COMMENT | Dr Mahathir Mohamad has tried in vain to wriggle out of the responsibility for Operation Lalang. Now he is attempting to blame the former attorney-general for the sacking of former lord president Salleh Abas and three other Supreme Court judges.
As I have pointed out often enough, these two outrages against Malaysian democracy in 1987 and 1988 respectively are inextricably linked.
I am surprised that the opportunist politicians and crypto-Mahathiristas in Pakatan Harapan and the lawyers who were outraged in 1988 have so quickly forgotten recent Malaysian history or have lost their tongues.
Let me remind them of Lord Denning’s words: Silence is not an option when things are ill done.
We know that 1987 was a time during Mahathir’s term when he was faced with the biggest threat to his rule, with Team B under Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah (photo) challenging the results of the then Umno elections. A Supreme Court decision in Team B’s favour would have meant the end of Mahathir’s grasp on power.
Thus, in the run-up to Operation Lalang and before the assault on the judiciary resulting in the sacking of the lord president and several other Supreme Court judges, the ruling party catalysed a tense situation in the country by creating 'sensitive' issues.
These were the sending of non-Mandarin qualified administrators to the Chinese schools, the alleged conversion of Muslims to Christianity and even threatening to organise a 500,000-strong Umno rally in the capital. All the ensuing tension was to justify unleashing ‘Operation Lalang’ to deal with the so-called “threats to national security”.
First prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, at the time in his twilight years but with more perception and integrity than Mahathir in his prime, had enough political nous to see how Operation Lalang was orchestrated. He said:
“Umno was facing a break-up. The prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s hold on the party appeared critical when election rigging was alleged to have given him a very narrow victory over Tengku Razaleigh. The case alleging irregularities brought by Umno members was pending in court.
“If the judgement went against him, he would have no choice but to step down. So he had to find a way out of his predicament. A national crisis had to be created to bring Umno together as a united force to fight a common enemy, the imaginary enemy in this case was the Chinese community.”
In the foreword to the book ‘May Day for Justice’ written by Salleh Abas and K Das after the sacking of the lord president, the Tunku further wrote:
“I do not know how any honourable government can stay in office after this book has been published. It constitutes a denunciation which cannot be answered without confessing to the most dishonourable conduct in public life ... it struck a terrible blow, not only to the independence of the Malaysian Judiciary – and ruined the careers of at least three honourable men – but to national pride itself.”
In another foreword, the Hon Justice Michael Kirby CMG, commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) had this to say:
“Singled out for particular mention was the concern of the ICJ about the campaign of attacks on the judiciary by the prime minister of Malaysia, the inducements made to the lord president to resign his office quietly, the apparently biased constitution of the tribunal set up to enquire into his removal, the inclusion in the tribunal, as its chairperson, of a judge who succeeded to the lord president’s office, the unprecedented action of that judge in securing the removal and suspension of Supreme Court judges who provided a stay to allow the constitutionality of the tribunal to be tested in the Malaysian Supreme Court, and the 'unpersuasive' report of the tribunal following which the lord president was removed.”
An utter disgrace
The highly respected former lord president Mohamed Suffian Hashim had this to say on the sordid affair and he pointed his finger squarely at Mahathir:
“The disgrace brought to Malaysia by the prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in dismissing lord president Tun Salleh Abas and two senior Supreme Court judges will long hang round his neck like an albatross. What the PM did astounded the nation and the appalling news was swiftly spread to all four corners of the globe.
“Tun Salleh (photo) has since revealed all the facts leading to, and regarding the so-called inquiry into his alleged misbehaviour.
“Facts which because of the prime minister’s total control of the mass media he was able at the time to keep from public knowledge and which were also kept out of the knowledge of the two foreign members of the tribunal who came from Sri Lanka and Singapore.”
The Malaysian Bar Council at the time also did not mince their words in a statement:
“From the prime minister’s attacks on the judiciary, it appears that he seriously misconceives the doctrine of the separation of powers. It is not for the executive to tell the judges how to construe the laws.”
In 1990, when DAP leader Lim Kit Siang was opposing Mahathir, he had alleged:
“The prime minister and the attorney-general have refused to throw light on this shocking discrepancy which raised doubts as to whether the prime minister ever had an audience with the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong on May 1, 1988.
“Grave doubts and mystery surround the judicial crisis of 1988. This clearly shows the parentage and background of the book ‘Judicial Misconduct’ – that it is not an independent assessment but an apologia for the government assault on the Malaysian judiciary.”
There were many other eminent jurists from around the world who were aghast at this flagrant assault on one of the vital institutions of any democracy: Geoffrey Robertson QC, Hugo Young, former Chief Justice of India PN Bhagwati, Prof Andrew Harding writing for the Commonwealth Judicial Journal, Bernard Levin of The Times, London, Professor FA Trinidade of The Law Quarterly Review and Nihal Jayawickkarama of the University of Hong Kong.
All of them were quite clear in pointing their fingers at Mahathir for the sacking of lord president Salleh Abas.
In his book ‘May Day for Justice’ written with K Das, Salleh Abas’ denunciation of Mahathir begins on the first page itself:
“When all else is forgotten, this question alone may remain to haunt us: Did I lie when I said the prime minister of Malaysia accused me of being biased in cases involving the political party, Umno?
“Did I invent this story that the prime minister raised the matter when he gave me the reasons why I was found unsuitable to remain as lord president of the Supreme Court of Malaysia and should therefore step down? That because of my speeches about Umno, I was biased as a judge?
“I have no doubt – and few would now disagree – that it was the Umno saga that led to my destruction as a judge.”
I urge those who have forgotten or were too young to know the truth about Mahathir’s assault on the Malaysian judiciary to read this by Salleh Abas and K Das, the latter also authoring another compulsory read entitled ‘Questionable Conduct over that May Day Caper’.
Try as he may, Mahathir will never succeed in changing Malaysian history as long as there are still good men and women ready to defend truth, justice, democracy and human rights.
KUA KIA SOONG is Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) adviser.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.