Commentary Local

When you stir the hornet’s nest, some may get stung


Written by Aziz Hassan

Recollections & Reflections – A commentary

THE news report didn’t say why it was brought up after being shifted aside and overtaken by other events but somehow former prime minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad decided to talk about the 1988 judicial crisis all over again a few days ago, repeating what he had said a few times before in recent years.

It was, to put it simply, like stirring the hornet’s nest, waking up a giant that had gone to sleep years ago. Not surprisingly the knives were out again, both by his detractors and others with their respective agendas.

Some journalists turned to former attorney-general Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman for his comments. Abu Talib was AG at the time of the crisis and had no choice but to act as prosecutor during the tribunal that later ruled in favour of the dismissal of then Lord President (now called chief justice) Tun Salleh Abas.

Many of the more senior amongst Malaysians know that Abu Talib was for a long time Salleh’s most trusted lieutenant and the man Salleh had recommended to succeed him as the country’s top prosecutor. His work before the tribunal was made much easier when Salleh decided not to appear before it in protest against Tan Sri Hamid Omar (later Tun) in the chair. Worse, his legal team too decided to stay away. Imagine how Abu Talib must have felt if he had to examine his mentor.

When asked about the crisis Abu Talib finally confirmed what Mahathir had said – that it was the then Yang diPertuan Agong Sultan Iskandar Ismail who had asked that Salleh be removed. Abu Talib told the journalists he had seen the letter to this effect which was handwritten by the King.

Why Abu Talib didn’t say this during the crisis itself 29 years ago could not be determined but maybe his loyalty to Salleh kept him in check because to say that would not have done Salleh any favour. Also Abu Talib was under no obligation to correct the misconception that Salleh’s dismissal was all due to Mahathir.

The sentiments then also were such that not many wanted to believe any other version except one with the arrows pointing in every direction to Mahathir. The former PM’s image and public perception of him contributed a big part to the popular belief that he was the villain, the one and only. Many among the Malaysian middle-class and intellect found Mahathir the PM objectionable, so anything not in his favour was flavour of the month, every month. This was the story most wanted to believe.

With or without an RCI, the full true story on the judicial crisis will most likely never be known…. sometimes it’s better that the past remains in the past.

Information from within the intelligence community then also confirmed the version as told by Mahathir and Abu Talib.

Having being told of the decision of the King, or command as Abu Talib put it, if memory serves me right it was former minister Daim Zainuddin (now Tun) that Mahathir asked to talk to Salleh, who on being told of the King’s displeasure accepted his fate and also an offer to join the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia for a fat salary. That was until he spoke to someone who strongly advised him not to resign. Salleh duly changed his mind.

A statement on this was made by him soon after. That was also when the government made the decision to form the tribunal.

When he saw the video of the Abu Talib interview last Thursday, a friend concluded that meant the tribunal was no more than a kangaroo court. You can’t challenge him on this but that was the only platform that could legitimise Salleh’s removal. A necessary evil.

There were behind the scenes manoeuvrings too which the government knew of but because of how the information was obtained, most likely the real full story on this crisis will never be told, even if a royal commission of inquiry is formed, as suggested by an MCA politician.

If at least there’s another person in the government then who knew what led to the crisis it was Daim, also the man Mahathir entrusted with the setting up of the tribunal, one of the many crises Mahathir asked Daim to deal with during his 22 years as PM.

Since Mahathir’s recent remark, there have of course been the now customary reactions from detractors. One minister described it as rhetoric, a Johor NGO touched more on parochialism and how Mahathir had continued to insult the state and its people and most recently, an MCA man changed tack the second time around within days after learning of Abu Talib’s statement, first sounding supportive of Abu Talib but later saying that he found it puzzling that the latter should pin the blame on the King.

That the Bar Council, usually the first to react on matters of law and justice, has been deafeningly silence since the time Mahathir mentioned about the King’s decision. You get the impression that the Bar knows that Abu Talib could only be telling the truth.

The common denominator is that the late King is no longer around to say his piece.

But with or without an RCI, it is highly unlikely the whole truth behind this episode will ever be known, unless conscience pricks the other main actors enough to influence them to be honest and come clean.

An RCI may or may not vindicate the people you feel should be vindicated. It may instead vindicate the people you want to demonise, so sometimes it’s best that the past remains in the past.



About the author

Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.