the cases because we’ve never done this before. If AGC had done this from 201… if prosecutions took place from 2011 or 2012, then it would not have built up.

And just to get it in relative terms, please look at the US. Their DOJ (Department of Justice), which is obviously world class because they’ve got so many talented people, forensic accountants, lawyers and unmatched resources… look at how the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, and his team, are doing. It took more than a year before they charged anybody. Then they went very fast, they’ve charged, I think, about 20 people in the last three months and they have got a few convictions.

But it took them one year. And I tell you the 1MDB scandal is much, much more complex than what (US President Donald) Trump has allegedly done. 1MDB is the world’s greatest kleptocracy!

You mentioned there are a criminal aspect and the asset recovery aspect with regard to 1MDB. Maybe you can share with us the approach your office is taking in regard to these two aspects?

On criminal, we can’t do anything until the IPs (investigation papers) come. Just to remind you that in our system – many countries also have it in order to prevent too much concentration of power – the idea is to distribute power. Checks and balances – so the four or five investigative agencies in Malaysia, like the police, MACC, Bank Negara, Securities Commission, Customs – there are about five or six bodies which investigate, they cannot charge. Because otherwise, they would be too powerful.

The A-GC prosecutes. We have the sole monopoly on prosecution and we should not carry out investigations because we’re already so powerful, so can you imagine how much more powerful we will be if we investigate (as well). So I’m against those who say MACC must prosecute. They don’t know how much power that will give to MACC, if that happens. The existing system is perhaps the least worst.

But the disadvantage of this is that if the agencies do not give us the IPs, then AGC cannot do much. We cannot do anything until the IPs are given. So until today, there is not a single 1MDB IP given to us. When it came to Jho Low (who was charged in absentia for money laundering), AGC asked the police to share their investigations, and then we charged him. 1MDB, not yet, but, hopefully, it will happen soon.

Do you know how many IPs have been opened as far as 1MDB is concerned?

No, I don’t know. And of course, you know MACC’s public position – I think they reiterated that about two weeks ago – is 60 percent (completed). They’ve been saying that to me from the time I took office. So what they’ve told me is what they’ve told the public: 60 percent of the first IP of the 1MDB is done.

And of course, ‘1MDB’ is a shorthand description of a massive fraud done over five, six years across the world, in numerous transactions. So you really have to look at it the way the fraudsters planned it. The fraudsters designed transaction after transaction, deal by deal. So there could be a 2011 fraud, a 2012 fraud, a 2013 transaction, a 2014 deal and so on.

Your immediate predecessor, Tan Sri (Mohamed) Apandi Ali, has been accused of conspiring to cover up the 1MDB scandal. Can we expect charges to be brought against him as well?

I don’t know anything about that. We have not gone in that direction. What I can tell you is – and all of you know it – is that there was no prosecution on 1MDB during his three-year tenure. That’s a fact. You have to ask him why there were no prosecutions, and none during the previous A-G’s time, too.

Because, as you know, the origin of 1MDB was the TIA (Terengganu Investment Authority) which was happening in 2009 and 2010. Anyone living in KL (Kuala Lumpur) would be aware that there were things horribly wrong. I was aware of things that were questionable in 2009 and 2010 just by mixing with the business community, journalists and politicians. Those in KL with an informed opinion knew that something was wrong in 2009 and 2010. So why didn’t my predecessors do anything about it? You have to ask them.

Do you have any authority to ask them (investigators) to update you or to speed up?

Yes, they do the update and all that. But that’s of no use, I rather not be updated. I want the complete IP. It’s better to have the complete package because, otherwise, you’re reading it twice. If you ask my team to read it when it’s at 60 percent and then hen the 100 percent comes, you have to reread. So it’s of no help, of no practical assistance, unless they give us the complete package.

Now I must answer the civil part. The civil part is the one that’s absolutely neglected. Everybody forgets that because the criminal dimension is the one that is ‘sexy’ and ‘newsworthy’.

Civil recovery is the one that’s underrated and not understood at all. It is essentially to recover as much of the stolen stuff as possible, and most of it is abroad. So we start with the US. The DOJ, as you know, they have been successful. They began in 2016, with the Loretta Lynch press conference with the filing of complaints where they have frozen assets – which we say, and the US government does not deny, belongs to us in trust.

Because taxpayers’ money were used, indeed stolen, to buy these assets, so they are assets that belong in trust to Malaysia but were held by other people who misused it. So we have to stake a claim. Again, we lost three years of it.

I must remind you that the previous government distanced itself. Its public position was these weren’t Malaysian assets when actually they are Malaysian assets. Until GE14, Malaysia’s official position was they were not Malaysia’s assets. Seldom would a beneficiary tell the world “these are not my assets”, and that’s what Malaysia was doing. We only started telling the truth after GE-14.

So that’s the US, we have to intervene. We have appointed lawyers and they’re going to intervene in court proceedings because it’s quite technical and related to sovereign immunity and jurisdictional questions. We are receiving advice, and hope to make a decision shortly.

Then Singapore, it’s also started. Again, it’s the same process. We have appointed lawyers and they are appearing in court. We’ve got some low-hanging fruits. But where there are opposition and contest, it’ll take five to six months. This first group of defendants did not object at all. They relinquished all claims. They surrendered, so it’s no problem.

And Singapore wants the identities of the defendants to be anonymous. One can understand because Singapore wants to encourage more claimants to give up their claims, and in return, Singapore would keep confidential their names. That makes sense. We just want the assets.

It (the identities of the defendants) will forever be anonymous?

That I don’t know, it is a matter for Singapore to decide. But for us, we want the monies returned to Kuala Lumpur.

Does your office have an indication as to how much money (is involved in Singapore)? The US DOJ has mentioned US$4.5 billion in its suit.

Singapore has not really mentioned it because they’re not really sure themselves as there are some contests. But what will happen in the next six months or so is that we will get court orders and monies will be returned. And as you know, we’ve opened an account, a special segregated new account, controlled by MOF (Ministry of Finance). It’s the MOF and the new directors of 1MDB who are controlling it.

So it’s an MOF-1MDB recovery account?

Yes, specially set up. After the GST RM19 billion hole, there has to be a specially protected, segregated trust account earning interest and controlled by honest signatories.

This is for recovered assets from everywhere, not just Singapore?

Yes, it starts with Singapore. And then we’ve got Switzerland, again they’re cooperating with us.

The biggest one is in the US?

Yes.

It will take several years, you think?

No, I don’t think so. I think… well, the US… well, maybe. It goes asset by asset. They are ‘in rem’ actions.

So it’s not a collective (action)?

No. The US claims – let’s say they have got 10 separate complaints, then it’ll be because these are 10 different assets. So they may have one for the yacht, one for the artwork, one for this land, one for that land and so on. Just like our admiralty claim for the yacht: it is also ‘in rem’. What ‘in rem’ means is a claim against an identified property, as opposed to an individual, which would be an ‘in personam’ action.

Have there been any challenges in the US? Jho Low?

Yes, court challenges.

To be clear, in Singapore, what exactly are the assets that are involved. Is the (private) jet one of them or not?

Most are bank accounts. Cash in bank. But I think there may be one or two properties: apartments.

What about the private jet?

The private jet, we are in no hurry to receive it. Because as things stand, Singapore has done it skilfully. Singapore has taken steps to ensure that the plane cannot fly off without air traffic control, which they will not give. The plane cannot leave Singapore airspace, to the best of my knowledge.

But the maintenance of the plane remains Jho Low’s. So, from Jho Low’s perspective, he’s got the worst of both worlds. He’s got to maintain the plane, which is parked on the runway but cannot fly it out.

From our perspective, there’s no hurry to get it – it’s safe there – let us sell the yacht, then we can turn our attention to the plane. Unfortunately, the plane doesn’t come within our admiralty jurisdiction, so it’s more complicated. We have to be concerned about giving a clean title to the buyer.

There have not been complaints about the A-G’s office using private lawyers overseas to help in asset recovery. And yet when the AG’s office uses the private lawyers here to help in the case of the yacht, or even bringing in Tuan Haji Sulaiman Abdullah and Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram, there has been criticism. Would you like to respond to that?

First of all, in foreign jurisdictions, we have no choice, absolutely no options. So we have to use local lawyers there, for instance, Swiss lawyers in Switzerland. In so far as Malaysian lawyers, I think what has surprised me is the outcry, as if this was the first time that AGC has used external lawyers. I asked the AG’s Chambers to do some research on previous appointments.

In the last 20 years, beginning with our first dispute with Singapore in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Pulau Batu Puteh dispute – the first one, which was about 20 years ago, we appointed a large group of foreign lawyers, I can’t understand why we did not appoint Malaysian lawyers. The foreigners charged large sums of fees, and Malaysia lost anyway.

Domestically, AGC has in the past appointed local lawyers. AGC appointed Datuk KC Vohrah, Tan Sri Cecil Abraham and Dato’ Sunil Abraham and their firm, Zul Rafique, for many civil matters.

