THE disputed version of events between former attorney-general (AG) Tan Sri Tommy Thomas and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is centred around whether the king had suggested that then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail be interim prime minister.

But the deeper and more meaningful question is what motivated Dr Mahathir to resign from the position, when he knew that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government would collapse as a result. We will attempt to answer both.

On page 472 of his book, the chapter on his resignation, Thomas said: “The Agong proceeded to act constitutionally by wanting to appoint Wan Azizah as acting on (sic) interim prime minister. Dr Mahathir put forward his own name.” Although Thomas does not specifically say it here, this could have been told to him only by Dr Mahathir.

Dr Mahathir, however, disputes this hotly. He said on his Che Det blog: “Thomas knew nothing about my resignation. According to Thomas, I told him that the Agong had wanted to appoint Wan Azizah as interim prime minister. This is nonsense. After reluctantly accepting my resignation, the Agong suggested I become interim prime minister. Wan Azizah could not be acting prime minister or interim prime minister because the PH government had already collapsed.”

There is no way of establishing who is right – the king is not likely to confirm any version – but Thomas has no reason to lie about it, but Dr Mahathir will look bad if indeed that is the version. Thomas has no motive, Dr Mahathir has.

And considering his well-known aversion to having Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim succeed him, Dr Mahathir will not have been agreeable to the former’s wife becoming interim prime minister and is likely to have suggested himself as interim prime minister. Also, Thomas’ memory is likely more reliable. On balance, Thomas’ account is more likely true.

But the more important question is what is Dr Mahathir’s motive in resigning? Outlining the events, Thomas recalls, according to his book, having dinner with his friends on the day of the Sheraton Move on Sunday, February 23, 2020. The following day, Monday, February 24, Dr Mahathir submitted his resignation to the king.

Thomas expresses his opinion thus in the book: “This is probably without precedent in modern politics. A prime minister who is comfortably in power resigns of his own free will and volition. Consistent with that decision, he should leave the political scene after holding the most important position in the state.

“Contrary to what always happens in such circumstances, Dr Mahathir wanted to remain in power by being named interim prime minister. Relinquishing power as prime minister and exchanging that office by becoming interim prime minister is without parallel because it is inexplicable.”

Dr Mahathir on his blog delves into a long explanation on why he resigned. The crux of it is this: “My reason for resigning was because my own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, rejected my advice to not leave PH because at the meeting of the PH presidential council, all the members agreed to let me decide when I should step down. Clearly, they were not in favour of my stepping down to give way to Anwar. Anwar and Wan Azizah attended that meeting.”

Former attorney-general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas gives the same breakdown for the votes among MPs as established by statutory declarations – 92-62, with the rest abstaining. – File pic, February 9, 2021
Former attorney-general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas gives the same breakdown for the votes among MPs as established by statutory declarations – 92-62, with the rest abstaining. – File pic, February 9, 2021

Both Thomas and Dr Mahathir’s accounts agree on what happened next – the king decided to make a count of support among the 222 MPs through statutory declarations – 92 supported Anwar and 62, Dr Mahathir.

Dr Mahathir’s idea of forming a unity government with opposition support failed when PH decided to support Anwar instead. As Dr Mahathir said in his blog post: “I remembered well that Tun Abdul Razak (Hussein), as head of the NOC (National Operations Council post-1969 racial riots), tried to bring in all the opposition parties into the government. He succeeded with Gerakan, PAS, and SUPP. But DAP refused. Still, he felt justified in naming the new coalition the National Front, or Barisan Nasional.

“I thought that something similar was needed, but I failed because (Lim) Kit Siang said I was trying to become a dictator. He supported Anwar as the PH candidate. Had the 92 votes gone to me, I would have had 154 votes. You can imagine what direction the nation would take when all parties put the nation first.” That was Dr Mahathir’s plan to stay in power.

Thomas has some major revelations in his book on the events leading up to this, which tallies with Dr Mahathir’s plans. The former prime minister informed him on the evening of February 25 that all 222 MPs supported him.

“I immediately asked: all 222 members of Parliament? Tun responded in the affirmative.”

Thomas went on: “Tun had told each leader that he should submit to Tun the names of his supporters whom he wished to be in the cabinet. The cabinet will comprise ministers from all the parties: hence, it will be a unity government. But Tun went on to tell me that he told each leader that Tun might not select him into the cabinet. Hence, party positions will not matter for cabinet appointments. Tun will have a complete free hand. He said he had told both Anwar and Lim Guan Eng that they might not be selected for the new cabinet.”

Then the bombshell came; there were two conditions by Umno and PAS leaders: “First, they wanted Lim Guan Eng removed as finance minister. Secondly, they wanted me removed as AG. Tun said they were particularly incensed with my recent decision to drop all charges against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) suspects. According to them, this was a racist decision on my part. Tun said therefore, I will have to leave.”

Thomas gives the same breakdown for the votes among MPs as established by the statutory declarations – 92-62, with the rest abstaining. For a full understanding of Thomas’ position, one needs to read two chapters in his book – “Resignation” and “PH Falls” – and compare these to Dr Mahathir’s blog post.

The reason why Dr Mahathir resigned is that he had a pact with Umno and PAS to support him, and he was relying on PH supporting him to get enough MPs to remain prime minister. Thus, he betrayed PH, Anwar and the electorate by attempting to work with the very individuals that the people had rejected.

Dr Mahathir acted to ensure that Dr Wan Azizah, in the meantime, did not become interim prime minister, which would have altered the balance of power in Anwar’s favour. He, of course, had no intention of agreeing to any arrangement that gave power to Anwar.

Dr Mahathir was lying when he said, “My reason for resigning is because my own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, rejected my advice to not leave PH…”. At least that much is clear from Thomas’ book and Dr Mahathir’s reply.

When the unity government plan failed, the operation to get Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister swung into action and succeeded. But there are question marks aplenty. – The Vibes, February 9, 2021

P. Gunasegaram says it is utter folly for PKR, DAP and Amanah to trust Dr Mahathir, who engineered their loss of power and crushed any hope of reform in this round. He is editorial consultant of The Vibes and executive director of Sekhar Institute