Home TA Online Behind closed doors: Mahathir’s 1988 showdown with Salleh Abas

Behind closed doors: Mahathir’s 1988 showdown with Salleh Abas

The then-PM, from the beginning to the end, did not even look the Lord President in the eye

Cover of the Aliran Monthly issue in 1988 focusing on the judicial crisis, which sold a record number of copies

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Aliran mourns the passing of one of Malaysia’s most illustrious sons, Tun Salleh Abas.

The then-Lord President of the Supreme Court was known for his sharp legal mind and his unyielding courage in upholding judicial independence in the face of political interference by the executive. His grit in trying to uphold the independence of the judiciary earned him the wrath of the Mahathir administration, sparking a judicial crisis in 1988.

Salleh was dismissed unceremoniously from his job as head of the judiciary, along with five other Supreme Court judges. Since then, observers believe the judiciary has never regained the level of independence it once had.

On behalf of all justice-loving Malaysians, we convey our heartfelt condolences to Salleh’s family during this sad time.

The most fitting tribute to Salleh would be to never forget how he stood up for judicial independence under tremendous pressure. For this lonely struggle against great odds, history will regard him as a towering Malaysian.

It is in this spirit that we reproduce (exclusively from Aliran Monthly 1988, Volume 8 Issue 4) what transpired, from Salleh’s own notes, when he turned up for a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on 27 May 1988.

Salleh wrote:

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 seated at his table with YAB Encik Ghafar Baba, Timbalan Perdana Menteri, and Tan Sri Sallehuddin Mohamed, ketua setiausaha negara (chief secretary to the government) seated at the same table opposite the prime minister.

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When I entered the room, I gave the prime minister and the others my salam (greetings) very loudly, and he replied my salam (peace be on you).

After l 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 DYMM Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di-Pertuan Agong to tell me that l 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 because 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.

When 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 have 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 notebook, which he was then holding.

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When finally, I said I would not resign, he (the PM) 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 Encik 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.

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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 Qur’an, 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 Qur’an 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.

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