On 27 March 2008, the MP for Bukit Gelugor, Karpal Singh, wrote to former premier Mahathir about the 1988 judicial crisis. “It is not the present Government which should apologise, but you yourself personally,” wrote Karpal. “Your culpability in the events leading to the dismissal of these three judges cannot have any justification in law or otherwise.”
“The necessity for you to apologise cries to high heaven. Your acts caused the judges concerned and their families untold pain and suffering.”
Karpal said he was writing to find out whether Mahathir was prepared to tender an unqualified and unconditional apology to Salleh Abas, George Seah and the family of the late Wan Suleiman Pawanteh, “who was one of the finest judges the judiciary ever had”.
It is imperative that the spirit of Wan Suleiman be appeased, he added. “This is the least you can do in your lifetime to atone for your actions for what transpired twenty years ago.
In an extraordinary letter to Karpal on 3 April 2008, Mahathir responded with guns blazing:
YB Mr Karpal Singh
Member of Parliament, Bukit Gelugor
Thank you for your letter.
You and my other detractors will never believe me whatever I may say. You are moved by pure hatred and I cannot respond to people who can never accept reality.
My conscience is clear. I have done what was my duty and I owe nobody any apology. I am sure you will make use of this letter to dirty my name further. That is your right. I think you are the most contemptible of politicians and individuals.
Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad
Karpal responded today in a press statement:
I stand by what I have stated in my letter. I refer, in particular, to the last paragraph of Dr Mahathir’s letter where he calls me “the most contemptible of politicians and individuals.”
As Dr Mahathir is much older to me, I do not propose to hurt his feelings in the vein by which he has described me.
I would advise Dr Mahathir to take my views in his stride. I assure him I don’t hate him.
Ordinary Malaysians can gauge for themselves Mahathir’s role in this whole sordid affair.
Why not let Tun Salleh provide an eye-witness account of what transpired. This account is based on his private notes and was reproduced in Aliran Monthly, soon after his dismissal in 1988:
When I arrived at the Prime Minister’s Department I was met by a policeman who took me by lift to a waiting room. After waiting for about two or three minutes, I was shown into the Prime Minister’s Office by an officer, whom I did not recognise. There I found YAB Perdana Menteri (then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad) seated at his table with YAB Encik Ghafar Baba, Timbalan Perdana Menteri (then deputy prime minister) and Tan Sri Sallehuddin Mohamed, Ketua Setiausaha Negara (the then chief secretary to the government) seated at the same table opposite the Prime Minister. When I entered the room I gave the Prime Minister and the others my salam very loudly and he replied my salam. (Peace be on You).
After I had taken my seat, the Prime Minister told me that he had an unpleasant duty to perform and on being asked what it was, he replied that he had been asked by (the then) DYMM Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di Pertuan Agong to tell me that I should step down. I then expressed my surprise in an Islamic way saying “Glory to God, who is free from any partnership.” Then I asked him for the reasons and in reply he said that he was not prepared to argue with me, but finally he said the reason was that I had written a letter to DYMM Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di Pertuan Agong regarding the state of relationship between the Judiciary and the Executive. I told him that I wrote the letter simply because Judges, at a meeting on 25 March 1988, had informed me that they were very concerned about the present situation and asked to express their views through me. YAB Perdana Menteri then said that I made speeches indicating that I am biased and I am not qualified to sit in UMNO cases. I told him that I said nothing of that and the speeches I had made only dealt with the criticisms levelled at the Judiciary. I am not at all biased or bipartisan in political matters. While all this was going on, YAB Encik Ghafar Baba kept his head down while Tan Sri Sallehuddin was writing in a note book, which he was then holding.
When finally I said I would not resign, he told me that if I stepped down I would be given everything that I was entitled to. I told him that I was entitled to nothing since I was not yet 60. Obviously, he was surprised when told I was not 60 yet. Finally, he said that if I did not step down he would institute a Judicial Tribunal with a view to removing me. I told him I would not resign because if I did, I could not show my face to anyone and I might as well die.
He said that I could see the Agong if I wanted to and he would not stop me from doing so.
I told him that I would not be resigning and he could do what he pleased with me, including going ahead with the Tribunal. As there was nothing else to discuss, I finally said “Datuk, I should not waste anybody’s time”, and I shook his hand, also Encil Ghafar Baba’s and Tan Sri Sallehuddin’s. None of these three looked me right in my face and I could detect Encik Ghafar Baba was strangely silent and Tan Sri Sallehuddin only caught me by the side of his eyes but he too appeared to be subdued.
The Prime Minister himself, from the beginning to the end, did not even look me in the eye. He was looking down at his table all the time.
I left his room and I only saw one policeman outside his room who appeared surprised to see me there. When I went downstairs there was nobody even to see me off and no one called for my driver. I had to go out to look for my driver.
My future is tied up with the fate of this country. I come from an unknown family and I have reached the top of my profession. I have no desire to leave until I have reached the age of 65 like my predecessors, except the Sultan of Perak, who vacated the job because of a call of duty to be the Ruler of Perak. I leave my fate to the judgment of Allah and as it is Friday, I wish to quote the Quran, which says, “No misfortune will fall on us except what has been decreed by Allah. He is our protector and in whom the believers should place their trust.” This passage from the Quran struck my heart as I entered the door of the Prime Minister’s Office and it remained with me during the course of our discussion till the end, and to my exit from his room.
You be the judge!