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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia's new state prosecutor to accelerate probes into 1MDB

Mahathir appoints former critic as attorney general following weeks of deadlock

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia's monarch has given consent to the appointment of Tommy Thomas as attorney general, ending weeks of deadlock with the government, which wants to accelerate the probes into troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

In a statement released late Monday, the National Palace urged the nation to accept Thomas, the first non-ethnic Malay chief legal officer in over four decades. It declared that questions of race and religion should not arise from his appointment.

Under the country's constitution, the ruler as a constitutional monarch appoints high-ranking government officials on the advice of the prime minister. It has been the norm that key government departments are headed by majority-ethnic Malays under the previous ruling alliance led by the United Malays National Organization, although there is no such provision under the constitution.

Thomas' nomination did not go well with certain quarters of the society, who questioned his Indian ethnicity rather than his qualifications and credentials. They also pointed out that Thomas is the counsel for Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng in an ongoing corruption case, allegedly trumped up by the previous government, which creates a conflict of interest.

But Thomas, who has over four decades of legal experience, including at the prestigious Privy Council of London, was the only choice nominated by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had dismissed the previous chief prosecutor, Apandi Ali.

Apandi was earlier asked to go on leave by Mahathir as his government reopened the corruption cases against former Prime Minister Najib Razak and 1MDB. Apandi, who was appointed by Najib, decided against pressing charges against the then prime minister or 1MDB despite both being the subject of investigations for fraud by authorities in several countries.

Thomas, who has track record in practicing constitutional and corporate law, is expected to accelerate the probe into Najib's alleged involvement in 1MDB. So far, the police have confiscated cash in several currencies worth 114 million ringgit ($29 million) and unaccounted luxury goods in houses linked to Najib.

Ironically, Thomas was once a critic of Mahathir, criticizing the then prime minister's sacking of the chief judge and his cohorts in 1988, known as the judicial or constitutional crisis. In a 2007 article on the conference of rulers and judicial appointments, Thomas wrote that the Malaysian judiciary "was at its nadir" under Mahathir, who influenced the appointment of judges.

Mahathir was also known in the 1980s for pushing through constitutional amendments that diminished the monarch's veto power in approving laws passed by the parliament. In addition, he reduced the royalty's immunity, holding its members accountable for personal offences.

Malaysia's constitutional monarchy is headed by a king, who rotates every five years among the nine sultans, who are themselves rulers in provinces. These sultans do not possess any administrative power except in religious matters and Malay customs.

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