Lawyers for Mahathir, Anwar object to panel probing central bank's alleged forex losses, say breach of natural justice

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an interview on March 30, 2017.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an interview on March 30, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

PUTRAJAYA - Lawyers for former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his then deputy Anwar Ibrahim called on two members of a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into billions lost in foreign exchange by the central bank in the 1990s to recuse themselves even before proceedings began on  Tuesday morning (Aug 8).

They said RCI chairman Mohd Sidek Hassan and member Tan Sri Saw Choo Boon  were  part of a special task force that recommended the inquiry last month, thus breaching natural justice.

But the six-member panel ruled that they could preside over the inquiry, as their appointments were consented to by Malaysia’s King.

The panel, however, allowed the lawyers for the two opposition leaders, as interested parties, to take active roles in representing their clients during the 10-day inquiry - beginning on Aug 21 and ending on  Sept 21 - but they must strictly be within the RCI’s terms of reference.

Tun Mahathir’s counsel Haniff Khatri Abdulla cited a previous court ruling declaring that even investigators must be bound by rules of natural justice and pointed out that the RCI’s report can lead to both criminal and civil court cases. 

“Absolutely rules of justice must govern this commission. The whole point is to find justice. Public has to have confidence that the commission is conducting the terms of reference fairly and justly,” he argued. 

“The purpose served by the special task force is due to a personal rift between Datuk Seri Najib Razak as Prime Minister and Dr Mahathir,” he added, referring to how the two men  have traded attacks after the latter called on his successor to step down.

Mr Sivarasa Rasiah, representing the jailed Anwar Ibrahim, also pointed out that the Prime Minister’s Office stated clearly that the special task force, which was also chaired by Tan Sri Sidek, found there was a prima facie case and recommended the RCI to look into the forex losses.

“Should they participate in the commission to investigate, when they have already formed conclusion?” he said.

After the ruling on Tuesday, Mr Haniff said Dr Mahathir’s legal team would likely file a judicial review to quash the panel’s decision before the next session on Aug 21. Mr Sivarasa said Anwar would likely decide on the same course of action but he would have to consult his client in prison first.

Former Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) assistant governor Datuk Abdul Murad Khalid said in June that the central bank lost a total of US$10 billion in the 1990s, not the RM9 billion that was publicly reported. 

“The money would have increased to US$26.66 billion (S$36.3 billion), or more than RM100 billion, if it had been kept in government savings, calculated at four per cent compound interest annually,” the New Straits Times quoted him as saying.

The panel is to submit its recommendations within three months from the date of its establishment on July 15, but previous RCIs have usually been extended.

The other four members of the panel are High Court judge Kamaludin Md Said, Bursa Malaysia chief executive Tajuddin Atan, Malaysian Institute of Accountants member Pushpanathan Kanagarayar and Finance Ministry Strategic Investment Division director Yusof Ismail, who is also the commission’s secretary.