The recent decision on November 11th by a High Court judge, Justice Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali that our former prime minister, Dato Sri Najib Tun Abdul Razak has to answer charges in respect of the SRC case is, as the former PM’s leading counsel put it a ‘ shock. ‘ It is not only a shock for him but a great one for most Malaysians that a former head of our government is in this precarious position of having to prove his innocence.
The office of the Prime Minister is the country’s highest and most powerful institution. Needless to say, while the Office of the Yang dipertuan Agong is that of the Head of State or paramount ruler that of the prime minister, in our democratic polity, is the most powerful, influential and significant.
Tan Sri Rais Yatim in his scholarly ‘ Cabinet Governance in Malaysia’(2006) drawing on a quote from the most eminent intellectual Harold Laski’s Parliamentary Government in England(1938) refers to the prime minister as the “ pivot of the whole system of government.”
In Malaysia where the Constitution is supreme ( and not Parliament) the prime minister’s position, albeit determined by substantial parliamentary support, is a most secure one and has, in our short history been a stable, highly respected and non controversial one. While one prime minister had died in office the other four prime ministers before Najib had their different approaches and styles but they all relinquished their positions with acclaim and aplomb. On vacating that highest office they were conferred the Nation’s highest honours.
Najib did not receive this privileged exit but he had, as prime minister, all the required amenities, accoutrements and able administrative assistance of the entire civil service establishment. Most important of all, he had the the fullest authority of that office.
Yet, with hindsight we now know he seems to been inexorably drawn into some actions of a controversial kind.
On one level there is much sympathy and support for Najib. He had held high office and assumed the prime ministership with much promise. He was the first of the postwar generation to succeed to that position. He was personable and popular.
He was born with a silver spoon and at a young age he was made to understand that his venerable father was the deputy prime minister of the country. As a teenager he grew up knowing that his father was the prime minister-designate and finally the PM. He was barely 23 when his father died. At that stage his uncle became the PM and he became the ward and protege of a host of influential leaders who felt obliged to protect, promote and prosper his political career.
His first marriage was a sort of a dynastic union , which lasted well over a decade and it consolidated the traditional political aristocracy of not one but three different states. Then there was a second marriage with a divorced woman from yet another state.
Society, and more importantly, powerful and even some conservative leaders accepted and endorsed this second marriage. After that there seemed to be no objection or obstacle to a meteoric rise in his political career. Najib became the sixth prime minister of the country four years before he was sixty like two of his distinguished predecessors. He wasn’t terribly young for that highest position, had had ample tutelage, time and much trust placed in him.
As prime minister he was blessed to initially enjoy the full support and sympathy of two of his predecessors.
The prime minister’s office has been the fulcrum and pivot of the entire federal Government machinery. It could draw on the best legal advice, had full access to all the data and statistics, best intelligence on security, business trends and was in a commanding position in respect of almost all major decision making, including economic planning and and implementation. Beyond these facilities the prime minister could outsource research and intelligence gathering functions if there was a need.
By virtue of the government’s large controlling equity in the banking and corporate sector in the national economy the prime minister could be privy to information on almost every major segment of the economy. After all it is the prime minister and some his ministers who decide or influence key appointments in the business, banking and corporate sector. All major policy decisions are within the purview of the cabinet which the prime minister chairs. The cabinet which meets at least once a week is the country’s highest policy making body and it brings together all the information, intelligence and insight into every sphere of national, regional and global activity.
The prime minister’s office could, if it wanted, approach the police to check out the character and credentials of any individual and there would be assurances that the security authorities would go about their vetting process in a professional and thorough manner. Before any appointment is made this is the standard procedure. In this way bankrupt, blemished, convicted and compromised characters would be weeded out from consideration for a position or facility.
With all these safeguards in place the prime minister is well equipped to make the best and informed decisions in the National Interest..The prime minster cannot go wrong because there is a tradition of an excellent backup, monitoring and audit system which Malaysia has built up since before Independence. It is a foolproof system perfected by the first three prime ministers of the country who were all trained in law. They were particularly careful about the sanctity of the law and it is notable that under these three prime ministers the country was spared major financial or other disasters.
The third prime minister, Tun Hussein Onn, was particularly careful about decisions that had financial or other implications. It was unfortunate that the disastrous Bumiputra Merchant Finance Bank(BMF) scandal which involved losses amounting to US$1 billion(then about RM2.4 billion) took place under his watch largely. It was a case of too much power and discretion being delegated to set of dubious characters who were running BMF in Hongkong. It must be remembered that both the Finance Minister ( Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah) and Central Bank Governor(Tun Ismail Ali) at the time these BMF loans started were men of the highest integrity. As a young diplomat in Hongkong I had the privilege of being acquainted with both these personages.
Today the nation is seized with the reality that a former prime minister is alleged to have committed various kinds of misdemeanours. The Courts will give him a full and fair hearing. The nation can take comfort from that. It is important that the counsels representing him carry themselves respectably with due regard to proper etiquette and decorum.
Pleadings, assertions, and cross examination have to take the form of appropriate submissions in Court. There is no sense or scope for histrionics beyond the Court.
The most important issue is the defence of the accused.
Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with more than 45 years of public service experience.