Tommy Thomas, Anwar Ibrahim, and #BangsaMalaysia

IN THE criticisms of the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) contained in his controversial new book My Story: Justice in the Wilderness, Tommy Thomas, barely, if at all, mentions race.

And yet, no less of a figure than Anwar Ibrahim took the time to write an aureate critical book review – in which he (among a number of balanced comments) basically accuses Thomas of racism.

I don’t think it is fruitful for me to try and debate whether or not Thomas is racist. I’m sure he would deny being so, as anyone would.

Instead, I will use this as a case study to try and start a more honest, heart-to-heart discussion about Malaysian racism.

There is no doubt prejudice among some Malays towards non-Malays. Today, however, I will focus on the prejudice among some non-Malays towards Malays.

I do this for two reasons. The first being, being non-Malay myself, the latter is a subject I know more intimately than the former. As they say, write what you know.

The second reason I will elaborate on towards the end of this article.

Let’s open with examining some quotes verbatim.

Thomas wrote: "I realised that lawyers from the Attorney General's Chambers acting for the government did not have the same commitment, passion and drive to succeed as their counterparts in the bar. Public-sector lawyers had public-service attitudes."... "The sense of competition, which ensures the emergence of the best and brightest stars in the private litigation bar, had no equivalent in the Attorney General's Chambers (at least to an outside observer).”

"I was not confident that Hanafiah and Manoj were capable of leading and supervising the incredible amount of preparation required for the SRC trial... I expected a world-class performance, and nothing else would be acceptable. In short, I could not find an AGC officer of sufficient experience, expertise, with the ability to work independently and to lead the preparation in my absence."

Anwar wrote: “Thomas seems to have gone off the rails and put his foot in not just his own mouth, but Hanafiah’s as well as possibly the entire AG Chambers’ because it would be obvious that the remarks have caused grave embarrassment to them.

“It would appear that in casting aspersions on the AG’s Chambers with such unkind remarks, Thomas also added insult to injury, intoning that 'public sector lawyers had public service attitudes (and) were civil servants, earning a fixed monthly income and awaiting pension upon retirement.' At one fell swoop, Thomas has not only insulted the AG’s Chambers but publicly disparaged the entire civil service of the nation. The notion that civil servants are in service just to earn fixed salaries with the only ambition to collect their pensions when they retire is the sort of resentment founded in anger and slight, not rational criticism. Such a gross generalisation is unbecoming.

“It betrays a deep seated, even Freudian-like, prejudice against Malays fomented through years of racism. I am reminded of Syed Hussein Alatas’ The Myth of the Lazy Native which so eloquently demolishes the colonial construction of Malay natives (including Filipino and Javanese) from the 16th to the 20th century. With the encrustation of time, these myths coalesced into 'a one-sided colonial view of the Asian native and his society'. It is important that we avoid remarks that could be interpreted as an embodiment of that innate sense of superiority that the white men used to have over their colonial charges.”

I suppose in contemporary lingo, Anwar is "calling out" Thomas.

Again, it is worth noting that nowhere at all above does Thomas talk about race. He goes on at length about the AGC and the civil service, but he never once uses the word "Malay".

I think the point of my article is, however: he doesn’t need to.

Subtext is a very controversial issue. I am a writer, and Thomas is a lawyer. Both professions take extreme care with regards to what words they use, and what words they don’t. Lawyers are particularly careful about words that may or may not get them into trouble.

In Malaysia, however, we are particularly practiced in making racist remarks without making racist remarks.

There are some classic local phrases that summarise this sort of approach: “You know I know la”, “There, they all they all la”.

This basically translates to: You and I both feel the same way (in this context usually: "about Malays"), but let’s not say it explicitly out loud, because that’s "not acceptable".

Again, Thomas chose his words with great care, and I thus would have no right whatsoever to try and speculate about his personal intent, and what he feels in his heart.

I am however a student of public perception, and I think it is not unfair to say that what Thomas wrote would resonate with a lot of non-Malays, who quite simply feel that Malays dominate the civil service based on race rather than merit.

Let me be the first to admit, I have no ability whatsoever to draw on reliable statistics, science, or academic studies to prove that these are widely held sentiments among non-Malays.

To "test" the veracity or widespreadness of these sentiments, I can in fact only rely on one thing: you, the reader.

If you, like me, are non-Malay, then you have probably had countless conversations with friends and families over meals, and you probably belong to more WhatsApp groups than you’d like to.

It is only the content of those conversations that can prove whether or not Anwar may have had some justification in feeling that Thomas’ comments triggered the feeling of being discriminated against.

