By Kee Thuan Chye
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad drew considerable laughter last Wednesday when he gave testimony at the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on illegal immigrants in Sabah. One hopes the laughter was laced with irony and scepticism.
Irony and scepticism because it seems unlikely, going by reports of the proceedings, that anyone listening to some of the things he said could find them acceptable.
The most unacceptable was his saying that he had not heard about Project IC or Project M (for Mahathir) until only recently, and that the Government could not be held responsible for the issuance of illegal identity cards (ICs) to immigrants who had entered Sabah illegally.
“These illegal immigrants may have been issued the identity cards erroneously or it may have been the wrongdoing of certain low-ranking civil servants,” he said, expressly passing the blame on to others.
Well, if it were a matter of only a few hundred ICs, we might say these civil servants acted corruptly on their own and out of their personal greed, but a key witness has earlier testified at the RCI that in 1993 alone, about 100,000 ICs were issued to immigrants in Sabah. One hundred thousand in one year is a staggering number. How likely is that to have been a private enterprise undertaken by “low-ranking civil servants”?
It is a requisite of leadership that the leader is accountable for what his underlings do. Especially when it is something serious – in fact, treasonous. We’re not talking here about giving out free food vouchers or concert tickets. We’re talking about giving out citizenships illegally. Mahathir’s disavowal of knowledge about its happening does not exonerate him. He was the CEO of Malaysia. Ignorance is no defence. He has to take responsibility.
Besides, it’s extremely unlikely that he was not aware of it at the time when so many ICs were given out, under what was apparently an organised programme, and leaders of Sabah political parties were making a hue and cry about it. The prime minister does not live in a cocoon, much as Mahathir would want us to believe.
We can also bet our bottom ringgit that he could not have found out about Project IC or Project M only recently when the issue has been out in the media for years, with specific naming of the project. A man like Mahathir who is so well-informed of developments must surely have heard of Project IC or Project M way before “recently”.
In fact, people were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for alleged involvement in the issuance of identity cards to foreigners, like Hassnar Ebrahim (who was arrested in 1988), Akjan Ali Mohamad (in 1995), Ramli Kamaruddin (in 1995), Mohd Nasir Sugip (in 1995), Kee Dzulkifly Kee Abdul Jalil (in 1995) and Abdul Rauf Sani (in 1996).
Most of them have testified at the RCI and admitted issuing tens of thousands of ICs illegally. Some have also alleged that they received instructions to do this from then deputy home minister Megat Junid Megat Ayub. They have also claimed that they carried out their operations in the Kampung Pandan home of Aziz Shamsuddin, Mahathir’s then political secretary.
They were detained when Mahathir, apart being from the premier, was also minister of home affairs. He held the portfolio from 1986 to 1999. In that capacity, he would have known about the arrests and the reasons for them. He probably signed the detention orders himself.
So how could he say to the RCI, “Hassnar? I have never heard of him. I am also not aware that he had been arrested under the Internal Security Act.”?
He also said something outrageous when he said it could have been the decision of the National Security Council (NSC) to detain Hassnar. Who was he trying to fool? Since 1971, the function of the NSC has been that of coordinating policies related to national safety. It does not detain people under the ISA. Surely, Mahathir knows this since the NSC is part of the Prime Minister’s Department and chaired by the prime minister.
Would he claim “I don’t remember” to something like this? As he did numerous times when he testified at the RCI on the V.K. Lingam case in 2007 involving the fixing of judges? As he has also done now at the Sabah RCI in claiming that he didn’t remember giving specific instructions to former Sabah chief minister Mustapha Harun when the latter allegedly sought his approval to issue ICs to illegal immigrants?
Mahathir’s performance at the RCI was expected. From the media reports, his characteristic arrogance came through. He toyed with the questioners. He played to the gallery, cracking jokes and making light of the serious proceedings. He avoided giving meaningful answers by making jokes.
When the RCI chairman, Steve Shim Lip Kiong, asked him why Joseph Pairin Kitingan was not made chairman of the State Security Council when by convention he should have been as he was the chief minister, Mahathir said, “I don’t know the exact reason, but there were many reasons.” What kind of an answer is that?
Mahathir was, however, unequivocal in his sympathy for the immigrants. “We are very considerate about their plight and try to help them as much as possible,” he said. “Our neighbours don’t want to accept these people. We can’t just throw them into the sea. This was my view when I was the prime minister.”
This is a real surprise coming from the man who when he was deputy prime minister said in 1979 that if Vietnamese illegal immigrants tried to land on Malaysian shores, the Government would shoot them. However, the next day, the Government had to deny it, because of an international outcry. And Mahathir – adopting the habit we are now so familiar with – blamed foreign correspondents for misinterpreting his statement. But he didn’t say how he had been misinterpreted.
Well, over the decades, Mahathir has shown that he is never wrong. That he has never made a mistake. Not even once during his premiership. As far as Mahathir Mohamad is concerned, Mahathir Mohamad is perfect. When have we ever heard him admit a mistake? When have we ever heard him apologise for anything?
But even so, much as he would deny responsibility for the IC disaster in Sabah, much as he would claim that he was not responsible for everything Megat Junid had allegedly done in that regard, the fact remains that he is. The buck stops with the prime minister. That’s the crux. And it’s about time he admitted that.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the new book The Elections Bullshit, now available in bookstores.