Picking local lawyers soured relationship with Teresa Kok: Thomas

Former AG recalls ex-primary industries minister’s ‘cold attitude’ in preparing palm oil case against EU

KUALA LUMPUR –  The attempt to set up a local team of lawyers to combat discriminatory measures by the European Union (EU) against Malaysian oil palm saw the relationship between Tan Sri Tommy Thomas and then primary industries minister Teresa Kok sour under the former Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
Thomas, who was then attorney-general, said he had decided to hire a team of lawyers locally to challenge the legality of EU’s view on the matter before the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This, he said, was because he believed they could hold their own against any adversary anywhere in the world.
“Being unsuccessful in a WTO (World Trade Organisation) challenge was not an option, and Malaysia had to put a crack team in place and be superbly ready for the hearing. The prime minister agreed,” he said.

Former attorney-general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas says he believed his pick of local lawyers would be able to hold their own in Malaysia’s case against the EU’s proposed ban on oil palm. – File pic,

“The following morning, I telephoned the minister, Teresa Kok, to ask her to chair a meeting of all the stakeholders at the Primary Industries Ministry.

“I said I would bring a legal team. She agreed, and the meeting was promptly fixed,“ he recounted in his newly released book, My Story: Justice in the Wilderness.

Thomas said he had selected lawyers Datuk Yeo Yang Poh, Sitpah Selvaratnam, Dhinesh Baskaran, Cheng Mai and Fahri Azzat.

“Influencing my choices were their familiarity with business and scientific issues. All except Sitpah agreed to charge discounted rates based on hourly time sheets, which they would maintain.

“Sitpah Selvaratnam was my partner and later a consultant with my previous law firm. She agreed, for the second time, to share her world-class experience and expertise with the government for free. Sitpah acted pro bono.”

Additionally, Thomas also formed a team of five lawyers from the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ (AGC) international affairs division (IAD), led by its head, Haliza Aini Othman, and his then special officer Ann Khong Hui Li.

“I had known Teresa Kok for decades. She was often present at functions where the Bar Council and NGOs would meet. She would also accompany Lim Kit Siang for discussions,” he recalled.

“I had a cordial relationship with Teresa Kok prior to her appointment as minister, and that continued in the early months of the PH administration.”

However, during the first meeting at the ministry, Thomas said civil servants and guests from various governmental bodies were not happy with his approach in appointing a team of local lawyers.

“They thought I was too confident. They were not happy with my appointment of the five from the Bar.

“The ministry staff stated that they had been working with a European law firm, which had a presence in Belgium. Apparently, the European lawyers were specialists on WTO law.”

In response, Thomas said that, since this was a Malaysian case involving Malaysians working in the oil palm industry, it was critical that local lawyers be involved.

“Not only would they be cheaper, but they would also loyally serve the nation’s interests. I said I could vouch for the integrity of the lawyers chosen,” he wrote.

He added that he did not rule out using foreign lawyers, but at a later stage, when the WTO papers were filed and for the hearing.

Thomas also told the meeting that he was hoping to appear personally before the WTO on behalf of Malaysia.

“Minister Teresa Kok took the side of her staff. She said that payment for fees for Malaysian lawyers could not come out of the budget from her ministry.

“I replied that since it was a cabinet decision to sue, I would write to the finance minister for a budget for legal and experts’ fees.

“From that moment, my relations with Teresa Kok soured. As far as I was concerned, the meeting did not go well.”

He said that his request for a budget was immediately approved by then finance minister Lim Guan Eng.

Due to the cold attitude of those present at the first meeting, Tommy said he decided to prepare the EU case differently, without any or little input from the ministry and their statutory bodies.

“Instead, I decided that my legal team would get their briefings from companies in the private sector, which dominates our palm oil industry.

“I contacted the captains of the industry. Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian from Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd, Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen from United Plantations and Datuk Franki Dass from Sime Darby.

“Datuk Azhar Abdul Hamid,the managing director of Felda, also assisted. I am most obliged to them.”

Thomas expressed hope that what he had set into motion for the WTO challenge will be taken to its logical conclusion, given the impact of EU laws on Malaysia’s palm oil industry.

By : G. Surach – THE VIBES

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