‘Politically motivated’: Mahathir’s lawyer slams Anwar over Pedra Branca issue

As announced by the Chief Secretary of the Malaysian government on Wednesday, the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) will look into Mahathir’s decision to withdraw from the review, days after taking office in 2018.

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Such inquiries are reserved for major matters and the RCI has considerable powers in subpoenaing witnesses.

This latest inquiry will be only the 14th in Malaysia’s history since independence in 1957. Past inquiries had looked into matters such as the discovery of mass graves of undocumented migrants along the Malaysia-Thailand border in 2015, and the injuries sustained by Anwar while he was in police custody in 1999.

“It is not too far off to call this politically motivated and a political pressure on Tun Mahathir by none other than Anwar Ibrahim,” Rafique Rasyid, a lawyer for the two-time premier, told This Week in Asia.

Anwar was famously sacked as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister in 1998 following a fallout with his previous mentor and then-premier Mahathir. He was subsequently jailed for sodomy, which he maintains are trumped-up charges against him.

Critics say Anwar, who became prime minister in November 2022, is seeking revenge against Mahathir and his associates, following a recent string of corruption investigations into his son Mirzan Mahathir and his close ally, former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin.

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On Tuesday, Daim’s wife Naimah was charged in court with failure to declare assets, further sparking accusations that Anwar is using such investigations to settle scores with his foes.

The inquiry will commence in February, after the appointment of the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, as Malaysia’s 17th king, according to Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi after the cabinet met to discuss the matter.

Sultan Ibrahim has been one of the most vocal voices criticising the decision to withdraw from reviewing the ICJ decision as it affects his state of Johor, where the disputed islet and rocky outcrops lie just south of its waters.

Speaking at the opening of the state assembly in June 2022, the monarch chastised Mahathir, claiming that the former leader made a unilateral decision to withdraw from the 2017 appeal against the 2008 ruling.

Horsburgh Lighthouse built on Pedra Branca island, which marks the eastern entrance to the Straits of Singapore between Singapore and Malaysia. Photo: Shutterstock

“Johor was not consulted at all when the decision involved Johor’s land and sovereignty,” Sultan Ibrahim said.

He argued it was done solely by Mahathir who had just removed the attorney general and had yet to form his cabinet.

The monarch suggested that since his state’s authority had been violated by the federal government in Kuala Lumpur, it rendered the Federation agreement that formed Malaysia irrelevant.

“Johor is [therefore] no longer part of the Malaysian federation,” he argued on the gravity of Mahathir’s decision.

Commenting on the formation of the inquiry, Law Minister Azalina Othman Said explained on Thursday that Anwar is “very concerned about sovereignty” and what happened with Pedra Branca cannot be allowed to happen again.

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Mahathir previously blamed the Johor state government for relinquishing its claim over Pedra Branca, citing a letter dated September 1953. The Johor state secretary had written to the British colonial secretary of Singapore stating: “The Johor government does not claim ownership of Pedra Branca”.

Analyst Azmi Hassan, however, pinned the blame on Mahathir over the matter. He told This Week in Asia: “It is another attack [by Anwar] towards Mahathir, but it is his fault for refusing to participate in the previous inquiry,”

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