WHEN Tan Sri Tommy Thomas was appointed attorney-general, it was a first – no one from the private sector had been appointed to the post before.

Now his book (My Story: Justice in the Wilderness, RM80, 550 pages) released Saturday is a first, too – no one has written one on the behind-the-scenes happenings at the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) and thrown light on the happenings in the dark corridors there during a crucial period of our history.

Thomas, in the prologue itself, has us on the edge of our seats when he explains that his appointment was almost nullified, with the then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad asking for his resignation a day after his appointment on June 4, 2018, because of substantial Malay opposition to his appointment.

Thomas had a sleepless night. But the following morning, Mahathir had changed his mind after some strong lobbying, including from people Thomas says were his confidants without naming them. He reported to the AGC. Twenty months later he resigned, and now, 11 months later, we have this book. It’s been quite a ride for Thomas and all of us.

Life of infinite blessings

Thomas has, however, chosen to make it his story and, hence, the title, starting with an account of his family background. The book begins thus: “In a life of infinite blessings, perhaps the greatest was to have been born to parents who belonged to the Syrian Christian community.” Faith was very important to him.

While those who want to move into the nitty-gritty of the AG’s position may want to go straight into those chapters, a measure of the man himself and the thoughts that shaped him will require a reading of the early chapters, much of which is interesting and lyrically told.

He traces his roots back to Kerala and the Malabar coast, and offers an interesting historical record of the area. Following that, his experiences from childhood on to studying at Pasar Road and Victoria Institution, Manchester University for his degree in law and the London School of Economics for his Masters in International Relations are autobiographical.

It goes on to outline his law career at Skrine and Co. Among the cases he discusses are Amos Dawes and Moscow Narodny Bank, and Lim Kit Siang vs UEM. In the latter, Thomas managed to get the Federal Court to agree that Karpal Singh will represent Lim. Both Lim and Karpal were in detention then via Mahathir’s notorious Operation Lalang of 1987. The case was lost by a 3-2 decision.

He outlines recollections of working with Skrine partners John Skrine and Peter Mooney, as well as recollections of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn, amongst others.

The most noteworthy case

He says his most noteworthy case was the defence of former chief justice Tun Salleh Abbas. “In a forty-five-year career, appearing in various courts on thousands of days in hundreds of matters, I can state with conviction that being in the legal team led by Raja Aziz (Addruse) for the embattled Lord President before five incredibly courageous judges dispensing justice, was the high-water mark of my career. I am truly blessed for that opportunity.”

He talks about the judicial and constitutional crisis of 1987/88 in some detail: “If the dismissal of the head of the judiciary of a Commonwealth country towards the end of the 20th century, at the initiative of the executive branch, was unprecedented, unacceptable and improper, then the subsequent shattering of the apex court by suspending five justices, a majority in the Supreme Court, created a constitutional crisis. Although all of us involved in securing the stay/stop order from the Supreme Court on July 2 1988 knew that that would be the fate of the brave judges, when the suspension was announced on 6th July, it still came as a shock.”

It was a pretty good history of the judicial crisis from one who was a participant… and an irony that Thomas will later serve under Dr Mahathir, the architect of the destruction of judicial independence then.

Thomas goes on to talk about his other cases (interesting) and his short sojourn to Canada following Operation Lalang and the judicial crisis, his disillusionment with career prospects in Canada and his return to Malaysia in 1991, two and a half years later, to his old firm, Skrine and Co.  

Eusoff Chin – depths unthinkable

He became involved in other cases such as the Ayer Molek case which involved prominent businessman Tan Sri Vincent Tan, controversial lawyer V.K. Lingam and former chief justice Tun Eusoff Chin. Separately, he was found guilty of contempt of court for challenging an out-of-court settlement and resigned from Skrine in August 1999.

This is his comment on Eusoff Chin: “Hence, the six years when Eusoff Chin was Chief Justice was without doubt the worst period of the judiciary in our nation’s history. It reached depths unthinkable in any modern society.”

The interesting cases are too numerous to mention. Despite being thought of as anti-establishment, his client list included debt-restructuring agency Danaharta, the Securities Commission, Bursa Malaysia, the Employees Provident Fund, Sime Darby, CIMB, Khazanah Nasional, Bank Islam and Malaysia Building Society, amongst others.

He represented the PAS state government in Terengganu at that time and also Kelantan against national oil company Petronas and the federal government. Both cases were settled out of court and terms were not disclosed. Others represented included Bersih and an environmental group over Lynas Corporation, the builder of the rare earth plant. Other notable representations include Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Chin Peng whom he visited in Bangkok in 2008. He also represented the Orang Asli and was involved in constitutional cases involving Penang, Perak and Selangor.