In our dispute with Singapore on Temasek: our joint venture in the Singapore land – whether we ought to pay the development fees. That went to arbitration. Again, I don’t see why Malaysian lawyers could not have been used. It was a straightforward case of interpretation of a contract. Quite straightforward. And I think we had three or foreign lawyers charging hefty fees!

This was in Singapore?

No, in London. A dispute between Malaysia and Singapore heard in London. But it is arbitration and so any lawyer can appear. Malaysian lawyers can appear. It was followed by a trademark registration case at the EU General Court. Again, AGC appointed foreign lawyers. There were other disputes of an international nature which were all kept secret, and not made known to the public. Not even the Malaysian legal profession knew about them, but taxpayers were paying for such litigation.

Finally, with the second Pulau Batu Puteh dispute, where Malaysia wanted to revisit the dispute.  Prime Minister Tun Mahathir decided to discontinue it. We had four foreign lawyers and two Malaysian lawyers – Datuk Abu Bakar bin Mohamed Sidek from Penang and Datuk Firoz Hussein bin Ahmad Jamaluddin from Kuala Lumpur. One of the foreign lawyers informed the prime minister that the case was doomed to fail. That’s why the PM decided to discontinue.

Coming back to domestic disputes, we’ve had Tan Hock Chuan acting for the Malaysian government in the Teoh Beng Hock inquest. We had Tan Sri (Muhammad) Shafee Abdullah acting for the public prosecutor against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court. Actual criminal prosecution – so that’s the closest analogy to Tuan Haji Sulaiman and Sri Ram.

In civil suits, A-GC appointed Cecil Abraham and Zul Rafique for defendants such as Tan Sri (Abdul) Gani Patail, MACC and the Government of Malaysia.

Of the five lawyers I have appointed, three of them are acting “pro bono” – Sulaiman, Sri Ram and Sitpah Selvaratnam. The other two, Jeremy Joseph and Ong Chee Kwan are entitled to be paid because they are advising us in a really specialist area – shipping and admiralty – where the AGC does not have expertise, and it’s a commercial deal.

Whatever proceeds we get, hopefully in the hundreds of millions, the two lawyers should be paid. But I’m closely monitoring it – it’s an hourly rate – and of course, the MOF is also monitoring.

Could it (the outcry) be because people were taken by surprise because you mentioned 1MDB as one of your top three priorities? And now, you’re being seen as passing over the lead prosecution, so perhaps people are taken aback by that.

Possibly. But you see, you can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, the criticism is that I don’t have criminal law experience and yet when I appoint two senior lawyers who have substantial criminal law experience, the criticism continues. So one has to accept: anything one does is wrong!

But the truth is that it is just not possible to do a long trial and combine the work of A-G. I know that because when I was in practice I used to do long trials – heavy corporate commercial disputes. In fact, about a year before I left the Bar, I did a 40-day trial. It is a reported bonds case.

For four weeks before the trial, I did nothing but preparations for the trial. When the trial starts, you have to be full time with the trial, because at night you have to prepare cross-examination questions. When the trial is over, you have to do research, and draft exhaustive written submissions. I was a hands-on barrister who took my court commitments seriously and professionally.

Knowing that first hand, you cannot combine that with the demands of the A-G, where the PM wants to see you, the cabinet wants to consult you, Parliament is sitting, and so on. It’s just not possible, you cannot combine all these demanding tasks with the work of a counsel in court.

But you have not completely stepped away from it…

No, I’m still absolutely in charge. Like, for example… the Shafee prosecution. The MACC team interviewed the witnesses. Sri Ram was involved in the final stages of investigations. I was involved in the preparation of the charges with the team. The final decision to prosecute is mine, and mine alone. Malaysia must use all the resources available to pursue such matters.

What about your officers within the Chambers itself, isn’t that a vote of no confidence?

Not really. Because as I’ve said, there’s just so much work, and there are many cases in the horizon as we are planning and we can see where it is going. They are part of the team and they are working together. So it’s not a vote of no confidence.

In fact, the SRC (prosecution) team was happy because most of them were tutored by Sulaiman at (the) university. They look to Sulaiman as their intellectual guru. One must look at it in terms of what Malaysia needs. The people of Malaysia want justice, they want speedy justice. The people of Malaysia deserve the best and the brightest to appear for them.

What about political pressure? Has there been any on the office since you started here, any political pressure or messages sent to you saying, ‘we want this done’, or ‘that done’?

Absolutely not. All concerned have been very good. They have all acted properly and correctly: the PM, the cabinet, the ministers. Of course, many ministers are known to me as I’ve worked with them in the past. They have left matters of law to me and the AGC. There is neither pressure nor interference.

Are you surprised that there has been no political interference, especially coming from a PM who is accused of keeping the Jdiciary on a tight leash?

No, I’m not surprised. Tun Mahathir is a reformed PM.

You truly believe he has reformed?

Absolutely. In my dealings, Tun has been right and proper. In fact, on the first day, he informed me, “Tell me if there’s something wrong, tell me if I can’t do it.” So I said, “Yes, Tun, I will.”

Have you changed your opinion of Mahathir? You were quite critical of him before.

(Laughs) There’s no doubt in my mind that the PM and the members of the cabinet whom I have dealt with genuinely believe in reform. So I can confirm that I am trying to be a reforming AG in a reforming government!


PART 2 of The Interview

  Par

Thomas talks about law reforms, the prosecution of Shafee, the dropping of charges against Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and lopsided government contracts, among others.

AG wants ministries, stakeholders to help speed up law reforms

by Malaysiakini and The Edge team  | 

INTERVIEW | In his first major interview since his appointment as attorney-general three months ago, Tommy Thomas spoke on the mammoth task ahead to amend or repeal a litany of oppressive laws as pledged by Pakatan Harapan.

“A-G’s Chambers has prepared a list of the promises that the PH [Pakatan Harapan] made in the manifesto. The list for law reforms runs to nine pages – so many Acts are mentioned. It is just an unbelievably tall order,” Thomas told Malaysiakini and The Edge in a 90-minute joint interview held at his Putrajaya office last Thursday.

“And it’s understandable because they are trying to clean up after 60 years of one coalition’s repressive laws. Looking at this law reform list in the manifesto, the process may take as long as a decade!” the 66-year-old AG said.

Therefore, he wanted the various ministries and stakeholders to be actively involved in law reforms to hasten the process.

“The ministries must help out. Ministers must push their respective ministries. Let’s take the Universities and University Colleges Act, that’s under Education [Ministry]…

“What we would really want to speed up the process is for the education minister to push his ministry and his legal advisors to prepare amendments and pass them to us. Our parliamentary draftsman will have the final say.

“The reason I say this is because as the stakeholders, the ministry will presumably know more about Universities and University Colleges [Act] than anybody else,” he said.

However, he urged patience as the process may take time.

“As a practising lawyer, I can say that when there’s hurried legislation, it’s not good. The longer it takes, say two to three years, to consult as many groups as possible, the better the finished product is. You would never get the perfect law. [But] everyone should participate in law reform. No one has a monopoly of knowledge or experience.”

Thomas also spoke in detail over the purported lopsided contracts signed by the previous government, and paid tribute to the unsung heroes in the A-G’s Chambers who objected to them, but were overruled by BN ministers.

“Internally, there are hundreds of such contracts. But what we didn’t realise is the number involved. We have highway contracts, services contracts, private finance [initiative] which are build-lease-maintain-and-transfer (46 of them), ports, etc. Many categories – there are over 350 contracts of that nature.

“Also, procurement contracts – we just drew a line – and that’s over 300 contracts of them,” he said about the lopsided agreements.

“Some of these A-G’s Chambers members were very unhappy because when they objected to these lopsided contracts prior to their execution, they were overruled by their former political masters, that is, ministers. They are unsung heroes. They are civil servants, and the previous PM and the MOF [Ministry of Finance] just brushed them aside.

“They are therefore familiar with these contracts. But the trouble is that these contracts have clauses that are very favourable to the counter parties, and unfavourable to the government.

“We are trying to be creative and imaginative. At least two or three times a week, I spend hours with the contracts review lawyers. My corporate commercial litigation experience is combined with the draftsmen and technical advisers in [the] Chambers,” said Thomas.

He also spoke about the absurdity of the previous government in going with such questionable contracts where taxpayers are made to pay more. He gave an example of an actual case of a private finance initiative (PFI) project.

“The cost is RM350 million, over a three-year period. Just like you are building a house, so payment will be against the architect’s certificate – progressively. So after three years, XYZ goes away and receives payment of RM350 million, and we receive the project built for us on our land.

“But under this build-lease-maintain-and-transfer PFI, you have the construction, but you also have a 22-year contract where the government must continue paying for maintenance and other kinds of charges, which are just absolutely ludicrous which does not make any commercial sense.

