A memorable memoir?

Malaysia's usually polarised political discourse has been even more polarised since the release of former attorney general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas' memoirs.

Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, best summed up autobiographies or memoirs with the following words: "Autobiographies are always written as if the author had it all mapped out with perfect foresight, ignoring the risks and uncertainties at that time.”

Indeed, I believe Thomas wanted to tell his side of the story and how he viewed Malaysia's political history unfold over the past 50 years.

I admit that Thomas has a compelling and enriching life story with many experiences and witnessed most of the watershed moments in our young nation's history.

However, history is not always an easy subject, especially in a society that is polarised.

Many "revisionists" have sprung into action globally as younger generations have become more aware and aggressive about how we read and narrate history.

Further, the movement to reinterpret history has also gained momentum in the past couple of years, especially in the western democracies, as the Black Lives Matter movement and left-wing agitations against established norms and perceived institutionalised racism.

For example, the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century imperialist, linked to the slave trade, has been shrouded in controversy for a year and Oxford University has decided to move the statute, currently at Oriel College to a museum.

I have always enjoyed history, and I would often say that I would be a historian if I was not a lawyer.

History, to quote Arthur Golden in the Memoirs of a Geisha, “It was what we Japanese called the onion life, peeling away a layer at a time and crying all the while.”

Thomas attempted to tell more of his-story than history, which has provoked severe reactions and possible legal suits.

However, I think there are lessons to be learnt from this entire episode.

Unlike matured western democracies, Malaysia does not have a steadied tradition of ex-political leaders and civil servants writing books after leaving office.

Former American presidents and British prime ministers, soon after demitting office, would sign a book deal but it is not the case in Malaysia or even the region.

Both Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew "released their memories" many years after leaving office.

After Barisan Nasional’s loss in May 2018, I endeavoured to write about my 10 years in government from an eager 23-year-old to a matured 33-year-old keeping in mind that there are good stories to be told about the Datuk Seri Najib Razak's administration.

After writing some articles, a close friend advised me against it because the mood against the former Barisan government was very negative.

He also warned that I could also find myself in hot water as I could be accused of breaching confidentiality and privilege.

I stopped for the latter reason and not the former. I realised that it is not always wise to write about what happens behind the scenes because it can be hard to appreciate the government's intricacies and the difficult decisions that have to be made sometimes.

I remember being reminded early on in my tenure as a special officer to Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon to keep all my notes and writings confidential. As civil servants (notwithstanding that I was a political appointee), we have to adhere to the secrecy code.

Back to Thomas’ book, I feel there were hits and misses.

The story of his life and family was great to read about because we have an instinct to know about the more "human" aspects of the larger-than-life figures surrounding us.

But Thomas' attempts to couch history in particular terms, be it May 13,1969, or other crises that Malaysia has encountered does a great disservice to the effort of having a rational and dispassionate study about history in Malaysia - something that we can do more with.

Also, the categorisation of civil servants as being underwhelming does a great disservice to their morale.

My government experience exposed me to many civil servants, and I was always impressed with their tenacity and commitment. Of course, I encountered the occasional bad hat, but I have to contend with those within the private sector as well.

Thomas' attempt to take his reader into the public prosecutor's mind has also backfired because certain cases he commented on are currently before the courts, and this can easily fall foul of the sub-judice rule.

But the larger message to be gleaned from Thomas’ book is the working of Pakatan Harapan.

Writing in this column in August 2019, I said this about the effect of winning the 14th General Election had on Pakatan: “So yes - power has changed them, but I don't know if it's for the better. It is for the people to judge. But going by the state of affairs of the country, I doubt we are much better off than we were a year ago.”

The internecine power struggles and the malarkey of some Pakatan politicians have been laid bare in Thomas' book, compelling us to take a hard look, do we want to be back where we were a year ago?

Further, many had demonised Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali's likes for leaving Pakatan, sparking the Sheraton Move last year, but have one stopped to ask what prompted Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's closest ally to desert him just when the latter was at the cusp of power?

I also think Thomas should have taken the time to explain the Chambers' unprecedented decision under his leadership to drop charges against DAP supremo, Lim Guan Eng. Would it have been better for Guan Eng to clear his name through the courts and get acquitted?

I believe this action, notwithstanding how one feels about Guan Eng’s guilt, is a blot on the Attorney General's Chambers history.

I would have liked to see a more thorough analysis of why the much-vaunted legal reforms promised by Pakatan did not materialise.

Thomas' explanation that the Chambers did not have much power to push through legal reforms is logically flawed.

He termed the Attorney General as the most powerful person in Malaysia in an article penned in the early 1980s.

However, I have to say that any attempt to ban the book will be counterproductive. I believe Malaysians are matured enough to judge what is right and what is not, and we should have the ability to read Thomas' book and decide for ourselves.

It is a memorable memoir and will remain at the forefront of the national discourse for some time to come.

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Tommy Thomas , Pakatan , memoirs

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an Advocate & Solicitor. He was formerly Political Secretary to the Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities.


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