The passing of Tun Salleh Abas, the architect of Petronas

Raja Sara Petra

The late Tun Salleh Abas was laid to rest today after being diagnosed with Covid-19 just days ago. Alfatihah. Tun Salleh is amongst two million people all over the world who have died from Covid-19 over the last one year and it looks like more are going to die before Covid-19 can be arrested and life can go back to normal.

Many know Tun Salleh as the Chief Justice who suffered kezaliman at the hands of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. At that time, Parliament and the Judiciary were subservient to the Executive and anyone who challenged this authoritarian power of the Prime Minister suffered retribution, His Majesty Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Raja-Raja Melayu included.

What many may not be aware of, however, is that while Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah may be the engineer of PETRONAS, Tun Salleh was its architect.

According to the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, natural resources found in the states belonged to the various states, and this would include oil and gas. When oil and gas was discovered in Terengganu around the early 1970s, Prime Minister Tun Razak Hussein wanted to bring it under federal government control. But this would be a violation of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia and the 1957 Merdeka Agreement or 1948 Federation Agreement.

Tun Salleh was the man tasked with the job of drafting the Petroleum Development Act 1974 that would allow the Federal Government to nationalise oil and gas. To achieve this, a national oil company was set up by Act of Parliament and this company, PETRONAS, need not even report to Parliament (although Parliament created it). It need only to report to the Prime Minister.

When Mahathir terminated the 5% royalty payment to Terengganu in 1990, Tun Salleh campaigned against what he declared an illegal act and a violation of an Act of Parliament. He urged the Terengganu government to take the matter to court, which they did.

Tun Salleh was appalled at how Mahathir could violate a legally binding agreement signed between Petronas and Terengganu State, plus ignore an Act of Parliament, the Petroleum Development Act 1974, that made it mandatory for Petronas to make a 5% royalty payment to the state. The money meant for Terengganu was instead diverted to Umno.

In short, Mahathir robbed the Terengganu people of tens of billions of Ringgit and diverted the money to Umno for the use of the party. And yet Mahathir can attack Najib Tun Razak and accuse him of diverting 1MDB’s money to Umno for the use of the party. The hypocrisy is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

In 1995, Tun Salleh contested the Lembah Pantai Parliament seat and lost, and in 1999 he won the Terengganu state seat of Jertih. As a Terengganu State Assemblyman, Tun Salleh focused on ensuring good governance, transparency, accountability and an end to abuse of power and corruption. Tun Salleh was a giant amongst men and his contribution to the nation can never be matched but by a mere handful of his peers.