“The effect of it is that the government (taxpayers) have to pay literally three times more. So in the RM350 million example, taxpayers pay RM1.1 billion over 22 years, as opposed to RM350 million over three years. As the PM has said many times, ‘Whoever did these stupid contracts?’”

Thomas also responded to criticisms he and the A-G’s Chambers faced in dropping the charges on Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng and other Pakatan Harapan-linked politicians such as Deputy Rural Development Minister Sivarasa Rasiah and former PKR parliamentarian N Surendran.

“I think what must not be forgotten is that [the] Chambers did not hide behind the constitutional and legal position in Malaysia from Merdeka that the A-G, as public prosecutor, does not have to explain, or give reasons for a decision to prosecute or to withdraw charges.

“Therefore, although there is no legal or constitutional obligation for public prosecutor to explain why it did not wish to continue with the prosecution against Lim, we nevertheless offered it.

“Instead of being credited for his openness, [Mohd] Hanafiah [Zakaria] was criticised for his lengthy explanation. This is probably the first time since Merdeka that a prosecutor has explained his decision,” he said adding the other cases were dropped because they were politically motivated.

“The right question that should be asked is – and it applies to Lim Guan Eng also – why were these people charged in the first place?

“I inherited a massive problem. In the past three months, my office – and about 90 percent of these are addressed to me personally – received about 300-400 written representations from lawyers and members of public,” he said of the many appeals he received to review the charges.

Thomas also spoke of the brickbats he received on the charging of former premier Najib Abdul Razak’s lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah (photo) last week for money laundering and tax evasion.

“The answer to that is an accused lawyer cannot say, ‘Please do not charge me, I enjoy legal immunity that nobody else in Malaysia does’. All of us from the PM, are under the law, we don’t enjoy immunity.

“An accused lawyer cannot say, ‘Please do not charge me because if you charge me, some of my clients will not have a lawyer of their choice, or they will have problems finding a replacement lawyer’. That is absolutely irrelevant and unacceptable. The law must take its course, regardless of consequences.”

He stressed that Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad did not know that Shafee was to be charged. “It was absolutely my decision,” he said.

Najib had claimed that Shafee was charged to deny him a chance to get a fair trial.

Here is the second and final part of the exclusive interview. The first part appeared yesterday.

Question: Are you making progress with reforms? All the headlines have been on 1MDB and little have been about reforms.

Tommy Thomas: Yes, as to law reform, AGC [Attorney-General’s Chambers] has prepared a list of the promises that the PH made in the manifesto. The list for law reforms runs to nine pages – so many Acts are mentioned. It is just an unbelievably tall order. And it’s understandable because they are trying to clean up after 60 years of one coalition’s repressive laws. Looking at this law reform list in the manifesto, the process may take as long as a decade!

What would be your priority?

Let me explain. First of all, you need parliamentary time. Parliament must sit longer and give more time for law-making. Parliament has many functions – debates, questioning and so on, but also law-making.

I have told some stakeholders: please prepare your own bills. So if a women’s organisation has complaints, it should prepare its own bill. If the lawyers, the engineers, or whatever, the business community likewise: it’s easier because they know their problems. They can give us their draft laws: whether we accept them is something else.

But if they give it to us, it’s faster, it speeds up the process of law reform. For example, the repeal of the Anti-Fake [News Act] (which is in the news again) [because it was blocked by the Senate], it was done by Gobind [Singh Deo]’s ministry very quickly, and then sent to us. The GST, which is made up of five or six laws, was also done incredibly quickly, coming out of MOF to our parliamentary draftsman.

On the Anti-Fake News Act, a BN senator explained that the repeal was blocked on grounds the law was relevant and should be improved [and not abolished]. Will it be given a second chance to be passed?

Under our Federal Constitution, you can’t do anything for one year.

Yes. Let’s say an IP (investigation paper) comes to you, say the police want to take action against somebody based on this, are you going to take action?

I don’t want to foreclose my discretion if that occurs in the future. But I would be reluctant. I don’t think anyone in A-GC supports it. But it puts us in a difficult position because unfortunately, it is still a law on the statute books. So it still forms part of the laws of Malaysia, and one has to respect our law. Hence, an unsatisfactory position!

[And what happens] after one year?

After that, it has to be re-presented to the Dewan Rakyat, and the Dewan Rakyat has to pass it again. Then it goes back to Dewan Negara, and then they don’t have a say. If they don’t pass it, it will be passed directly to His Majesty, the Agong. But there’s a one-year cooling-off period.

What’s the status in terms of repeal/amendment or whatever of OSA (Official Secrets Act), Sedition Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Universities and University Colleges Act…

The ministries must help out. Ministers must push their respective ministries. Let’s take the Universities and University Colleges Act, that’s under Education [Ministry] I assume. What we would really want to speed up the process is for the education minister to push his ministry and his legal advisors to prepare amendments and pass them to us. Our parliamentary draftsman will have the final say.

The reason I say this is because as the stakeholders, that ministry will presumably know more about [the] Universities and [University] Colleges [Act] than anybody else. The lawyers in our office are just specialists at drafting, but the subject matter or the content of an Act is something that different people would know more of. If there are any health/hospitals-related bills, then it’s better for the Health Ministry, and so on.

The ministries should drive the changes?

Yes, that’s right. Take ownership. Because no one person can do it on his own. My task would be to encourage it and to facilitate it. Because historically, [the] Chambers has had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as acting as a brake against law reform. We are now going to say, look, we support law reform, we will facilitate it.

But to expect us to draft all this, that is not possible. Because we don’t know all the problems. Like for example, the press, why can’t the press (if you have a press association), why don’t you come and see the right ministry, and say look: ‘This is our version of the new press act’, or whatever. They may or may not agree, but they will say thank you very much. It speeds things up.

That way also, the more the stakeholders there are who are involved.

You said the list itself is a tall order. Are there any going to be prioritised? For instance, the Sedition Act is still being used.

The Sedition Act is more complicated. It requires a constitutional amendment because one of the sections in the Act prohibits criticisms against the rulers: what is regarded as the privileges of the Conference of Rulers. They have to approve. But the others like Prevention of Crime, NSC [National Security Council], Sosma [Security Offences (Special Measures) Act], Printing Presses [and Publications Act], Peaceful Assembly [Act] are easier to handle. Also, the Institutional Reform Committee has done a remarkable job and presented their views to the PM. That is also a source.

What about the Political Financing Bill?

That’s on the way, but I don’t know which ministry is doing the first draft. AGC had advised that is a matter of law, there is no legal prohibition to such a new law. It’s a question of being creative about it.

All the political parties must be governed by the same rules. The objective would be to regularise financing and donation, and to have open disclosure. I don’t know if they want to have a limit on donations. It is basically to recognise that elections can only be held through contributions to political parties and candidates, and it is healthy to accept that this happens. It is the same in other countries.

The PM has said over and over again about lopsided contracts. You are quite an expert in commercial litigation and contracts. Maybe you can share some aspects or some examples, and whether these lopsided contracts can be renegotiated to reduce the financial damage to Malaysia or it’s something that’s totally out of our hands, and we have to deal and pay the compensation.

There are different types of such contracts. Again, the problem is much worse than I thought. As somebody outside following public affairs, one was aware of one-sided contracts, starting with road concessionaires, power plants and the like. But once I’ve come in now, I have seen literally hundreds of such contracts. Let’s divide them into external and internal contracts.

External, you have got Singapore and the HSR [High-Speed Rail]. Whether it’s fair or not, may be a matter of discussion, but I won’t say it’s a lopsided contract. We did well and Singapore was generous by agreeing to the suspension even though the contract did not provide for it. Hence, it constituted a variation of the original contract, which Singapore agreed to. That speaks well for good Causeway relations. That’s the HSR.

Then there’s China. The PM was outstanding. Not many foreign leaders have gone to China and persuaded China to vary its contracts. The PM convinced the president and PM of China. The problem is we have now to look at the consequences of the termination, even if it is a mutual termination by China and Malaysia of these contracts. We have to start hard bargaining on the effects and consequences of mutual termination. That’s a tough proposition. We’re forming teams to prepare for them.

How long will that take?

Hopefully not too long. A lot of money is at stake, and loans are involved. We have already told China we are ready to negotiate.

Internally, there are hundreds of such contracts. But what we didn’t realise is the number involved. We have highway contracts, services contracts, private finance [initiatives] which are build-lease-maintain-and-transfer (46 of them), ports, etc. Many categories – there are over 350 contracts of that nature. Also, procurement contracts – we just drew a line in the review on the value – and that’s over 300 contracts of them. The number is just mind-boggling. All the ministries were doing it. Again, we have a very strong contracts review team and they are reviewing these contracts.

Just within the A-GC? No external help?

Yes, with[in the] Chambers: we don’t need external help. Some of these AGC members were very unhappy because when they objected to these lopsided contracts prior to their execution, they were overruled by their former political masters, that is, ministers. They are unsung heroes. They are civil servants, and the previous PM and the MOF just brushed them aside. They are therefore familiar with these contracts.

