(Petaling Jaya, Sunday): The outburst by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad yesterday against the DAP, DAP Deputy Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Guan Eng and myself is most shocking and most uncharacteristic of a seasoned political leader who has established the record of being the longest-serving Prime Minister in the country.
Mahathir started his press conference after the UMNO Supreme Council meeting yesterday with the bombshell announcement that "Kerajaan bersetuju untuk mengharamkan DAP".
However, Mahathir later clarified that he dropped the bombshell, which stunned and shocked all the reporters present, to "see your reaction".
Although Mahathir subsequently made it clear that he was not serious when he started his press conference with the bombshell that the government had decided to ban the DAP, it is food for thought why the question of the government banning the DAP could cross his mind when for the past 30 years of the DAP, the idea of banning the DAP never crossed his or anyone's mind.
That the possibility of the government banning the DAP could cross the Prime Minister's mind, although at present not seriously, is most extraordinary, especially after the Barisan Nasional's unprecedented landslide victory in the April 1995 general elections, where the Opposition was virtually crushed - with the DAP suffering our worst general elections debacle in history.
Barisan Nasional leaders and even political commentators have dismissed the DAP as a spent political force and an irrelevance in Malaysian politics.
If this is the case, then why should the idea of banning the DAP be crossing the mind of Mahathir, when this idea never crossed his mind even in a non-serious context when the DAP was the height of its power and influence after the 1986 and 1990 general elections?
Is it because of what the DAP had been highlighting in the past two years, particularly the issues of corruption and public accountability of top political leaders and the fact that the DAP had brought down two top Barisan Nasional leaders, one a Chief Minister and the other a Mentri Besar as a result of this campaign?
From Mahathir's outburst yesterday, it is clear that Mahathir had been badly misinformed about what is happening in the country and in particular about what the DAP is doing and I would urge the Information Minister, Datuk Mohamad Rahmat who keeps a close tab of political developments in the country, to ensure that the Prime Minister gets a proper and accurate briefing about political developments in the country.
I will deal with some of the main issues which had been raised by Mahathir in the course of his outburst yesterday.
Firstly, Mahathir alleged that it was as though the Opposition was privileged which was free and could do anything, and even the normal legal action cannot be taken against opposition members. He asked whether Opposition members are exempted from or immune to the law when even the Sultans are no longer immune.
The question posed by Mahathir is simply answered and known by everyone, inside and outside the country. The Opposition in Malaysia is not privileged, or Opposition leaders and Opposition MPs would never have been detained under the Internal Security Act without trial. I was just elected Member of Parliament when I was first detained under the Internal Security Act in 1969, and when I was detained for the second time under the Internal Security Act under Operation Lalang in 1987, I had been Parliamentary Opposition Leader for close to 15 years. Malaysia clearly does not have an Opposition which is privileged and above the law.
The Opposition is and had never been immune from the law and all it asks is that the Attorney-General should not abuse his discretionary powers to exercise selective prosecution against the Opposition and NGOs.
This is why there is a national campaign asking the Attorney-General, Tan Sri Mohtar Abdullah to stop misusing his discretionary powers of prosecution under Article 145(3) of the Malaysian Constitution to "initiate, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for an offence" and to stop selective prosecutions against the Opposition and NGOs.
Secondly, Mahathir lamented that when UMNO was declared illegal and other court decisions were not favourable for the government, nobody said anything. He said that if the government could control the courts, why was it that when I was found guilty of five offences under the Official Secrets Act in 1977, the fines were reduced to less than RM2,000 each so that I would not be disqualified as an MP?
The Prime Minister has been seriously misinformed here, as I had at no time, whether inside or outside Parliament, questioned or challenged the decision of the Malacca High Court finding Guan Eng guilty of the offences of sedition and publishing false news. I fully accept that if there is to be a challenge of the court decisions, it must be made through the proper legal process as has been done by Guan Eng in filing his appeal to the Court of Appeal on Friday.
