The hastily planned, emphatically entrusted and executed extermination of Altantuya Shaariibuu @ Aminah Binti Abdullah on October 19, 2006, during the month of Ramadan continues to generate some interest and intrigue both in Malaysia and in Mongolia. Thirteen years later it still is able to occasionally claim prime news status in both countries. There is now a fresh possibility that new investigations may be triggered off by Azilah’s recently publicized statutory declaration.
A Savage Murder
Altantuya was, it was affirmed in court, shot and then blown up with explosives. Those explosives, apparently widely used in quarrying, suggested that the intention was to leave minimal or no traces of her remains.
It was a a highly skilled, speedily carried out savage operation with minimal manpower, with utmost security and done in stunning silence. It also meant there was to be nothing for the victim’s next-of-kin to claim and carry out any funeral or burial ceremonies. The elimination of this Mongolian national was intended to be total, untraceable and unimaginable.
The Mongolian authorities were appalled by the murder, especially as it became clear that Altantuya was known to have good, close friends in Malaysia. She was proud of her contacts in Malaysia, they were obviously influential and well connected. She had seen them in action and they seemed powerful and even respectable.
She was an attractive young woman who had worked as a translator and interpreter. There were perhaps two hundred women like her in Mongolia who assisted foreigners doing business there or just visiting the country for business prospects.
The Malaysian Honorary Consul in Ulanbaatar was proud of them, often recommending translators to Malaysian businesses. The 100 or so Malaysians working in Ulanbataar in 2006 were shocked at what had happened to Altantuya as this sort of thing was not something they associated with their country.
At the time this elimination exercise took place Malaysia was preparing for two major festivals and a long weekend of travel, family get-togethers, holidays and festivities.
The Thursday the horrendous act was committed was an especially auspicious day in the Muslim calendar. It was Laylat al Qadr, the commemoration of the night when the first verses of the Holy Quran were revealed to the Prophet. Wikipedia provides various names for the night—the night of decree, night of power, night of value, night of destiny or of measures. For the orthodox Muslims it was a day of supplication, prayer, atonement and forgiveness.
The following day was a Friday, the eve of Malaysia’s biggest Hindu festival. The Hindus were observing Deepavali on Saturday, the 21st. That Friday, Saturday and Sunday would have seen the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Malaysians from Klang Valley and Putrajaya to celebrate Hari Raya in their hometowns.
October 24th 2006 was also a particularly important day for Pahang, the peninsula’s largest state, as the Ruler, the late Sultan Ahmad Shah Sultan Abu Bakar was celebrating his 76th birthday. The Pahang State Government had announced an honours list to coincide with the birthday celebrations. Some 915 people were decorated, including the then prime minister Dato Sri(as he was then) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi( Pak Lah), 17 people received the Dato Sri title and 103 people were being conferred various grades of the Dato’ title. In view of the Hari Raya holidays the investiture ceremony was held on Saturday, October 28th.
A few days before Deepavali the then prime minister had advised Muslims, in the pre-Zakir Naik era, that it was not wrong for Muslims to greet their Hindu friends and acquaintances for Deepavali.
An Ordinary October
There was nothing unusual that month except that there was a bad haze problem that affected Indonesia, parts of Malaysia and Singapore. There was understandably much gossip about a cabinet minister who had agreed, in an out-of-Syariah Court settlement to provide his divorced first wife with a RM10 million bungalow in the posh U Thant area of Kuala Lumpur, RM7 million in cash among RM50 million in mutaah (gifts).
It would seem Altantuya was desperate to get some cash which she believed was due to her and she had decided that since she could not get anywhere near the vicinity (because of the cordon of tight security) of the then deputy primes minister she would instead go to a close associate, possibly even alter ego of that personage, Abdul Razak Abdullah Baginda.
She would or could not have been privy to the limited access she could have had to the then deputy prime minister who had already planned his own Open House to celebrate Hari Raya. Had she known that she would probably have waited and not have persisted in pestering Abdul Razak at his home.
A PM-in -waiting
It is essential to understand that the then deputy prime minister was in line to become the next prime minister. The then prime minister was not doing so well, in his 36th lacklustre month in office, his discretion and powers seemingly usurped and assumed by the so-called Fourth Floor boys who seemed to run a parallel office with the prime minister’s private office.
