Tommy Thomas: What has race got to do with being AG?

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Former diplomat Dennis Ignatius interviews former Attorney-General Tommy Thomas on YouTube.

  • On enforced disappearances, Thomas could not prosecute anyone as no one was investigating
  • On Timah whiskey issue and 4D gaming outlets ban, many lawyers eager to pursue in court for free but no petitioner willing to step up
  • Requiring freight companies to give up 51% of shares to Bumiputeras was an unlawful policy that ought to be brought to court
  • On Najib being allowed to travel, no other convicts being treated this way
  • Cases such as Azmin’s purported involvement in sex videos and the 12 individuals accused of having links to the Tamil Tigers were dropped because there was no realistic prospect for conviction
  • Thomas recused himself from Guan Eng’s corruption cases because of conflict of interest
  • Investigation papers of alleged corruption in the defence ministry never came to Thomas when he was AG
  • Investigation into Zeti’s and her husband’s role in the 1MDB scandal was not concluded during PH’s rule

Tommy Thomas says he was “surprised” that people did not want him as attorney-general just because he was a non-Malay.

He said he thought there would be enough support, particularly from the Pakatan Harapan side, as he was their “traveller AG”.

He said a traveller AG was obliged to be aligned to the policies of the government he served.

Despite that, he said there was opposition, which he regrets. He said his job was a professional one that did not require him to be of a certain race.

“The country needs a legal adviser. Does it really matter what his race is?” he asked in an interview with former diplomat Dennis Ignatius on YouTube.


Thomas pointed out that he had worked for the PAS government as a legal adviser and for Malay institutions and they had never had an issue with him being around.

“When that appointment (as legal adviser to the Kelantan PAS government) took place, I stayed on as their lawyer, they did not take into account racial considerations. So, to some extent, we thought it would be the same at the public level.

“The lesson has been learnt. I agree with you that the establishment, including the legal establishment, has taken the position that this is a Malay preserve from Merdeka. I accept that,” he said.

Ignatius had asked Thomas about former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad asking him to resign a day after he was appointed, along with claims that a minister wanted him out as he could not be sworn in with a Quran.

Thomas said he had had a cordial working relationship with Mahathir and the older man had given him full autonomy to do what he wished.

He said the only time Mahathir did not take his legal advice was on the deportation of preacher Dr Zakir Naik to India.

“Putting it mildly, he (Zakir) was a nuisance in his host country. But Dr M thought otherwise,” Thomas said.

On the issue of enforced disappearances, particularly about Pastor Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat, Thomas said he was unable to do anything, as “no one was investigating”.

Thomas said that without any investigation, he could not prosecute anyone.

Another dilemma, he said, was in asking the police to investigate themselves.

“That is what was attempted. But unfortunately, there have been no effective answers. We are no wiser today, three or four years later about why they went missing, apart from the Suhakam reports.

“It is a sad day for Malaysia, I am really sorry that we could not do anything about it during our time,” he said.

On the recent issues of the Timah whiskey and 4D gaming outlets ban, Thomas said many lawyers are eager to pursue the case in court for free, but no petitioner was willing to step up.

He also said the issue of requiring freight companies to give up 51% of their shares to Bumiputeras was also an unlawful policy that ought to be brought to court.

Thomas said the continued hesitation by people to take such cases to court was “a real commentary on Malaysians”.

“Part of this is also self-afflicted by Malaysians. There is a climate of fear. They are worried about taking matters to court,” he said.

On Najib Razak being allowed to travel abroad despite being convicted of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust (CBT), Thomas said he was not happy.

He said everyone must be treated equally under the law, including liberties accorded to an average convict.

“I cannot remember other accused, other convicts being treated this way,” he said when asked if those who were charged for an offence should be allowed to travel.

Thomas also dismissed the notion that the charges brought against Najib were politically motivated, saying the cases he took were legal decisions but admitted he could not help it if some perceived it another way.

Asked why certain Umno leaders were hauled to court for graft, while nothing was done in other cases, he said that although he had been given a free hand, he only prosecuted individuals when he was satisfied it was a “good case” based on the investigation papers (IPs).

“I always ask myself, can we win the case, because it’s not fair to put somebody in the dock when the prosecution cannot win the case,” he said.

Thomas said that was the only criteria he used, and when the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) reviewed past cases or decisions made by his predecessors, he would put on his “lawyer’s hat” and look at the chances of winning the case.

Otherwise, he said, he would drop it.

“This is the same test we applied for Azmin, LTTE and all those cases,” he said, referring to international trade and industry minister Azmin Ali and the 12 individuals accused of having links to the now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In January 2020, Thomas decided not to prosecute anyone linked to the leaked sex videos purportedly involving Azmin, who had denied he was the person in the videos.

In February last year, Thomas dropped the charges against 12 people who were detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) because there was “no realistic prospect for conviction” on any of the 34 charges brought against them.

Thomas also defended his decision to recuse himself from being involved in Lim Guan Eng’s corruption cases in 2018 on grounds that the then finance minister’s trial was a matter of public interest.

The AGC had also stated then that Thomas was well aware of the fact that the rules of conflict of interest applied to him as well, and that it took steps to ensure the role of the top prosecutor remained impartial.

Opening up on the matter, Thomas said he was a firm believer in the principle of the conflict of interest and it was something he tried to practise “all of my life”.

He said that he told the solicitor-general it was up to him to decide on the case and that he did not want to know anything about it.

“That is the truth, and if readers don’t want to believe it, then it is up to them.”

Thomas said in some of the cases, including alleged corruption in the defence ministry, the “IPs never came to me during my time”.

In Ignatius’ memoir released in September, he said that former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s war against corruption was more of a campaign against certain Umno leaders.

The former diplomat alleged that certain Sarawak leaders “were given a free pass”, while there were also plenty of scandals at the defence ministry, including the payment for six undelivered littoral combat ships “that were all but ignored”.

Thomas also said that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) was stretched because it was investigating many cases, including those linked to state investment fund 1MDB that had been tied to Najib, investment bank Goldman Sachs and fugitive financier Low Taek Jho.

He said these were “tough white-collar crimes”.

“I could understand MACC asking for more time to prepare.”

As for the investigation into former Bank Negara governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz’s and her husband’s role in the 1MDB scandal, it was not concluded during Pakatan Harapan’s rule, said Thomas.

“At that stage, the MACC’s investigation paper had not been completed on Zeti and others. I never had the chance to look at those investigation papers.

“What I would say is, if the investigation papers were completed and if there was a strong and convincing case, the public prosecutor would do the necessary,” he said.

“If a former prime minister or former deputy prime minister is not immune from prosecution, certainly a former central bank governor is not,” he added.