I can imagine that many non-Malays at this point (or earlier) will be wanting to jump up and down and say something like “Call us racist?! What about them?!” and start going on at length about institutional discrimination against non-Malays, race-based economic aid, unfair scholarship selection processes, and so on.

I’ll admit with no hesitation, these are all legitimate grouses - no hesitation at all.

If I had to summarise my response, it would probably be: two wrongs don’t make a right.

As alluded to above, the second reason I choose to focus on non-Malay prejudice against Malays is simply as follows.

I believe in building a #BangsaMalaysia – a united national identity that encompasses different ethnic identities.

I know it’s hard to achieve. But I believe one approach may make a key difference in achieving this goal - standing up for those who are different from us.

The "traditional" Malaysian political model is very simple: Malays fight for Malays, non-Malays fight for non-Malays, and so on.

We have been trapped in this self-destructive, painful, unproductive, and frankly boring cycle for decades. It has arguably been one of the biggest obstacles holding our nation back from achieving true greatness.

I have had the privilege of having many Malay Muslim friends and colleagues who are already doing their part in standing up for non-Malays, and fighting for a more equitable society.

It is thus important for me to do my part as a non-Malay, and speak out against prejudices towards Malays.

The most valid criticism against Thomas is that he has overgeneralised. I am convinced that there are dynamic, professional, driven individuals in the AGC, of all races; I am comfortable making that contention based on statistical probability alone. This is not to say that they are a perfect group of people, or that there are no elements of what Thomas has described in their ranks.

Anwar’s quoting of Syed Hussein Alatas’ Myth of the Lazy Native was not lightly chosen. The president of Abim did the same last December in his policy speech on Cosmopolitan Islam and the Forging of Bangsa Malaysia, where he discussed how the refusal of Malays to serve the economic interests of the white people led them to being branded as "lazy" – an epithet that has haunted us for centuries now.

I think we cannot be blamed for feeling that the words Thomas chose feed into that narrative. While he did not ever mention race, I think it is fair in the Malaysian context to expect many Malaysians to have felt he was saying the equivalent of “You know I know la”.

Thomas in fact devotes a whole chapter of his book to racism. While he and I agree on how Malaysia’s political evolution poisoned our development as a nation, much of the chapter focuses on how he was a victim of racism.

While I do not dispute this fact, Thomas here represents a very common phenomenon: how our feelings of being victimised blinds us to our own similar faults. Thomas could undoubtedly see how he was being attacked, but his writings suggest that he is either unaware of or unconcerned about how his own insensitivities contribute to feelings of distrust among communities.

During this MCO, we often hear leaders berating us, scolding us, blaming us (the Prime Minister who appointed Thomas as AG is the undisputed master of this game). We so seldom hear leaders encouraging us, believing in us, or inspiring us.

The former may be more "fun" for the leaders, and perhaps it was something of a relief for someone like Thomas to indulge himself and get things off his chest.

If he is sincerely interested in the betterment of the AGC and Malaysia as a whole, however, Thomas could have tempered his criticism by singling out individuals in the AGC who performed well and could be held up as an example. He could have been more encouraging, and specific about his recommendations on how to improve.

Instead, by saying implausible things like “In short, I could not find an AGC officer of sufficient experience, expertise, with the ability to work independently and to lead the preparation in my absence," we are left with the impression that he thought of himself as the only guy in the whole organisation who had a worthwhile brain.

Again, on a personal level, it is impossible to say conclusively whether there was a racial element in Thomas’ feelings on this matter. What it is possible to say though, is that in our racially charged environment, such arrogant and insensitive statements can definitely be felt to have a racial tinge.

This is not a commentary on how things should be forever; only a commentary on how things usually are at present.

I am not interested in contributing to the polarisation that is arising out of Thomas’ book.

For Malaysians who are interested in building #BangsaMalaysia however, I hope that exploring some of the dynamics we are seeing in the conversation surrounding the book may be helpful in better understanding the contours of the problem we are facing.

It is only through such an enhanced understanding that we will be able to tear down old walls, and build new bridges in their place.

As with any and all meaningful change, the key is not to wait for others to do "what is right", but for us to take the first step, do what we can, and reach out in good faith to build bonds of mutual trust and respect.

Nathaniel Tan works with Projek Wawasan Rakyat (POWR), and would like to thank JY for research help for this article. He tweets @NatAsasi, can be reached at, and wishes everyone Gong Xi Fa Cai!

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Tommy Thomas , Anwar Ibrahim , Memoir , Racism , Malaysia


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