For the information of the Prime Minister, I had also not questioned or challenged him, the Cabinet or the Barisan Nasional Government for the decision to prosecute Lim Guan Eng for sedition and publishing false news under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, for under Article 145(3) of the Federal Constitution, the decision to "initiate, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for an offence" is at the sole discretion of the Attorney-General, which cannot be influenced by anyone, whether the Prime Minister or the Yang di Pertuan Agong.
Let us maintain a clear and strict distinction between the offices and powers of the Attorney-General and that of the Prime Minister. Let us adhere to both the spirit and letter of the Constitution that the Attorney-General's discretionary powers of prosecution are absolute, solemn and sacred which should not be abused or misused in any manner, and the Attorney-General must be accountable to the people at large for its exercise.
I can only question Mahathir for the decision to prosecute Guan Eng if he had interfered and compromised the Attorney-General's discretionary powers and had been instrumental for the Attorney-General's decision to arrest and charge Guan Eng for the offences of sedition and publishing "false news" under the Printing Presses and Publications Act. - of which I have no evidence whatsoever.
In the circumstances, what is the justification for the outburst by Mahathir which is only valid if the DAP had attacked the Judiciary for lack of independence and impartiality in convicting Guan Eng and giving RM15,000 fine entailing his disqualification as Member of Parliament or I had accused the Prime Minister, the Cabinet or the Barisan Nasional Government for usurpring the absolute discretionary powers of the Attorney-General on prosecution?
Thirdly, Mahathir accuses the press, particularly the local press, of being more supportive of the DAP than the government, including those labelled as pro-government. The Prime Minister is in danger of losing touch with reality and he should commission a national opinion poll on whether his perception that the local press are more supportive of the Opposition than the Government is shared by the people at large. He would then know the real thinking of the people on the ground, as distinct from what a few Barisan Nasional leaders think on this matter.
Fourthly, Mahathir expressed his perplexity as to how there could be the opinion that Guan Eng is a victim of injustice when the action taken against him is based on the law.
Mahathir should realise that there could be an ocean of difference between law and justice, and this is why he himself has such great admiration for Nelson Mandela, although from the point of law, the South African President is one of the biggest "criminals" in world politics, having been incarcerated for 25 years!
When asked by the press yesterday whether he thought Guan Eng deserved the penalties, Mahathir said: "I don't care whether he deserved it or not, but it is within the law. He did something wrong and he was fined, not the maximum fine even, not even sent to jail."
Mahathir said Guan Eng was "very vicious" in Parliament, that "he does not speak, he spits out all his accusations against the government and we put up with him."
He said: "I am quite sure in some other countries he would probably have been brought to court for some reason or other and heavily fined and never be a MP again but in Malaysia he is free to say all these nasty things all these year."
A clarification is in order. Guan Eng was given the maximum fine of RM5,000 for the sedition offence. In any event, the view of some Barisan Nasional leaders that Guan Eng "spits out all his accusations against the government", which is open to challenge, cannot be the basis for any criminal charges being preferred against him.
The issue before the country is the abuse of discretionary powers of prosecution by the Attorney-General as illustrated by the series of highly controversial decisions involving personalities like Jeffrey Kitingan, Yong Teck Lee, Rahim Tamby Cik, the four UMNO youth leaders who rioted and broke up the APCET II Conference in Kuala Lumpur last November, Lim Guan Eng and Irene Fernandez, and not about the independence of the Judiciary or the government control of the Judiciary.
Let the Attorney-General account to the court of public opinion to convince the Malaysian people that he had good and sound grounds for these highly controversial decisions and that he is not practising selective prosecution against the Opposition and the NGOs.
If Mahathir wants to come to the defence of the Attorney-General, then let him get a full briefing by Mohtar Abdullah first to understand the reasons for these highly-controversial decisions which show bias and abuse of the AG's discretionary prosecutorial powers. Mahathir is fully at liberty to defend the Attorney-General in the court of public opinion but he should not bring in extraneous and irrelevant issues like the independence of the judiciary or government interference with the judiciary.