Tommy Thomas: Government lawyers lack drive to excel

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Government lawyers do not have the same work attitude and drive to succeed as their counterparts in the private sector, Tommy Thomas, the first lawyer from the Bar to be appointed attorney-general (AG), has observed.

“I realised that lawyers from the AG’s Chambers (AGC) acting for the government did not have the same commitment, passion and drive to succeed as their counterparts in the Bar,” he says in his memoir, “My Story: Justice in the Wilderness”.

He said public sector lawyers – deputy public prosecutors and federal counsel – had “public service attitudes”.


“They are civil servants earning fixed incomes and awaiting pension upon retirement. There was no incentive to distinguish themselves,” he wrote.

Thomas, who became a lawyer in 1976, said that in the competitive world of private practice, most barristers were trying to impress not just their clients, but also the opposing parties with the hope that they would be appointed by these parties in other disputes.

“The sense of competition, which ensures the emergence of the best and brightest stars in the private litigation bar, had no equivalent in the AGC (at least to an outside observer),” he said.

He said the 1,200 lawyers at the AGC seemed to serve in a large bureaucracy and after many promotions in the judicial and legal service, some were appointed to the Bench.

Thomas was appointed on a two-year contract on June 6, 2018, but resigned on Feb 28 last year, four days after prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad tendered his resignation to the King.

He said that during his tenure as the attorney-general, he had continuously emphasised the fundamental duty of all AGC officers to the people, who through their income tax, were paying the officers’ salaries and pensions.

“This point had particular significance in criminal matters. We were public prosecutors and thus prosecuting on behalf of the public,” he said, adding that it was both a privilege and duty to perform their best, “and the people of Malaysia deserved and expected no less”.

Meanwhile, retired judge Gopal Sri Ram said the current state of affairs among government and private lawyers was due to the education system.

Mohd Sahar Misni/The Star

“To start with, law should be taught in English or otherwise local lawyers will not be able to compete in a challenging global environment,” said Sri Ram, who was appointed ad hoc prosecutor in 2018 in two 1MDB-related cases involving former prime minister Najib Razak, and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, in another corruption trial.

Sri Ram, who began practice in 1970, said government lawyers in those days graduated from the four Inns in England and were no less competent than the lawyers from the Bar.

Among them were the late Salleh Abas, Ghazi Ishak, Abu Talib Othman, Manjeet Singh Dhillon, Lim Beng Choon, Stanley Isaacs, T Selveinthranathan, Mary Lim Thiam Suan and Azizah Nawawi.

“Some, after gaining experience in the AGC, left and were successful in private practice,” he said.

Sri Ram also suggested that the Legal Profession Qualifying Board recognise some of the universities in South Asian countries which have law courses that are of proven quality.

He said many of Malaysia’s important laws were reproductions of the statutes of India, and leading textbooks on the law of contract, evidence, criminal procedure, penal law, civil procedure and constitutional law were all written by Indian authors.

Malaysia also shared with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka a common law system inherited from Britain, the colonial power at the time, he said. – FMT

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