Why It Matters

Non-Malay A-G a sign of change

After a three-week impasse over who should be Malaysia's new attorney-general, Mr Tommy Thomas, 66, was finally announced as the man for the job. His appointment as the new government's legal adviser, however, received its fair share of brickbats as well as bouquets.

Race and religion were brought into the fray.

Mr Thomas, an expert in constitutional law, is a Christian and of Indian descent in Malaysia, a country used to seeing Muslim Malays, the dominant ethnic group, occupying senior public positions. So, critics questioned his knowledge of Islamic law and his ability to advise the country's rulers on Islam. Many were also sceptical about his proficiency in Malay, the national language.

His alleged conflict of interest was also brought to the fore, as he had previously advised Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng in a case that never made it to court. The minister has an ongoing corruption case against him and is planning to apply to the Attorney-General's Chambers to have them drop the case.

But just as many leapt to Mr Thomas' defence.

Legal experts dismissed the notion that a non-Muslim attorney-general would impede cases involving syariah (Islamic) law as these are handled by the Syariah Court, while Islamic matters fall under the jurisdiction of the individual states, with scant involvement from the Attorney-General's Chambers. Malaysia operates a parallel legal system where syariah courts run alongside the civil courts.

Mr Thomas' colleagues in the legal fraternity spoke highly of his vast knowledge, his integrity and his deep experience in corporate and public law cases.

Malaysians have long complained about how the preference for race over merit has pushed local talent to other countries. Mr Thomas' appointment as the first non-Malay attorney-general in 55 years signals that the new government is serious about ushering in a new Malaysia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2018, with the headline 'Non-Malay A-G a sign of change'. Print Edition | Subscribe