Malaysia's King has agreed to the Mahathir Mohamad administration's choice of attorney-general, prominent lawyer Tommy Thomas, amid reservations among Malay Muslims that the candidate is not from their community and might not be able to uphold Islamic interests.
Responding to the concerns, Prime Minister Mahathir and Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said separately that the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government will continue to safeguard Islam, Malaysia's official religion.
The King, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan, announced his consent to Mr Thomas' appointment after a meeting late on Monday with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, whose Parti Keadilan Rakyat holds the most seats among the four PH parties.
In a statement issued yesterday by the Keeper of the Royal Seal, the King "called on all Malaysians to accept that the appointment of the attorney-general should not create religious or racial conflict as every Malaysian should be fairly treated regardless of race and religion".
An impasse over the appointment of the attorney-general has dragged on for a fortnight since the government first advised the King to replace Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali with Mr Thomas.
Malaysia's Council of Rulers - made up of nine Malay hereditary royals who lead their states and rotate as King - were set to meet yesterday to deliberate on the matter.
It was unclear why Sultan Muhammad made a decision known before the subsequently cancelled meeting, but the statement issued in the early hours of yesterday morning said he had taken into account the views of his fellow rulers on the appointment, and the rights of Malays and other aboriginal groups.
There has been concern from Malay and Muslim groups that Mr Thomas would be unable to up-hold Islam's status in Malaysia, given his assertions that the country is a secular state.
Mr Thomas, met by reporters yesterday, said he is humbled by the decision but that he will say more only after being officially appointed.
His appointment followed PH's pick of an ethnic Chinese, Mr Lim Guan Eng, as Finance Minister, that raised eyebrows among Malays over the intentions of the PH government. The previous Umno-led government used Malay-Muslim primacy as a key tool. Mr Thomas and Mr Lim are the first non-Malays to be installed in their posts in 55 and 44 years, respectively.
Tun Dr Mahathir, at an event on Monday, said Islam will be safeguarded. "There are people who say this government will not protect the religion of Islam, which is the official religion of our country," he said. "This is incorrect, as we are responsible for governing the country without contradicting the teachings of Islam."
He added: "We will establish a government that upholds the laws and the Constitution of the country, and we will not do anything contrary to Islam."
Deputy PM Wan Azizah told the Malaysiakini news site in an interview yesterday: "We have the federal Constitution which is clear, and whoever is the attorney-general must uphold the Constitution. Islam is the official religion, with freedom for other religions. The (position of the) royal institution, the Malay language, that is accepted by all Malaysians."