The former Attorney General, who resigned in the wake of the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan administration in March, has kept his counsel till now about what he observed at the heart of government as the coalition collapsed.
At the climax of an about to be published memoir, spanning his career as a reforming barrister in Malaysia, he reveals a series of previously unknown facts that shed crucial light on the significance of those events.
The chapter, which Tommy Thomas says it pained him to write given his overall respect for the former prime minister, details why in his analysis Dr Mahathir holds the greatest responsibility for the implosion of what had been a stable government.
“I have found these paragraphs difficult to write. It pains me to be critical of the Prime Minister who had appointed me, and stood by me over twenty months despite massive attacks from the majority race. But posterity will judge harshly the three decisions that Tun Dr. Mahathir took on Monday, 24th February 2020.”
In the largely dispassionate tone that characterises his narrative that nonetheless touches on many of the most emotional and dramatic moments in Malaysian history, Thomas brings a legal perspective as to where in his view Mahathir misstepped.
As AG at the time he had a unique insight.
The first surprise (or “utter shock” as Thomas describes it) came when a friend texted him at 1.30pm on Monday 24th February, the day after the so-called Sheraton Move, to say that Mahathir had submitted a letter of resignation to the King.
He immediately visited the PM’s private office to discover it was true. Until that point, says Thomas, he had been ‘bullish’ about the antics of the relative handful of defectors.
“If any politician in modern history anywhere in the world is fully conversant with the incumbent’s power or “kuasa”, as it is known in Malay, it is Tun Dr. Mahathir .. Indeed, Tun was often characterised by the opposition, sections of the media and his critics as a dictator. His powers stemmed from his occupation of the office of Prime Minister.”
writes Thomas, who appears to have found this surrender of powers “inexplicable”.
Damningly, Thomas also says it was “indefensible” because “it led to the collapse of the PH government, to the terrible disappointment of the majority of the electorate at GE14…. one can only characterise it as irrational. Indeed, bizarre.”
Although, opportunities were made available to undo the impulse, we learn they were undone by further ‘bizarre decisions” by Tun M:
“The Agong implored the Prime Minister to stay on. The Prime Minister insisted on resigning, which left His Majesty no option but to accept. The resignation took effect.”
Thomas then goes on to detail the nature of the sabotage that then took place. As he explains:
At this point of time, it would have been constitutional for the Agong to appoint the Deputy Prime Minister, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, as the acting Prime Minister to allow the governing PH coalition to elect its new candidate for the office of Prime Minister… The resignation was confined to that office, not the entire government.
The Agong proceeded to act constitutionally by wanting to appoint Wan Azizah as Acting or Interim Prime Minister. Tun Dr. Mahathir put forward his own name. This is probably without precedent in modern politics.
So, having resigned as Prime Minister Mahathir demanded to be re-appointed as interim Prime Minister instead of his deputy as prescribed. As Tommy Thomas then explains, Mahathir used that position to carry out the third act of political suicide on behalf of the elected government that day. He sacked the entire Cabinet:
“Three practical consequences followed Tun’s insistence that the Cabinet must be dismissed, which the Agong constitutionally had to accept. First, the country was without an executive government for about three weeks. Secondly, ministers of the state and their deputies totalling about fifty were suddenly without a job. They reported to work on Monday morning in the usual way. They were dismissed at the end of the day. Thirdly, it made Tun terribly vulnerable because, by his own actions, he was left alone in government. All his support had vanished in minutes. A third inexplicable and indefensible decision. And, of course, bizarre.”
Thomas reminds readers how the exceptional circumstances at that time made the move all the more irresponsible:
“There is a practical reason why Cabinet ministers are not removed from office when a Prime Minister resigns. Every country needs a Government, even if it is a Caretaker Government prior to general elections, to govern. They are helming the ship of state. On 24th February 2020, Malaysia, in common with numerous countries across the globe, was in the cusp of the Covid pandemic. The country badly needed smart leadership. The Minister of Health, Datuk Seri Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad had been doing a splendid job in combating the terribly dangerous infections disease. Along with the Director-General of Health, Dato’ Seri Dr. Noor Hisham bin Abdullah, we had a safe pair of hands to lead a response from the health perspective. Minister Dzulkefly enjoyed the confidence of the population. His dismissal bordered on irresponsibility.”
With the rules upended Thomas then details how further transgressions took place. He in his role as advisor to the government “informed His Majesty that the only correct and proper method of ascertaining the confidence of any person who seeks the office of the Prime Minister is on the floor of the Dewan Rakyat at the conclusion of a debate and vote. This is the only fool-proof method of appointment.”
However, as all Malaysians know, this is not what next transpired. On the evening of 25th February, following that meeting with the Agong, Thomas says he again met with the now interim prime minister to be greeted with more bizarre news. Mahathir informed him he had the unanimous support of all MPs to remain as prime minister – “I immediately asked: all 222 members of parliament? Tun responded in the affirmative.”
Hence, it would be ‘unity government’ Thomas relates. “Party positions would not matter for Cabinet appointments. Tun would have a complete free hand.”
It was then that Mahathir dropped what Thomas describes as further ‘bombshells’, including the fact that Tun had agreed to sack him as part of his bargain with the former opposition party leaders.
Until now, it has been publicly understood that Tommy Thomas only resigned in response to the departure of the prime minister who had appointed him. However, for the first time we learn from Thomas himself that Mahathir had already deserted his own AG.
In the same manner Tun explained to Thomas at this meeting between the two men that party leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng (who headed the two largest parties in his winning coalition at GE15) would likely not form part of his cabinet in the proposed ‘Unity Government’.
“Tun then dropped a bombshell. Tun stated that the UMNO and PAS leaders who had met him earlier in the day had two conditions before they would agree to join a unity government. First, they wanted Lim Guan Eng removed as Finance Minister.
Secondly, they wanted me removed as AG. Tun said that they were particularly incensed with my recent decision to drop all charges against all the LTTE suspects. According to them, this was a racist decision on my part. Tun said therefore I would have to leave. Tun replied that he will not renew my contract when it expires in June 2020, some three months away.”
Thomas initially agreed to the three months notice period, but the matter was to be over-taken by events as Mahathir’s plans unravelled in the face of the outraged response of his former allies. In fact, as the book confirms, it was Anwar who received the most votes from MPs when canvassed by the Agong the following day (92 as opposed to 62 for Mahathir).
Parliament was never recalled as it should have been to resolve the matter and the Agong appointed the rebel Home Minister, Muhyiddin (who did not receive a single vote) to form a minority administration.
“Tun Dr. Mahathir’s statement to me just the previous day that all 222 MPs had pledged their support to him had not materialised.”
observes a plainly frustrated Tommy Thomas. Again, the fault lay with Mahathir’s arrogant plan to deny his major allies their rightful role in Cabinet:
“Leaders of all political parties who had spent years ascending the ladder in the party hierarchy were told they were not guaranteed Cabinet posts. That flies against party politics practised everywhere at all times. Political leaders are ambitious: they yearn for Cabinet positions. There is nothing dishonourable about that. Another elementary miscalculation by Tun.”
After months of widespread confusion about the shifting alliances that caused the collapse of the Mahathir government this clear first hand account and analysis points a direct if sorrowful finger at the man the top law officer of the time clearly holds personally to blame.
“Justice In The Wilderness” by Tommy Thomas is published on January 30th and is available via Amazon and bookshops.
The narrative on the collapse of the Mahathir government is just part of a series of fascinating revelations about that administration’s 18 months in power and also earlier struggles for reform in which Tommy Thomas has played a leading role through Malaysia’s recent history.