But the trouble is that these contracts have clauses that are very favourable to the counter parties, and unfavourable to the government. We are trying to be creative and imaginative. At least two or three times a week, I spend hours with the contracts review lawyers. My corporate commercial litigation experience is combined with the draftsmen and technical advisers in [the] Chambers.

If you are able to achieve some success, it’s a lot of financial savings. right? Ultimately, it’s about dollars and cents.

Absolutely. Like China, we’ll have big savings. Singapore is not so much savings as [the project is] being deferred. That’s the objective of the exercise, the objective is to reduce overpayments.

Let me give you an example of a typical PFI [private finance initiative]. The orthodox way of doing such business would be for the government, as an employer, to ask the private sector, hopefully through tender, but there were no tenders, to build, say, a university.

The government, as an employer, uses the land belonging to it and asks, let’s say, XYZ Sdn Bhd to build the university in, say, three years. The cost is RM350 million, over a three-year period.

Just like you are building a house, so payment will be against the architect’s certificate – progressively. So after three years, XYZ goes away and receives payment of RM350 million, and we receive the university built for us on our land. Then the university opens its doors, and students come in. That’s how it ought to be.

But under this build-lease-maintain-and-transfer PFI, you have the construction of the university, but you also have a 22-year contract where the government must continue paying for maintenance and other kinds of charges, which are just absolutely ludicrous which does not make any commercial sense.

The effect of it is that the government (taxpayers) have to pay literally three times more. So in the RM350 million example, taxpayers pay RM1.1 billion over 22 years, as opposed to RM350 million over three years. As the PM has said many times, “Whoever did these stupid contracts?” That gives an innocent interpretation. There are more sinister interpretations, which you can draw!

To clarify on the Chinese deals that have been terminated. What is the total figure now we have to bargain down from?

I think the press statements suggest RM100 billion or so.

That RM100 billion will be the total cost of the project if it goes on, which includes interest payment on the loan and all that. The actual value is about RM55-RM60 billion for just the ECRL [East Coast Rail Line], but if you put in the interest that has to be paid over the years, it adds up to RM100 billion plus.

It is misleading to say it’s RM55 billion for the ECRL because the people who signed those contracts were the same people who signed the loan agreements with China because we do not have the money to build. Hence, we borrow from China.

So you have to look at the loan agreements, and the loan payments, and the true cost of the project is RM100 billion. It is dishonest to say it is RM55 billion, when it will cost the taxpayers RM100 billion after the loans are repaid. That represents the true cost of the rail project.

I think what the taxpayers would be interested to know now is what’s the cost of compensation? The ECRL, it was reported the compensation could be about RM22 billion.

It’s too early, we have not gone into negotiation. From our point of view, we do not want to pay anything. We should start negotiating from that point.

Do you want to respond to comments from MACC that they were not satisfied when the A-G’s Chambers dropped the case against Lim Guan Eng.

I think what must not be forgotten is that A-GC did not hide behind the constitutional and legal position in Malaysia from Merdeka that the A-G, as public prosecutor, does not have to explain, or give reasons for a decision to prosecute or to withdraw charges. And there’s a long line of cases for 50 years stating just that. They have always said they do not have to give an explanation.

But that is one of the reasons why in the past A-GC was much criticised, especially in the run-up towards the election to GE-14 – I was conscious of that past. Therefore, although there is no legal or constitutional obligation for [the] public prosecutor to explain why it did not wish to continue with the prosecution against Lim Guan Eng, we nevertheless offered it.

Instead of being credited for his openness, Hanafiah [the deputy public prosecutor in charge] (photo) was criticized for his lengthy explanation. This is probably the first time since Merdeka that a prosecutor has explained his decision.

In so far as my personal involvement is concerned, I cannot understand why some do not seem to understand conflict of interest and recusal. Probably the world’s most influential or well-known A-G is Jeff Sessions of the US. Within a week of his appointment, he recused himself from the Russian investigation. You cannot turn on the CNN for the past one and a half years without listening to [US] President [Donald] Trump complaining about Session’s recusal. In his case, it was also because of conflict of interest.

So what I was doing was just following a well-established principle of common law of about 300-400 years history that you must not act when you are conflicted. If you are a private practitioner, you may have many friends and persons you acted for.

Thus, from the time I entered office, any decision concerning Lim Guan Eng is not taken by me personally, just like Jeff Sessions does not act personally.

But it doesn’t render the DOJ [US Department of Justice] or the A-GC helpless and powerless. We have got 545 DPPs, and they make decisions daily. And Hanafiah is a very senior DPP. Hanafiah’s decision, in this case, represents the decision of the public prosecutor.

And you support that [decision]?

My position does not matter. If one recuses oneself, one just has no say in the matter. You remain recused, from the beginning until the end of the decision-making process.

There have been criticisms that MACC should be consulted – that the DPP who’s charging or handling the case should be consulted, like Masri Mohd Daud. At the time, I understand that they were not consulted at all, until about 7.15am.

That is the prerogative of Hanafiah’s decision as the relevant decision-maker. It is up to him. He doesn’t have to consult anybody or keep anyone informed. I believed he explained, in his statement, that he was concerned it would be leaked.

The death penalty, what’s the status of that? There’s some pressure to do away with it.

It is in the Harapan manifesto. It’s going to happen. The good news is that senior officers from the Prison Department informed me that they are against carrying out death sentences on prisoners on the death row. [The] Chambers is also against it. Therefore, no one should be hanged until the new law is enacted.

What about the issue of separating prosecution powers and the fact that you are a legal officer of the government?

We all support that. A constitutional amendment is however required. The Institutional Reform Committee also supports the separation. So no one is against it. It is thus a matter of political calculation: can the government secure the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament to do it?

How about the criticisms that you’re dropping charges against Surendran, Zunar… etc? It was done quickly and some people are questioning the motives behind these charges being dropped so suddenly. Do you want to respond to these criticisms?

They were all politically-motivated charges. The right question that should be asked is, and it applies to Lim Guan Eng also – why were these people charged in the first place. I inherited a massive problem.

In the past three months, my office – and about 90 percent of these are addressed to me personally – received about 300-400 written representations from lawyers and members of the public.

All those representations relate to decisions made by my predecessors. So the relevant question should be, why did they make those decisions, which require me to look at it. So whatever decisions we make in a particular case – in a sense, it’s like the Court of Appeal – I will be criticized. But coming back to these examples, they were politically-motivated prosecutions. But one thing you can be assured of, I will never charge anyone for political reasons. That I assure you.

When you took up this job, did you expect the kind of criticisms you get, the kind of brickbats you have received?

Yes, and no. I’m surprised by some of the criticisms. The previous A-Gs were criticized, perhaps more by the Bar at their general meetings. I myself have spoken at such meetings of the Bar, where to the best of my memory, all the AGs in the past 50 years have been criticized by the Bar. They haven’t done that so far to me, but that cannot be ruled out.

In my case, it seems to be relentless and unremitting from members of the public. I guess if you compare, I may have received more criticisms in three months than my predecessor did in three years [laughs]! But that’s part of the job, and I can smile about it.

When vested interests are threatened by reform-minded measures, it is inevitable that a backlash would result.

Not being of the expected ethnic or religious group, does it make your job harder in any way?

Not really. The law is intended to be race-free and religion-free. Everyone in Chambers seems to behave that way. They don’t bring race and religion into their decision-making process, so that’s not a problem, really. And I certainly do not. Those who wish to criticize me for ethnic reasons will continue to do so.

Since [Muhammad] Shafee [Abdullah] has been charged, do you want to respond to questions which may be raised: now that Najib’s lawyer has been charged, this is to prevent Najib from getting true justice…?

The answer to that is an accused’s lawyer cannot say, ‘Please do not charge me, I enjoy legal immunity that nobody else in Malaysia does’. All of us from the PM, are under the law, we don’t enjoy immunity. An accused lawyer cannot say, ‘Please do not charge me because if you charge me, some of my clients will not have a lawyer of their choice, or they will have problems finding a replacement lawyer’.

That is absolutely irrelevant and unacceptable. The law must take its course, regardless of consequences.

I think the criticism is coming from the point of view that the charging came immediately or days after he made the revelation that Tun [Mahathir] was the one who pushed for his appointment [as prosecutor in the Anwar Ibrahim sodomy case]. I think people are connecting the dots, that probably the instruction came from somewhere else.

The PM did not know of the charges against Shafee because I did not brief Tun about them. It was absolutely my decision.

About the public caning in Terengganu. It’s unconstitutional as it is not being held in prison and caning women and all that. In this kind of situation, you as a legal advisor to the government, do you have a duty to inform the government that it’s unconstitutional?

It’s not so easy because syariah is a state matter and the Sultan of Terengganu is the head of religion in that state. It’s not so clear. It’s one of those areas where there is tension between the federal jurisdiction on criminal law and syariah law, which is state law.

Furthermore, these are sensitive, delicate matters that must be approached prudently. But I think the caning has started a debate, which is encouraging.

It needs a political solution.

Yes, but again not so easy.

Your position as A-G, should it be an elected position? Should you be answerable to Parliament? What are your thoughts on that?

Actually, we thought about it before. We looked at what happened in the UK which has changed its policy. The least worst option is to have a career lawyer who is sympathetic to the government because he or she has to carry out the government’s mandate, but who is well recognized in some branches of the law, you can’t be in all branches of the law, who enjoy a reputation in the Bar and the Bench.

Thus, a full-time legal advisor is better than a politician A-G.

As to being answerable to Parliament, one cannot give reasons even if one is a member of Parliament on many of these matters. You cannot give reasons if somebody asks you, ‘why did you prosecute Mr A?’

And the next day, ‘why you did not prosecute Mr X, or why did you choose to charge under this Act A as opposed to Act B?’

You cannot answer those questions because some of them are highly confidential. I would say what Hanipah disclosed in his six-page statement is as good as you can get from any AG in the world. So it does not matter whether an AG is an MP for accountability and transparency to occur.

The statement you issued when you appointed Sulaiman [Abdullah] and [Gopal] Sri Ram [as prosecutors in the 1MDB case] was unexpectedly candid. But to your detractors, they’d happily see it as proof that you can’t really cope with the demands of your job. What do you say to that?

I rather be frank and truthful.

And the job has evolved.

The legal world has changed remarkably and the problems are much graver today. If we look at common law jurisdictions – there are very few, if any, where the A-G goes to court anymore. It is just not possible. I think that’s reality.

You said you have not received any IPs on 1MDB, but given the scale and the many transactions, wouldn’t it be fair to say that there will be quite a number of prosecutions in the end?

Yes, definitely. Absolutely.

Are you aware of any state witness? Anyone?

No, because they’re still investigating, we won’t know. Whether MACC or police is talking to Mr X or Mr Y and asking them to turn state evidence or Queen’s evidence against any target, I don’t know. It may come later.

So Sri Ram and Sulaiman will have their hands full?

Sulaiman has only one trial – the SRC – and he has five months to prepare and work with my team. That’s just one case. Sri Ram (photo) is to push 1MDB and perhaps argue in court for two of those cases. Sri Ram will handle the prosecution of Shafee, and probably the first of the 1MDB cases. They’re heavy trials, so we’ll have to find somebody else for other cases. That’s why the task is awesome.

You can expect about five to six different 1MDB prosecutions, against like the [1MDB] board, the Good Star phase, the Tanore phase, the IPIC [International Petroleum Investment Company] phase, all of which you are familiar with. We would have to find a team for each different case.

Sri Ram would be asking for December trial dates in the Shafee case, and Sulaiman has a February trial date [for the SRC case against Najib].

You gave yourself two years when you took up this job. Just two years, that’s it?

[Laughs] I’d be burnt out by then, it’s long hours. I’m fit and fresh now because I know there’s a finishing line. So I’m happy to work hard for one year and nine months more!

Is there more pressure on you when Dr Mahathir said there’d be more charges on Najib?

People have asked me that over and over again. My answer always has been that when it comes to 1MDB, all the 30 million Malaysians should be concerned and talk about it because it affects their pockets for the next 20-30 years. It actually affects their pockets. I think people across the world should also talk about it because it tells you how dishonest politicians and businessmen can cheat a nation.

So I’m all for a full public discussion. But this debate does not influence my decision-making.

Are you getting the pressure from the public?

Most are nice and supportive. They understand. Whenever they see me, they tell me that I represent reforms, which they support. They say I am the face of reform.

I’ve said I don’t want people to be afraid in Malaysia. The fear element must disappear. Much of the fear element emanated from the office of the A-GC. The A-GC must no longer be associated with fear. We are, at the end of the day, 1,200 lawyers and the support staff, who must all believe and practise the rule of law.

That doctrine encompasses a large number of concepts, including free speech, due process and so on. The A-GC must believe them.

You said people are perceiving you as the face of reform. Does that burden you?

I won’t say burden. It’s just very high expectations. I just want to fulfil it. I hope I can live up to them. I won’t see it as additional pressure. I really do not want to disappoint them.

The US Supreme Court tumbles into political dysfunction


October 11, 2018

The  US Supreme Court tumbles into political dysfunction

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/10/5/the-supreme-court-tumbles-into-political-dysfunction

“When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” 15 years ago, I noted that the United States was not immune to the dangers of populism that could erode liberal democracy.”–Dr. Fareed Zakaria

Image result for Christine Blasey Ford vr Brett M. Kavanaugh

 

The most consequential casualty of the Supreme Court confirmation battle is not Christine Blasey Ford or Brett M. Kavanaugh. It is the Supreme Court and, thus, American democracy. The court was one of the last bastions in Washington that towered above the political fray. It is now part of the dysfunction that has overwhelmed almost the entire American system.

When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” 15 years ago, I noted that the United States was not immune to the dangers of populism that could erode liberal democracy. What had saved the country were the many checks and balances on pure majority rule, including the Bill of Rights, the Senate and the judicial system. At some level, the public seemed to understand and appreciate the role of these stabilizing elements that were governed by an internal code, not always responsive to what majorities demanded. I was struck that, in surveys, the three governmental institutions that commanded the most respect were all fundamentally non-democratic: the armed forces, the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court. Of these, the Supreme Court was perhaps the most important because it is, in many ways, the ultimate arbiter of American democracy — the final decision-maker.

Image result for fareed zakaria illiberal democracy

The reason a democratic public admires these non-democratic institutions is not so mysterious. Aristotle believed that the best political system was a mixed regime, one that had aspects of democracy but also gained stability from some bodies that, rather than pandering to public sentiment, took a longer view and obeyed a higher set of values (such as the preservation of liberty). These kinds of institutions — rooted in history, law, technical expertise — were explicitly shielded from the short-term winds of public opinion and served as pillars for a functional democracy.

Over the years, such institutions in the United States have faced ferocious challenges. Two long wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have tested the reputation of the military. The speculative bubbles that led to the global financial crisis made many question the vaunted wisdom of the Fed. But both institutions have weathered those storms, perhaps because they were viewed to be genuinely trying their best and functioning as intended. Whatever mistakes they made were honest errors, often corrected. Neither institution is infallible, but both were seen as trying to fulfill the roles expected of them by society.

Over the years, such institutions in the United States have faced ferocious challenges. Two long wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have tested the reputation of the military. The speculative bubbles that led to the global financial crisis made many question the vaunted wisdom of the Fed. But both institutions have weathered those storms, perhaps because they were viewed to be genuinely trying their best and functioning as intended. Whatever mistakes they made were honest errors, often corrected. Neither institution is infallible, but both were seen as trying to fulfill the roles expected of them by society.

The same cannot be said of the Supreme Court. Perhaps it began in 2000 with the highly political case of Bush v. Gore, in which conservatives on the court suddenly abandoned their long-standing principle of deference to states’ rights and voted in a nakedly partisan fashion. Some would date it further back to 1987, when the left mounted a fierce campaign against Robert H. Bork and derailed his Supreme Court nomination. Whatever the best starting date, the court has lost its reputation of impartiality and trustworthiness, so much that FiveThirtyEight says that “it’s in a weaker position now than at nearly any point in modern history.” Over the past several decades, Americans’ confidence in the court has gone from a peak of 56 percent in the 1980s to 37 percent today. It is likely to go even lower after the whole Kavanaugh mess.

Both parties are to blame for this descent, but as in most of the discussion of the rise of partisanship and polarization, studies confirm what is apparent to any rational observer: The Republican Party, especially after the “Republican revolution” of 1994, is by far the prime mover. It shifted further to the right, initiated the tactics of treating political opponents as traitors and actively encouraged the incendiary language that now dominates our discourse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) refusal in 2016 to fulfill his constitutional obligation to give Judge Merrick Garland consideration for the Supreme Court was simply the most egregious example of a strategy that had been pursued for years. The Democrats have responded by mirroring these Republican tactics. Politicians don’t practice unilateral disarmament.

The American democratic system is designed to require compromise. No one controls multiple levers of government, as in a parliamentary system. The British Prime Minister simultaneously leads the executive branch and commands a majority in the legislative branch. But in the United States, the system is meant to have many different sources of power and legitimacy, all sharing in the functions of government.

For American democracy to work, all of the elements — the three branches of government, the political parties, the states and the center — must find a way to work together. And part of what makes this kind of cooperation possible is the sense that there are some institutions, rules and norms that cannot be thrown into the maelstrom of party politics. Some facets of the system must stay focused on the country as a whole, on its long-term viability, on its core values as a constitutional republic. And chief among those institutions is the Supreme Court. Or was.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The Ongoing Judge Brett Kavanaugh Saga


October 5, 2018

The US Supreme Court–The Ongoing Brett Kavanaugh Saga

“In this crucible of power politics, of bullying and posturing and rage, no one has been more severely tested than Judge Kavanaugh. If he believes himself innocent of sexual assault — if he is innocent of sexual assault — the test, to him, can only appear monstrous.