Thomas’ involvement with 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) predated his appointment as AG. He recalls hearing about 1MDB around 2008 from bond market contacts. More news emerged over the years and by 2016 there was a lot of pressure on the then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. The AG at the time, Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali, cleared Najib of all charges. The Bar Council following an annual general meeting challenged the discretion of the AG to prosecute but failed. Thomas led the team in March 2016.

On his appointment as AG, Thomas reveals that his name was mentioned for the post in the event of victory at the 13th general election in 2013, But it remained confidential. He goes on to talk about his appointment as AG, and the events leading up to it.

The first 1MDB-related case involving Najib is the RM42 million corruption charge involving SRC International. He outlines much of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres and goes into detail about the 1MDB charges that were handled by Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram.

A partnership made in hell

On the partnership between Low Taek Jho (Jho Low) and Najib, he had this to say: “No one, probably not even Rosmah Mansor, will ever know the true relationship between Najib Razak and Jho Low… who was the puppet-master and who was the puppet? Who was the real decision-maker, and who was second in influence? No outsider can accurately comment on the nuances of their friendship, proximity, trust and closeness. It was a partnership made in hell, consummated on earth.”

He goes on to talk about how 1MDB conspired with Abu Dhabi sovereign fund IPIC to steal billions from the former and how the AG’s chambers set aside a consent award that cost Malaysia dearly. Rather heavy stuff, but for those interested, compelling reading and history being uncovered and made in some aspects of the 1MDB investigations.

Thomas also worked closely with various international agencies, especially the US Department of Justice which had uncovered much of Najib’s and Jho Low’s earlier transgressions and provided a useful trail of 1MDB money. He outlines the efforts to recover as much money as possible for 1MDB money and to get evidence for the trials.

He devotes one whole chapter to Equanimity, the yacht purchased by Jho Low for RM 1 billion with 1MBD money. It is yet another fascinating tale in the whole episode of 1MDB and which grabbed considerable public attention.

The final episode of the 1MDB saga was Goldman Sachs, which raised bonds for 1MDB and then collaborated in and facilitated the theft of most of the proceeds from the bonds. Thomas filed criminal charges against an array of Goldman Sachs officials which eventually led to a settlement by the new backdoor government after Thomas had left the AG’s chambers.

Thomas moves on to the pipeline contracts, dubbed by the press at the time (2016) as the “pipeline to nowhere”. They were worth some RM8 billion in value and favoured the Chinese counterparty.

The chapters on royalty and the judiciary have interesting snippets too numerous to mention here as with the other chapters. This is followed by the explanation of a civil case taken on behalf of the Orang Asli.

Anecdotes that bear noting – you have to read the book to find out – include the death of fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim and the LTTE, the Malaysia agreement and Petronas, a tribunal against the election commissioners, and trouble at the arbitration centre.

Dr Mahathir’s fall and fault

Particularly gripping is the story of events leading to his resignation arising from the fall of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government caused by the resignation of Dr Mahathir as prime minister. There are some twists here which are rather curious.

“Primary responsibility for the failure to manage the PH coalition rests with its leader, prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir. The buck stops at the desk of the PH leader,” he says. But read his full explanation for a better understanding.

There is little to criticise the book – it is after all the personal account of a prominent non-Malay lawyer who against all odds went on to be attorney-general, unprecedented in independent Malaysia. And, despite the odds achieved a great deal in a short space of 20 months, obtaining a conviction of the former prime minister.

It’s not a straightforward tale that Thomas tells, it is a ramble. It’s not straight to the appointment of the AG and the problems he had and the overthrow of PH and his resignation. It is a hike to point A and from there to point B on to point C and so on; he takes many a meandering side-trip on every trip, and by and large they tell stories and anecdotes that are fascinating and revelatory.

The book is much richer for that but it is long – 550 pages. It’s a steal at RM80 for there are many stories in it – an autobiography, a politico-legal contemporary history, a compendium of interesting law cases, frank even brazen comments on many issues, filled with many surprising anecdotes and on top of that a good read.  

In short, it has all the makings of a blockbuster. What more do you want? Go out and buy the book or order it from Gerakbudaya’s website and read it. You will need a highlighter and you will need to dog-ear the pages for later reference.

The book is both serious and fun. More Malaysians who have been in the corridors of power should emulate Thomas’ example and contribute to the accurate telling of our nation’s history. – The Vibes, February 1, 2021