"See you in court!"
Most know Tommy Thomas as an eminent personality of the Malaysian courtroom. A fierce, passionate, and meticulous litigator with over forty years of experience. A prodigious barrister who began arguing cases before the Malaysian Federal Court after only four years of practice, in his late twenties. Towards the end of the 1990s, however, Thomas was involved in the Malaysian courtroom in a different capacity. Following several comments that he had made in an article by the London magazine International Commercial Litigation, Thomas found himself facing a series of defamation lawsuits claiming damages of RM290 million. Thomas, speaking publicly as Secretary of the Malaysian Bar Council, had allegedly asserted that members of the judiciary had repeatedly acted impartially, favoring certain parties and their counsel over others.
At the time, Thomas believed that the five defamation suits originated from matters that were external to their pleaded ends, and that he stood little to no chance of a favourable result. He was nonetheless determined to fight the issue in court, to take the stand, and to speak honestly and freely about his comments. Thomas’ attorneys – Charles Gray (a renowned defamation QC, appointed by the Bar Council), and Raja Aziz Addruse (former President of the Bar Council) – were significantly more optimistic about the outcome. The matter was never litigated, however, as all parties agreed to settle. Then came a charge against Thomas for contempt of court. In 1998, High Court judge RK Nathan found Thomas guilty, and issued a six-month jail sentence. Thomas appealed the decision, and in 2001, the Court of Appeals replaced the jail sentence with a fine of RM10,000, despite upholding the conviction.
During the interview, we asked Thomas about his experience as a defendant, and how this experience influenced his view of the justice system and his role as an advocate. Thomas answered pragmatically, concerned more by the impact the suit had on his practice and on his interaction with other judges. He mentioned that naturally, there were slightly fewer clients, and that there was a tacit agreement between himself and the judges to “pretend” that nothing was going on. Introspecting, Thomas claimed that he was calm, and largely unphased by the proceedings. As far as he was concerned, he had good insurers and good lawyers. “See you in court,” Thomas concluded.