Yet unfair as the test might seem to the judge and his supporters, senators who want to preserve the credibility of the Supreme Court cannot now look away from the result: Judge Kavanaugh failed, decisively.”–The Editorial Board,

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as much as any development in the challenging era of Donald Trump, is testing America’s politicians and its civic institutions. Few, so far, have met the test.

Not Republican senators, who, after denying one president his legitimate authority to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court, are now rushing their own nominee through, uninterested in the truth, while weeping crocodile tears about other people’s partisanship.

Not Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who tainted the process by bringing forward damaging allegations against Judge Kavanaugh only at the last minute.

Not the F.B.I., which either of its own volition or because of constraints imposed by Republicans failed to interview many of the key witnesses who could speak to the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh. And not President Trump, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

In this crucible of power politics, of bullying and posturing and rage, no one has been more severely tested than Judge Kavanaugh. If he believes himself innocent of sexual assault — if he is innocent of sexual assault — the test, to him, can only appear monstrous.

Yet unfair as the test might seem to the judge and his supporters, senators who want to preserve the credibility of the Supreme Court cannot now look away from the result: Judge Kavanaugh failed, decisively.

How? First, he gave misleading answers under oath. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — must have, and be seen as having, unimpeachable integrity. The knuckleheaded mistakes of a young person — drinking too much, writing offensive things in a high school yearbook — should not in themselves be bars to high office. But deliberately misleading senators about them during a confirmation process has to be.

If Judge Kavanaugh will lie about small things, won’t he lie about big ones as well?Indeed he already has: During the course of his confirmation hearings, he claimed, implausibly, that he was not aware that files he received from a Senate staff member, some labeled “highly confidential” or “intel,” had been stolen from Democratic computers.

Even the small lies, of course, aren’t so small in context, since they relate to drinking or sex and thus prop up his choir-boy-who-indulged-now-and-then defense.

Second, confronted with the accusations against him, Judge Kavanaugh made recourse not to reason and methodical process, but to fury and the rawest partisanship. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — must strive to be, and be seen as, above politics.

As Judge Kavanaugh said in a 2015 speech, “to be a good judge and a good umpire, it’s important to have the proper demeanor.” He added: “To keep our emotions in check. To be calm amidst the storm. On the bench, to put it in the vernacular, don’t be a jerk.”Wise words. He wasn’t able to live by them when it mattered. At last week’s hearing, Judge Kavanaugh was a jerk. He spun dark visions of a Democratic conspiracy of vengeance against him. He yelled at Democratic senators, interrupted them frequently, refused to answer questions directly and, at one point, confronted Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had asked him whether he had ever blacked out from drinking.

“I don’t know,” Judge Kavanaugh sneered. “Have you?” This contempt came only moments after Ms. Klobuchar told Judge Kavanaugh about her father’s struggles with alcoholism.

Was Judge Kavanaugh truly out of control, in rage and pain, as he appeared, or had he calculated that a partisan attack would rally President Trump and Republican senators to his side, as it did? (We all know he was capable of a more temperate response to the accusations: He’d demonstrated that just a couple of nights earlier, in his interview with Fox News.) For purposes of Senate confirmation, it shouldn’t matter. Such a lack of self-control, or such open and radical partisanship, ought to be unacceptable in a judge.

And indeed, on Thursday, the retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by a Republican president, took the astonishing step of saying that Judge Kavanaugh’s performance before the Judiciary Committee should disqualify him from the court. “Senators should really pay attention to it,” he said.

Judges are human beings, not ideological blank slates, but the American legal system depends on their being fair and open-minded to all who come before them. Judge Kavanaugh failed to show that he can do this, or that he even would want to.

That’s a disappointment, but maybe not a surprise to anyone who knew of his life before he joined the bench. He was a fierce Republican warrior in some of the most politically charged battles of the past two decades — including the investigation that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in which he sought to expose the most intimate details of Mr. Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. He also played a role in the most controversial policies of the George W. Bush administration, including the torture of detainees and warrantless wiretapping. (How much of a role we may never learn, since Senate Republicans still refuse to release more than 90 percent of the documents related to Judge Kavanaugh’s work in the Bush administration.)

While many of Judge Kavanaugh’s defenders leapt to exonerate him of sexual assault or excused his rage-bender as understandable, virtually no one has tried to deny his rank partisanship. Yet after last week’s testimony, how could any self-identified Democrat, or leftist, or sexual-assault victim, or anyone who is not identifiable as a Republican, expect to get a fair shake from a Justice Kavanaugh? If he is confirmed, that will pose a profound problem for the court.

It is quite a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford that she has presented the one image of dignity and calm in this howling maelstrom. Dr. Blasey testified last week that a drunken Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a 1982 party while they were in high school. Her testimony was credible, and the F.B.I. inquiry was too cursory to substantiate or discredit it. Judge Kavanaugh denies the accusations, and in a court of law — and, we hope, in his life as an American citizen — he is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

He is not, however, entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court. Republican senators have repeatedly said they respected Dr. Blasey and were sympathetic to her; but to vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh now is to declare that her accusations mean nothing.

Presidents have the prerogative to name Supreme Court justices who reflect their values and views of the Constitution. President Trump has no shortage of highly qualified, very conservative candidates to choose from, if he will look beyond this first, deeply compromised choice.

Some Republicans have warned that if Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination fails, no decent person will ever want to be put up for the Supreme Court again. This, like so much nonsense in recent weeks, is political hysteria. For starters, consider these seven names: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, John Roberts Jr., Samuel Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.

All were seated on the court since 1991, the last time a Supreme Court nominee faced credible allegations of sexual misconduct. In that case, Clarence Thomas got the job, even in a Democratic-controlled Senate. Since then, not a single nominee has faced allegations of the sort leveled at Judge Kavanaugh.

The only failed nominations since 1991 both came at the hands of Republicans: President George W. Bush’s choice of Harriet Miers, who Republicans said was unqualified; and President Barack Obama’s pick of Merrick Garland, a respected federal judge whose only disqualification was being named by a Democrat. Republicans refused to even grant Judge Garland a hearing. Meanwhile, if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices will have been chosen by Republican presidents, and the court has had a Republican-appointed majority for nearly half a century.

The Supreme Court, coequal with Congress and the White House, takes up the most important issues facing the country. Its rulings are often decided by a single vote, and they can affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. Yet the source of the court’s power is not tangible. It holds neither the sword nor the purse, to paraphrase Alexander Hamilton. The court’s legitimacy is founded instead in an act of national faith, of confidence in the integrity and fairness of the justices. It is that confidence that ratifies the court’s decisions as the final word on American law.

That confidence has already been shaken. The court’s party-line vote in Bush v. Gore, which effectively decided the 2000 presidential election, led many Americans to wonder if the justices were nothing but politicians in robes. Sixteen years later, Republicans made the balance of the court more clearly a political prize by blocking Judge Garland.

This confirmation battle has been awful for everyone. It has exposed to the country a depth of partisan grievance and connivance within the Senate that should embarrass and worry every American. It is a terrible reality that, at this point, either confirmation or rejection of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination by a narrow and overwhelmingly partisan margin will dismay and anger millions of Americans. But only by voting no, by asking Mr. Trump to send someone else for it to consider, can the Senate pass its test of institutional character and meet its obligation to safeguard the credibility of the Supreme Court.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: A Test of Mr. Kavanaugh, and America. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

What the 1998 Reformasi taught me


October 4, 2018

What the 1998 Reformasi taught me

This is an article I never thought I’d have to write. Somehow, the strange post-election events have sparked off a stream of socio-political events that are even stranger than the idea of a 93-year-old man once dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 being back in the Prime Minister’s seat.

Image result for reformasi 1998

 

The series of harsh statements by students and activists against Anwar Ibrahim, his wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and their daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar shocked me more, in some ways, than the commando raid of his house in 1998. I feel compelled as a citizen to recount not just what happened in 1998, but my feelings and positive growth as an individual, a citizen, a Muslim and an academic for the benefit of a new generation of Malaysians.

In 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was unceremoniously sacked by the Prime Minister and UMNO President. The charge was firstly about some guy named Nalla who owned a gun, but then we heard whispers of flings with women, and ultimately the big headlines in Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian and The Star on the alleged sodomy of Azizan the driver, Munawar Anees, his political brother, and Sukma Darmawan, his adopted Indonesian brother.

As I recall, Munawar and Sukma were detained under the ISA while Azizan sang like a canary. A few weeks later, an exhausted Munawar and Sukma were brought to court to confess to the accusation of sodomy. After they were freed, they both retracted their confessions and recounted the torture the Police had inflicted to force the confessions. The Judiciary, Police and academia ignored their retractions and let an innocent man stand trial in a Malaysian kangaroo court.

Can Mahathir make the spirit of <I>reformasi</I> fade away?

