Review of Anwar’s review of the Tommy Thomas memoir

In his review of Tommy Thomas’s book, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim did not come out strongly enough on the right of free expression.   FILE PIC
In his review of Tommy Thomas’s book, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim did not come out strongly enough on the right of free expression. FILE PIC

IN extravagant prose beyond the reach of most Malaysian understanding given the standard of English in our country, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim tried to offer an even-handed measure of the Tommy Thomas memoir My Story: Justice in the Wilderness.

His conclusion: The book should not be banned. With which I entirely agree. His warning, if I may continue in the vein of Latin expressions in his review: Caveat Emptor. Buyer beware, usually used in the capital market, which could apply equally in the purchase of a packet of cigarettes, or of a book.

In my commendation of the book I had observed and celebrated Tommy Thomas’s “refreshing and open style not characteristic in this country”. Anwar is only implicit on this in his review because, I guess, to refer to one of the extensive quotes, which is his predisposition: “I still have miles to go before I sleep.”

The trouble with writing in English in this country is that neither its language nor its texture is well understood and appreciated. Anwar is not unaware of this. Thus, while his review is mainly directed at those — his multiracial but inadequate base — who are okay with the language and its feel, he could not throw the baby out with the bathwater by fully embracing Tommy Thomas’s book.

He had to treat and save up for that most important constituency — the Malays. Hence, while his review is not without merit, at the end one is left to rue the fact it is somewhat constipated.

He could not come out to tell the Malays they should not be moved by the instinct to bully and threaten, and to go after, like a pack of hounds, something or someone they feel has transgressed their ever-expanding sacred territory. Thus Anwar had to side with the judicial and civil service, even the judiciary that was emasculated by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1988, against criticism in the book, or with the opinion rendered on the May 13 racial riots and Tun Razak’s alleged hand in it — indeed with all matters he saw the Malays could get worked up over.

Nowadays it would seem that Malays get or are made to be enraged over so many things, in direct proportion to incremental accumulated power ever since May 1969. There are even veiled threats of another May 13 if that is what Tommy Thomas wants. Quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.), Tommy Thomas might say.

What instead should be happening is to challenge Tommy Thomas in a civilised manner to provide proof of his assertions. He could be criticised as not having the temperament and character to carry that great office of state as attorney-general. He could even be asked if he was not being racial in many of his aspersions.

The trouble is the ground has shifted so much that so many Malays have become so used to getting their way, come what may. The laws they use to persecute others they believe do not apply to them. We cannot have this situation get worse that some people are above the law.

It is that constituency that Anwar must reach. It is that drift, that has to be checked, the privilege that has reached the point of legal impunity in exercise of political power and domination.

To me, “justice in the wilderness” describes something more than an attack on the judiciary, and other things many see are plainly wrong in our country. It is a cry for justice in the Malaysian political system which, even when you hold a high office of state, as a non-Malay, you are demeaned and denied.

We Malays must think and understand how the non-Malays feel, instead of always wanting to put the boot in. Tommy Thomas opened up because, despite having been a successful lawyer and holding briefly a high office of state (which only received half-cocked acceptance and a cold shoulder from the Malay establishment), he was never allowed to feel the country gave him any love. If not love, not even recognition.

Maybe he should not have lashed out as he did. Even so, I can understand why. Anwar should have, but did not and could not.

This is the narrative Anwar should be coming out with, how this country is so much in need of a reset, a process which everyone thought Pakatan Harapan was embarked on. However, they screwed up on so many levels.

No one took a handle on promised reform. There was no sequence, no communication plan. I had worked something out, was supposed to get something going, but was not allowed to do so because of the internal politics of Tun Dr Mahathir’s office.

In any case, nobody could have saved the day because the promise of reform was a sham and a shambles. It was all Mahathir-Anwar, with Anwar the pupil sitting across the table from Mahathir, notebook in hand, hoping to placate the old man who took him for a ride.

Now Anwar reviews the Tommy Thomas book without even seeing in the totality the anguish, a tortured soul, subjected to and reflecting on so many things wrong in the country.

I have observed previously the Pakatan Harapan victory in May 2018, with not a little to do with their political incompetence, released a race-religion reaction not unlike May 1969, with no physical violence of course, but still with the fist-thumping re-imposition of the perceived order of things — unremitting Malay political dominance, diminution in the rule of law and of the constitution, tightening of Malay economic hold, even corruption justified in the name of religion!

What Anwar should have seen from Tommy Thomas’s book is that the work of reform is still to be done. That, if I may be allowed to refer to Graham Greene’s book, is The Heart of the Matter. Instead Pakatan Harapan continues to talk of Anwar as prime minister and Mahathir as senior minister — what?

It is clear the task of reform and reset lies elsewhere. Have independent people look at the Malaysian political system again. The rights of the Malays, Islam, the non-Malays and their religions should all be clarified and restated. The weaknesses of nationhood should be identified and addressed. The future of the country needs to be secured.

We must have a Malaysia First Council, Majlis Mengutamakan Malaysia, all of its people throughout all of its territorial extent. The person or body that sets this council up will get the eternal gratitude of all Malaysians.

The writer, a former group editor of NST, is visiting senior fellow and member of the Advisory Board of LSE IDEAS (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy)