PM & AG’s justifications for inquest laughable

By Kim Quek

Both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Attorney General (AG) Gani Patail have flopped miserably to justify the unjustifiable – the irrational and untenable decision to have both a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) and an inquest to deal with the boiling controversy of Teoh Beng Huat’s tragic death under custody of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

In an immediate response to nation-wide protests against the government’s decision to  allow the RCI to deal with only procedural matters while leaving the all important issue of cause of death to an inquest in a magistrate court, Najib said:

 “We must adhere to the laws of the country. Please don’t take (political) advantage of the case. Our intention is to find out the truth”.

Sensing his statement sounded somewhat hollow, he quickly added that the Attorney General will issue a statement to explain the details.

But the Attorney General statement sounded even more hollow. His statement is a blatant attempt to mislead by deliberate omission of the relevant section of the law.

Citing section 2 of the Commissions of Enquiry Act 1950, Gani said it made clear reference to the inquiry into the conduct and management of the government officers and departments for the public welfare. He said welfare matters relate to the well being of society and “cannot be overstretched to cover an inquiry into the death of this nature.”

In this statement, Gani made two assertions. First, the Act covers only government departments and officers.  Second, his definition of “public welfare” excludes inquisition of death.

On Gani’s first point.  Under the same section quoted by Gani – section 2 of the Act – it is expressly stated under item (d) that the Commission is empowered to inquire into “any other matter in which an inquiry would, in the opinion of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, be for the public welfare, ….” So, Gani’s assertion is directly contradicted by item (d). He is therefore guilty of a deliberate attempt to mislead the nation, as he cannot possibly be ignorant of this elementary and fundamental provision of the Act, being the highest legal adviser to the government.

On the second point. Gani’s narrow interpretation of the phrase “for the public welfare” is laughable.  When the nation has been so incensed by the heinous injustice of this tragedy that it is almost on the point of revolt, appointing an RCI to probe into this death is not only legally and politically appropriate but the very minimum the government must do if it still wants to retain a remote semblance of rule of law in this country. And yet, our attorney general is telling us that making such a move is incompatible with “public welfare.” Then what will constitute “public welfare”?  Waiting for violence to erupt in the streets – knowing fully well that public confidence in the existing law enforcement bodies including the courts is already non-existent? 

Even when an RCI is commissioned to probe into the death, there is no assurance of justice done, judging from the government’s habit of ignoring recommendations of RCIs in recent times; but at least it will calm the highly strung nerves of the nation by showing that the government is finally taking steps in the right direction. And I can’t imagine any decent person will dispute by saying that taking such a course does not fulfil national interests as implied by Gani’s narrow interpretation.

Much has been written and expressed by respectable legal minds, political parties and civil society leaders that the present set up of an RCI cum inquest to divide the task of resolving the present crisis is legally and technically untenable and morally unacceptable, and I will not elaborate further in this direction.

Suffice to say that Najib must decide, and decide now, which course he wants to take. To salvage the image of the nation and redeem himself from a scandal-ridden past by appointing an honourably constituted RCI with proper terms of reference to take on the crisis, or relegate the task to a magistrate hamstrung by prosecutors and police, all of whom are deeply mistrusted by the public.