Then came the incredible and dangerous drama of balaclava-clad commandos with machine guns storming the house of the former Deputy Prime Minister. Anwar was whisked away without anyone’s knowledge of where he was being held or what condition he was in.  A few days later, he emerged with a bloodied black eye amid news that he had been beaten by the “gangster” Police Chief, Rahim Noor. Anwar’s famous black eye appeared even in foreign media like CNN, Newsweek and Times.

Image result for Rahim Noor

After that came damage control efforts with the Prime Minister accusing Anwar of inflicting the injury on himself. I will never forget the sneer on his lips as he spoke, describing how Anwar could have given himself the black eye. I will also never forget how a member of his Cabinet, a loud-mouthed woman, demonstrated with a drinking glass how Anwar could have pulled it off. We heard later that Anwar had suffered a severe spinal injury and almost lost his life, left to bleed after the “heroic” efforts of the then-Police Chief who has now been appointed as a peacemaker.

I also need to mention how the court allowed the Chief Public Prosecutor to bungle the dates and change them so many times, even allowing the prosecutor to place the sodomy incidents at an unfinished condo at an unknown date and time. The accused was supposed to have committed the act from one date to another, which amounted to several months in total. No specified day or time. Only many specified days and times. And the “honourable” court allowed that.

Image result for Mattress carrying in Anwar case

 

Then came the trial of Anwar, with sordid details and the unforgettable parading of mattresses in and out of the courts. The court allowed this funny but shameful act while the prime minister and his Cabinet watched from the comfort of their homes – in glee, I assume.

No one said anything about how the law and justice was shamed and desecrated. No mufti said anything. No vice-chancellors said anything. No highly paid public servant said anything. The whole nation watched as one man’s honour, dignity and integrity was raped in front of RTM, TV3 and the newsprint.

Finally, Anwar was convicted – not of sodomy, but of “abuse of power” by asking the Police to extract a confession on a planned political assassination. So he was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail. He was imprisoned before the trial, during the trial and after the trial.

Outside the prison, the then-President of UMNO mercilessly bashed Anwar’s legacy, character and contributions at every UMNO convention – no different from the antics of Rahim Noor, punching a blindfolded man whose hands were tied. For this, the UMNO President was considered a Malay hero with a morality second only to the Prophet. The great Malay hero berated his rival, knowing full well that the man in prison had no means of rebuttal. Such was our prime minister then – the great leader.

What did this all mean to me?

In 1998, I was appointed as an Associate Professor at a public university in the south. I was 36. My career was just beginning to take off, with my books, media articles, public talks and television appearances on the issue of Islamic and heritage architecture.

While building up my career, I read every piece of news and attended every ceramah on Anwar and the Reformasi at every chance I got, sometimes dragging my wife and two daughters to wet padangs filled with mud puddles. I bought every CD I could find on speeches by PAS leaders and Ezam, Saifuddin, Azmin and Mat Sabu. I still have the CD of the Deklarasi Permatang Pauh where the Reformasi was born.

The first thing I learned from the first decade of Reformasi was that a prime minister could be powerful enough to let Anwar be taken off like a terrorist without his loved ones knowing where or how he was. It was hard for me to imagine how my wife and daughters would feel if I were in Anwar’s shoes – not knowing where her husband was or whether their father was dead or alive.

I was shocked not only at the sheer amount of power but also at the attitude of our highly paid religious officials, professors, judges and civil servants. Never mind the police, they were acting like the personal army of the prime minister and Umno. Wahhhhhh, I thought, you can simply pick a fellow up in the middle of the night while brandishing an M16 at him, his wife, his children and his unarmed friends, then take him, beat him up and come out telling us that he punched himself in the eye.

Is the prime minister a person elected by the people in trust to uphold law and justice and preserve the dignity of citizens, or is he no better than a godfather or triad boss who can toy with lives at will? I cannot describe the shock to my social, psychological and religious system of life and understanding.

Before 1997, we were the darling of Asia, looking towards a multiracial and multi-faith nation under the hardworking ethos of Mahathir and the civilisational values of Anwar. Before 1997, I thought we had discovered the Malaysian Renaissance as opposed to the Melayu Reminiscence. But in 1998, we became, under the Prime Minister’s colourful leadership, a third-rate nation ruling with guns and murders. That was when I understood that what we had was not democracy, but a modern feudal version of the old Malay raja-ship criticised by Abdullah Munshi for being uncivilised and unIslamic.

If Najib Razak popularised the term “cash is king” in 2016, in 1998 it was “titles and projects are king”. I learned that the higher the status of a person in society paid by taxpayers, the quieter one becomes in accepting what would normally constitute indecency and pure unadulterated corruption of power.

The new generation of Malaysians shouting at the steps of the education ministry and the 30-something-year-old NGO activists must know that Anwar could have easily left the country in the months before the commandos stormed his house. In fact, I think the prime minister and Umno would have loved it if Anwar had followed those of his friends who fled to another country and were safe as houses. But Anwar stayed on and went on a whirlwind ceramah tour until the Prime Minister and UMNO saw the damage and unleashed their “private muscle”: the Police. The Police were supposed to be an institution enforcing what is constitutionally right, but the leadership of the force understood only “titles and projects”. Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi.

If Anwar had left the country, we would not be where we are today, I think. Knowing the gullible Malay society, as long as there was UMNO and a Malay presence in the Cabinet, the universities, the army and the police, things would go on as before.

I am not a professor of political science, but I think Anwar’s unjust incarcerations on two occasions not only brought down a despicable racist party in UMNO Baru (formed by Mahathir after the 1987 tussle with Ku Li), but also put a serious dent in the vast institution of the Judiciary, Police and shameful public universities.

Of course, historians are always quick to point out that one man alone can never take charge of the course of history, but truth be told, history is littered with the ideas and suffering of individuals: one Muhammad, one Gandhi, one Mandela or one Martin Luther King. Today’s activists and students may cry foul upon reading my article and say it is melodramatic or worse, a propaganda piece paid for by the Anwar camp.

But I have been writing for 20 years against the mainstream of Malay and official Islam, which has nearly cost me my career. I have done so because of my sentiments following the first 10 years of Reformasi. That decade was my coming of age as a Muslim, a Malaysian and an academic.

We must know who the rightful leadership of this country should be, and the only clues we have are in our history. Who was the victim, and who was the leader who became corrupted by power? I believe people can change through great suffering. Leaders who have never tasted true suffering can work with anyone and make pacts with any party as long as their personal agendas and egos are satisfied.

The first decade of Reformasi taught me never again to fully trust politicians in power, high or low ranking religious officials proclaiming the morality of Islam while collecting honourifics and projects, vice-chancellors of public universities without conscience, and the police force which has neither the morality nor the integrity to uphold the law.

In choosing a leader, I would prefer one who has gone through great suffering because of his beliefs, not one who switches camps and approaches like riding a wave, as if he were the great emancipator. My choice is governed by what I witnessed in the first decade of Reformasi.

The new generation that woke up and came in at the end of the second decade of Reformasi does not understand its origins. If the new generation does not learn to choose a leader from an appreciation of history, then I think our new-found democratic freedom does not serve an honourable path for our country. It only serves our own selfish and narrow perspectives and a false, egotistic comprehension of truth, justice and integrity.

The childish poem of a Prime Minister titled “Melayu Mudah Lupa” may be true in many senses, but this Melayu has never forgotten and hopefully never will.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Looking for Reformasi on the Road to Oz


October 3, 2018

Looking for Reformasi on the Road to Oz

by Kean Wong

View story at Medium.com

Kean Wong, Contributing Editor, New Mandala(left)

After two decades of reformasi, two generations of resistance to ‘Malaysia lama’ spent September addressing capacity crowds of Malaysians abroad about ‘Malaysia baru’ and the horizon ahead.

As the two veteran campaigners for Malaysia’s democracy traversed the Australian continent across September, another leader Anwar Ibrahim formally started his campaign to reclaim parliamentary leadership, nominating for the Port Dickson by-election almost 20 years to the day his jailing sparked off reformasi, the democratic reform movement that led to Malaysia’s regime change on May 9 this year.

Amid this frenetic activity was the background rattle of ruling party PKR’s own tightly contested polls this month, threatening to split it apart in bitter recriminations as two proteges contest to become Anwar’s party deputy. All at a time when this year’s historic victory under the PKR flag has become a drama of a fragile coalition, rather than about how the biggest ruling party enables reformasi coming to pass.

As veteran reformasi activist and PKR Vice-President Tian Chua blitzed three Australian cities in four days over the Hari Merdeka (Independence day) weekend, he provoked a raft of thorny questions about a new Malaysia that were sometimes left unanswered.

Those in two minds about new Malaysia’s ambivalence on liberalism, religious laws, and political values found the DAP icon Lim Kit Siang cajoling and bristling in front of record crowds over such questions a few weeks later. After a half-century as an integral part of Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy, the once-‘Mr Opposition’ Lim now counsels patience and fortitude as an elder in the new government. Like Mr Chua earlier in the month, Mr Lim by September’s end encouraged Malaysians he met abroad to not judge the new coalition government too quickly or harshly.

