In the court of public opinion

Tan Sri Robert Phang

AS AN objective observer of the Attorney-General’s Chambers, one is compelled to feel a tinge of sympathy for its highest officer, Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail. His elevation from Law Revision Commissioner to attorney-general within five years and at the age of 47 should be seen as a testimony of his skills and ability as a lawman. Unfortunately even today, he has to continue to prove himself to his critics and the public.

His latest brush with gossip involves an alleged close relationship with Malaysia Airlines senior executives while the company is being investigated for its colossal losses.While the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Consultation and Corruption Prevention Panel itself is mired in controversy following contradictory statements between the panel and its chairman, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, it is clear that Abdul Gani is still not out of the woods yet, since the MACC is still investigating.

In a court of law, Abdul Gani should be accorded the privilege of being presumed innocent until proven otherwise. As much as it hurts his critics to admit, the fact is his innocence is for the legal system to determine – however flawed it may seem. But on the other hand there is another court – the court of public opinion which has already charged, tried and executed Abdul Gani for the controversies his name has been dragged into over the years.

Perhaps Abdul Gani’s own demeanour – combative, defensive and dismissive – does not endear himself much to the public. Although those who know him better will attest that his mood swings are as fickle as some of the prosecution’s arguments in high-profile cases. Journalists can vouch for his perceived dislike of the media, berating us with generous doses of sections in the Printing Presses and Publications Act. Nevertheless, he always entertains our queries and even returning calls – albeit with liberal servings of condescension. 

However, my last meeting with him over a year ago revealed a softer side to Abdul Gani. Someone who was tired, despondent and apologetic even, but undoubtedly with still enough fire in his belly to burn you to a crisp. Perhaps the tag of being one of the most disliked public servants around was wearing him down. But did he bring it upon himself or is he everyone’s favourite punching bag as the buck stops with him? 

“I have to make decisions based on the law not on what’s popular,” he once said while discussing the slow progress in bringing to book all those responsible for the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) scandal. To his credit, Abdul Gani was the one who had advised the government to acquire the land for the free zone as it would save taxpayers billions – advice that was not heeded. The latest slew of charges against Sime Darby executives is also a feather in the cap of the A-G’s Chambers.

It is without a doubt that he has faithfully served the chambers under three prime ministers. While he has served them well, the jury is still out on whether he had served justice well.Because in the court of public opinion, it is not PKFZ or Sime Darby and the string of many other successful prosecutions which have put away crooks that he will be remembered for. It will be the unsuccessful cases, the NFAs (no further action), the controversial cases and the goings on within the four walls of the A-G’s Chambers as well as his own conduct that will determine the rakyat’s perception if whether they are satisfied with the performance of their attorney-general.