Pak Lah was an easygoing man, incapable of showing strong disapproval and he was being taken advantage of. Then a widower, as his wife, Tun Endon Mahmood had died a year earlier and he seemed preoccupied. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, accustomed to running a tight ship-of-State was not amused by what he observed and was waiting impatiently in the wings for the then promising deputy prime minister to take over.
Pak Lah was a polite, personable person and protocol never constrained him, even willing sometimes to step out of his scripted red carpet walk to greet an old friend or pet a little child. But he was a gentleman, somewhat humble for his station in life.
Like Dr Mahathir, Pak Lah recognised that he had a preordained patrician successor waiting to take his seat. Understandably when the first news of Altantuya’s matter reached Pak Lah would have disbelieved that the then prime minister-in-waiting was in anyway involved in it. Somewhat like Dr Mahathir too, Pak Lah felt deeply indebted to the late Tun Abdul Razak bin Hussein, the country’s second prime minister and the father of the then prime minister-in-waiting.
The two accused and now convicted persons in the Altantuya elimination exercise were not unknown to Pak Lah. They belonged to an elite security team that provided security and escort cover for their King, prime minster and some senior cabinet ministers.
They were unobtrusive, pleasant professional security officers who would do anything to protect their principals. They were trained and imbibed with the instruction that the security of these highest officials of the government administration was paramount. The slightest hint from these highest officials that somewhere something was amiss, a threat or a danger to their person or country they would have had to take very seriously.
It was all done in the line of duty. In the normal course they would alert their superiors of the fears perceived by these highest officials and the matter would be taken up by the most senior officials.
Police investigations are essential to establish the veracity of Azhar Hadri’s astounding assertion that the then deputy prime minister had intimated to him that Altantuya was a serious security threat and had to be handled in an expeditious and extraordinary manner. A failure to act promptly would result in unspecified grave danger. The gravity of the threat and time were of the essence.
Azilah claims that he was informed of a most grave threat emanating from a foreign national. His mind was attuned to accepting and respecting such impressions of the principals. He had enough common sense to observe how his superiors, including the Inspector General of Police and other top guns like the attorney-general, conducted themselves with the prime minister and prime minister-in-waiting.
They were not only deferential and obedient but unnecessarily obsequious. Customarily everyone of these high officials would secure plum positions early into their retirement. The police report he claims he had mentioned was a procedural matter.
Azilah was disabused of the need for a police report. Hence a police report had to be dispensed with.
The high personage who decided against the police report did not believe in police reports, not even when he suspected his signature was forged or when he found millions ensconced is his private bank account. He just did not believe in being alarmist and going to the police to report. He believed in himself, in his generosity of spirit and the inherent goodness he possessed. Remember he was of patrician pedigree, no less. But he has now latterly realised, thirteen years after Altantuya’s death that his intentions were often misconstrued, and with hindsight he had come to the conclusion, he said under oath, that he had been misled, misunderstood and mistaken by each and every person he came into contact with. The list now includes former chief inspector Azilah Hadri, currently on death row in a prison in Malaysia.
Thorough professional police investigations are now needed. They would have been affected by the then incumbent prime minister’s or prime minister-in-waiting ‘s powers or perceived influence and inclinations.
Was there any involvement of another minister spiritedly protecting the prime minister-in-waiting?
The all powerful PM
The prime minister’s position in Malaysia had been the most powerful position in the country especially since the late 1980s right up to May 10, 2018. A situation was created where the prime minister was not only the head of the Executive branch but had considerable influence and importance for both parliament and the Judiciary. He bore undisguised authority over the Election Commission as was borne out on the night of May 9, 2018.
If a particular High Court judge was deemed unacceptable the higher levels of the judiciary were willing to accept that assessment and ensure that that judge was not promoted or elevated. Parliament was supposed to be independent of the Executive but the situation in Malaysia was that the prime minister had full control over the majority of the MPs. What the prime minister decided was what Parliament delivered in terms of amendments to the constitution and the budget.
For some curious reason even the highest office of His Majesty the Yang dipertuan Agong was rendered by design or default into performing a ceremonial and protocol function when in fact the framers of the Malaysian Constitution intended that it was the resort of ultimate authority and discretion.
It is time to review all these things so that no prime minister or prime minister-in waiting can commit or even envisage the actions allegedly perpetrated by a former prime minister.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG