The attack on former attorney general Tommy Thomas is an attack on freedom of speech
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has taken the unprecedented step of ordering the current attorney general to investigate his predecessor, Tommy Thomas, for alleged breaches several laws over Thomas’s controversial 2021 description of his role as national prosecutor in going after corrupt figures in the previous government, particularly disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Sabri’s act is a potential contravention of the Constitution, which states that only the Attorney General at his discretion has the power to institute proceedings over potential offenses, rather than the prime minister.
Sabri said a special task force formed to investigate Thomas’s book “My Story: Justice in the Wilderness,” published in January 2021, included 19 issues under four main categories: allegations leveled at the judiciary, exposing government secrets, abuse of power and professional negligence, and seditious statements, which allegedly violated the Official Secrets Act, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Act, and sections of the Penal Code.
Thomas’s book was published after he was dismissed as attorney general after the reformist Pakatan Harapan government fell in February 2020. The book gave an insider’s view into the process of bringing Najib to justice over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, in which more than US$4.5 billion disappeared from the sovereign fund. Asia Sentinel reviewed the book here.
The book also featured revelations about the May 13, 1969 race riots in which hundreds of Malaysians lost their lives, alleging a coup against then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and his eventual replacement by Tun Abdul Razak, Najib’s father. Also covered were the events that led to the sacking of former Chief Justice Tun Saleh Abas by Mahathir during his first stint as prime minister.
No one knows the specific passages of Tommy’s book under investigation as the report handed to Sabri by the special task force is a secret document.
Manufacturing an election issue
Thomas, a Eurasian, was a controversial appointment as attorney general from the outset. Ultra-Malay voices within the UMNO-supported media argued the post of attorney general should be held exclusively by a Malay. Bringing up Thomas once again on the eve of calling an election appears to be an attempt to create an issue for UMNO to fight on in the Malay-heartland hustings.
The ulterior motive here is to script the prosecutions against Najib Razak and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as purely politically motivated.
To date the opposition Pakatan Harapan has been totally silent on the attacks on Thomas, which is likely to be portrayed by UMNO leaders as complicit agreement with the narrative they are creating around Thomas with their investigation.
The opposition is in a catch-22 situation. If they speak out in support of Thomas, UMNO will accuse Pakatan of supporting non-Malays within the top echelons of government. If they remain silent, the opposition will be implicitly allowing UMNO to reframe the conviction of Najib and charging of Zahid, who was acquitted of one set of charges but who remains in trial for others, as being politically motivated.
Pakatan Harapan appear to have thrown Thomas under the bus, showing lack of integrity in their commitment to fight corruption. This could cost them votes in mixed constituencies.
Intimidation to curb free speech
Thomas has been the subject to almost daily criticism since his speech at a book launch in Kuala Lumpur on September 17, during which he suggested three critical areas the opposition bloc should focus its campaign to repeat the outcome in the last general election in 2018, that brought the Pakatan Harapan coalition to power.
At the function, Thomas said voters must ask themselves whether a “Malay government” has made the country better off. He claimed Mahathir resigned as prime minister because the government was not “Malay enough.” This led to two and a half years of a Malay dominated cabinet.
Thomas’s comments led to feverish criticism on both news portals and social media for weeks. UMNO has a well-resourced group of trolls or cybertroopers who are attacking critics of the government through social media.
The defamation laws are being used by both government and private corporations to suppress criticism. Last year Malaysiakini’s appeal against a court decision awarding RM550,000 to Raub Australian Gold Mining (RAGM) in a defamation suit has made all online news portals very cautious in what they publish. This has severely dampened investigative journalism in the country. Politicians with access to funds purposely file suits for defamation, even if some claims are frivolous to drain attention and money of the reporters and portals they sue.
News portals have been only too eager to comply with requests from ministers and their assistants to pull articles they are not happy with, even if the news portals have correctly reported the facts. The police Special Branch is very active attending any public meetings about social and political issues around the country.
The government has been using intimidation to clamp down on criticism over the last few months in preparation for a snap election which is in the process of being called for November. Most news portals have been very conservative and careful with what they have been publishing out of fear their portals could be blocked by the authorities.
Grave setback to the fight against corruption
Reports indicate that Ismail Sabri was put under pressure to investigate Thomas in retribution for charging those who make up the so-called “court cluster” within UMNO. Well known blogger and political commentator Kim Quek believes the action being taken against Thomas is a grave setback for good governance and the fight against corruption. Quek said “Tommy Thomas is the most righteous Attorney General I have known. And his most memorable contribution to the country is the setting in motion the netting of the big sharks that would have devoured the country if left to roam unhindered. PM Ismail Sabri is also the only Prime Minister who has publicly ordered for the criminal investigation on an Attorney General. While Ismail may gain the applause of Umno’s die-hard supporters, he may not have the gumption to go through the process of prosecuting Thomas in court where more dirty linens of the decadent ruling elite may be washed”.
The big question is why it took the special task force nine months to investigate a 400 plus page book published more than a year ago. There is only a very small probability that Thomas will ever be brought to court. The events over the imminent election campaign will most likely change the political dynamics that led to the special task force investigation. However, the attack on Tommy Thomas will be an issue that will resonate within the Malay-heartlands. The biggest casualty is the integrity of a Malay-centric government that Thomas warned the people about.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel