Dennis Ignatius: Why persecute Tommy Thomas for a job well done?

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The whole case against Thomas is not about integrity, transparency or even about law; it’s pure politics, and politics of the worst kind.

The nation is facing serious problems. Corruption is killing us. The national debt is rising at a faster pace than before. The value of the ringgit is falling. Rising inflation is further pushing up the cost of food and other essentials. A huge chunk of the middle class has slipped into the B40 group which has now been renamed B60. People, irrespective of race or religion, are struggling. The advent of the monsoon season could mean yet more misery for people in several states.

Given the dire situation, one would have thought that the government would be busy outlining its plans for economic recovery, job creation and helping citizens in real and meaningful ways.

Instead, the UMNO-led government has chosen to create a storm in a teacup over comments former attorney-general Tommy Thomas made in his book My Story: Justice in the wilderness, published in January 2021.

Interestingly, the book itself – which went on to become a best seller – was not banned though dozens of police reports were lodged against Thomas. Thomas was subsequently called up for questioning by the police but nothing came of it. Clearly, despite the furore, the police found nothing actionable in his book.

UMNO was, of course, not pleased. They were never happy with Thomas’ appointment in the first place. It may be recalled that they turned his appointment into a racial and religious issue with one UMNO politician even asserting that Thomas couldn’t be trusted because he didn’t take his oath of office by swearing on the Quran. It seemed to matter little that none of the AGs before him had ever done so.

They had good reason to fear him; they knew he wouldn’t be swayed by all the usual appeals to race and religion that UMNO politicians frequently hide behind when they get caught with their pants down. And neither was he susceptible to the ‘cash is king’ mantra.

Yap Chee Hong/The Star

And they were right; Thomas carried out his constitutional obligations splendidly. While former holders of the post cleared Najib or lacked the courage to do their duty, Thomas acted speedily when investigation papers landed on his desk. The rest is history, as they say.

If not for Thomas, Najib Tun Razak, for one, would still be prancing about pretending to be a great leader instead of sitting in a jail cell. As well, if not for Thomas, other UMNO leaders, including UMNO president Zahid Hamidi, would not be facing dozens of criminal charges.

In December last year, facing pressure from UMNO to act against Thomas, Ismail Sabri agreed to establish a taskforce to investigate Thomas. After nine months, the taskforce accomplished what the vast police bureaucracy was apparently unable to do: find 19 key issue issues divided into four categories to bring against Thomas – allegations against the judiciary, disclosure of government information and secrets, illegitimate action, abuse of power, professional negligence, and seditious statements. Strange how the police missed all this.

Ismail Sabri has now “instructed” the police to act on the report of the taskforce. In a statement, the prime minister said the investigation would be conducted under Sections 124I and 203A of the Penal Code, Section 4 of the Sedition Act, Section 8 of the Official Secrets Act and Section 23 of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Act.  The police quickly acquiesced and summoned Thomas for a further round of questioning. It cannot get any more political than that, can it?

Without a doubt, there are also strong racial undertones as well. Though they deny it, attacking the non-Malay AG who put Najib behind bars plays well politically with the UMNO base and certain UMNO leaders eager for their pound of flesh.

In denying any racial motivation, UMNO information chief Shahril Hamdan said that the investigation was about “integrity and transparency in the Attorney-General’s Chambers… It has nothing to do with race.” He went on to add that “even if the author of the book was a Taufik, Talib, or Tahir, they should be investigated.”

Unsurprisingly, Shahril left out a more pertinent name – Apandi. If he was genuinely concerned about integrity and transparency in the AG’s office, why not investigate former AG Mohamed Apandi Ali for absolving Najib of the 1MDB affair in 2016? As the judge who heard (and dismissed) Apandi’s defamation suit against Lim Kit Siang noted, the evidence and circumstances gave reasonable grounds to call for investigation as to whether the plaintiff [Apandi] had indeed covered up the 1MDB scandal.

Clearly, the whole case against Thomas is not about integrity, transparency or even about law; it’s pure politics, and politics of the worst kind. It’s a gross abuse of power by the state and another reason why this government has been bad for Malaysia.

However this issue plays out, one thing is certain: Thomas has shown Malaysians what one honourable man – acting professionally and owing allegiance to none but the constitution – can accomplish. Many Malaysians appreciate and admire him for it. He has set some high standards and left us all yearning to see more such honourable men in public office. – Dennis Ignatius