Syahredzan explains ‘new Malaysia’ in Sydney as panelists (L-R) MP Wong Shu Qi, Lim Kit Siang, and Bersih Sydney’s William deCruz and Mathuri Santhi-Morgan tune in.

 

The 77-year-old occasionally displayed flashes of his famed street-fighting rhetoric when parrying questions in jammed venues across Perth, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, before continuing his tour of the Malaysian diaspora this week in New Zealand. Like his former nemesis and now coalition partner Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Lim took all questions, barbed and not, with a deftness and directness that was so alien to the previous prime minister’s leaden events.

He wanted the Melbourne crowd, which packed three rooms with scores more stranded outside on a Saturday evening, to forgive but not necessarily forget the DAP’s old foes. In the new Malaysia the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government hopes to build, “we all need to have a big picture outlook, to have a lo-o-o-ng vision.”

Nobody in the new government joined this endeavour with entirely clean hands, he said, and Malaysians when united demonstrated to the region how corrupt governments could be tossed out peacefully via the ballot box.

“Tainted people? We’re all tainted. To some, Mahathir is tainted,” he told the crowd. “Let’s give a chance to all who’re tainted to turn over a new leaf. We want Malaysia to succeed. In the past, some said ‘Malays must unite’ but today we say ‘Malaysians unite!’. So we must give them a chance. So we can go forward. So that we can be inclusive, so that we can be progressive.”

“That’s why when people ask how can Lim Kit Siang cooperate with Mahathir when he had put Lim Kit Siang in jail? Not only that, Mahathir put my son (new finance minister) Lim Guan Eng in jail, and Guan Eng’s daughter is here!” he said, as the audience applauded his granddaughter in the room.

“Yes, it’s not easy. But there’s the larger interest of the nation. Personally, of course, you’ve jailed me twice (referring to the previous Barisan Nasional regime). You say I’m anti-Malay, I’m anti-Islam, you tell lies about me. But what is the larger picture? If Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek can unite for the larger interest, why can’t we do so too? So we must be above ourselves, we must rise above our personal likes and dislikes. National interest, national good.

“So we’re in uncharted waters, in completely new territory,” he stressed. “There’s no simple answer to solve all problems. Of course there are a lot of reports about Mahathir, about Anwar disagreeing, but nobody can give answers to that. But you must have a positive outlook because we want the (PH) experiment to succeed. We don’t want it to fail. And if we continue with that approach, if Mahathir, if Anwar and everyone else has this approach, it will succeed, whatever difficulties and contradictions that arise. But if our attitude is ‘so what? let it fail’, then it will fail. But we want it to succeed. Of course the differences will develop, it will come. Let’s have a big picture outlook, a long vision. That’s also my message to the Malaysian diaspora. Not just now, tomorrow, the day after, but the next 10, 15, 20 years. Can we survive that?”

Mr Lim proved more gnomic and nuanced off stage the night before in Sydney, at a vegetarian dinner after a more formal panel discussion where he insisted Malaysia was created as a secular state, framed as it was by Sabah and Sarawak when the nation formed in 1963. He was relaxed about his ‘backseat’ role in the new government, he said, bemused when referred to as an ‘elder statesman’ after receiving the Bersih Sydney Democracy Award earlier in the evening. His political secretary, the young constitutional lawyer Syahredzan Johan, drew giggles among the Sydney crowd thanking the “boss” when Mr Lim pointed audience misunderstandings about Malay rights and religion for him to answer.

Mr Lim with Bersih Sydney committee and the Democracy Award, 21 September 2018.

While the crowd had come to hail “the opposition legend”, as someone synonymous with leading the resistance against the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional government’s corruption and other abuses since 1969, there was also a reflection of where the past 20 years had left Mr Lim’s DAP and the instrumental role he played in the reformasi coalition.

There were principles of accountability, of good governance that couldn’t be cast aside, he said, that urgently needed reform in any ‘new Malaysia’. He suggested old men like the new nonagenarian Prime Minister, and octogenarian advisors like former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, were atoning for previous mistakes, keen to leave behind a nation that worked for more than just the few. The Malaysian people had to continue playing their renewed role, he stressed, whether it was through civil society movements like Bersih or other groups, to ensure the new government stayed true to their promises.

Fellow coalition leader Tian Chua faced similar questioning a few weeks earlier, when he took to the stage at a ‘Malam Merdeka’ dinner event in Sydney featuring Malaysian dancers, and a performance by legendary chanteuse Saloma’s niece Rozita Rohaizad that included the crowd singing along to the Mahathir-era anthem ‘Sejahtera Malaysia’. Unlike the mostly older crowd that attended Mr Lim’s talk a few weeks later, many younger Malaysians at Mr Chua’s event had been part of the storied overseas voters contingent that had gone to great lengths to vote at the historic 14th general elections (GE14).

The questions posed to Mr Chua suggested the crowd was still unsure about how a disparate coalition worked together, under a former authoritarian leader that had jailed so many in the new government, while doubts about another leader returning to center stage also hovered into view. Where this fits into the past 20 years of acrimony between politicians now unexpectedly triumphant together was not easily answered by Mr Chua.

At the historic NSW Parliament upper house chambers.

“I was quite surprised when Mahathir invited me to his office the day before he quit UMNO. We hadn’t seen each other since 1999, when he had advised me to eat more as I was going in and out of jail so often,” he revealed, as the audience laughed along.

“Both of us we alone in his office, and I started by saying that most of the time we’ve been opposite each other (sic), we’ve disagreed about most things, we have fought over various issues. But one thing I’ve never doubted was his commitment to Malaysia, never doubted his love for the country. That’s what I said to him. But now we could sit down and work out our differences. We wanted the country to be free, to have a proud and better future,” he said, explaining the meeting in 2016.

“Today, whether it’s led by Anwar or Mahathir, Malaysia will be governed by the set of principles laid down in the (Pakatan Harapan GE14) manifesto. It doesn’t matter who takes over from Mahathir, and after Anwar there will be others. We have to follow a new way of governance. We must strike a consensus among those running the country. There will be no more one-man-shows, no more PM-decides-everything. We must all agree, and the leaders must follow this principle.

“It’s inconsequential whether we think Mahathir is a reformed man, or whether Anwar is up for doing the job. It will be a collective effort. Those in Putrajaya must be executing the collective wishes of the Malaysian people. And if any of us deviate from this, you all know what to do! That’s why May 9 can be repeated, the guarantee that helps us stay on the right track.”

This question of Dr Mahathir’s notorious authoritarianism, and how it had damaged Malaysia’s democracy by the time of 1998’s reformasi, intrigued the Australian parliamentarians Mr Chua met with during this short trip.

 

When catching up with Anthony Albanese, the former Australian Deputy Prime Minister who’s now a senior leader of the opposition Labor Party, Mr Chua had explained to his old university comrade how a delicate coalition of parties was galvanised to win power after the previous regime’s scandals proved too much for Malaysians. This Sydney meeting contrasted with one a few years earlier, when Mr Albanese learnt of the outrage over the multi-billion dollar 1MDB heist that was still unfolding, and how opposition parliamentarians like Mr Chua faced arrest and worse as they raised the alarm.

 

The respect for human rights and the supremacy of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution (which had co-drafters from Australia) was a critical part of new Malaysia, said Mr Chua, and keeping the new government true to its word will not only be the task of parliamentarians but also a responsibility of civil society. Adhering to the principles outlined in the winning coalition’s election manifesto will be tough, he admitted, and as Mr Lim echoed a few weeks later, the disappointments will pile up if “practical” timelines for promised reforms are not publically discussed and expectations managed.

“Sometimes people forget that some of us were pushing for the reforms we’re discussing as policy today, before this time 20 years ago. We helped start the reformasi movement, we weren’t parachuted in afterwards,” he said.

But it was the discussions about the tough party elections headlined by Rafizi Ramli’s challenge to Azmin Ali, and the opposing camps Mr Chua and his party peers were slotting into that made his long road trip between the Canberra and Sydney events so weary. The unbridled ambition and the urgency for power often obscured the ideals of the reformasi movement that he felt was still a core part of his identity.

ian Chua and Anthony Albanese, with classic regime change poster as backdrop.

Tian Chua and Anthony Albanese, with classic regime change poster as backdrop.

The party polls had sounded a little like the party fratricide that Mr Albanese alluded to when explaining how yet another prime minister was torn down in Australia the previous week, making it the fifth time in 10 years. The enmity stayed raw for quite some time, and a brutal contest for party power was no way to ensure stability and purpose when in government.

It was a sobering reminder that lingered as we left Mr Albanese’s inner Sydney enclave. Just as we stepped out, the overcast skies broke into a stormy deluge as the Malaysian reformist rushed to the airport for his flight home, straight into another bruising election season.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insight https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/99965