A remission of honour


IT SEEMS that a queue is forming of individuals and organisations demanding Tan Sri Tommy Thomas’ (picture) pound of flesh. At the rate that these demands are piling up, the former attorney general won’t be left with much except his skin and bones, again, so to speak.

It is quite baffling that someone, who had occupied the highest legal office of the nation, could be so remiss as to write a book that invited legal threats and demands and, along with that, with his credibility increasingly being questioned.

Unless, as some of his critics pointed out, it is intentional.

As it is, the fact that a news portal, which many perceive to be a political vehicle for an ambitious politician, is squeezing Thomas’ book dry for controversial and juicy gossip within, and had perpetuated the belief that the book is intended to be more than a mere memoir.

Such conjectures would, however, remain as such until and unless it eventually unravels.

But for now, it is Thomas’ conjectures in his book that had caused the furore and some are even demanding that the full force of official secrets law be slapped on him.

While those incensed by Thomas’ lack of regard for confidentiality want him punished, there are others who argued that what he had written did not contravene provisions under the ambit of the official secrets law.

Actually, while the laws can be decisive in determining the rights and wrongs, the disclosures by Thomas could be judged simply on his honour and integrity.

Whether what he disclosed is true or just figments of his imagination, the crux of the matter is that he claims that at least parts of his writings were based on his conversations with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and several others.

Given the importance of the position he held and that he was dealing with the prime minister (PM) and Cabinet members, surely, whatever conversation he held with them would be confidential, in confidence and privileged.

And it cuts both ways, meaning that the PM et al cannot reveal or share any opinion or information shared by Thomas with them, unless with his tacit approval.

In journalism, what makes reporters trusted, respected and dependable, is when they are able to protect their source and make sure that whenever they want to quote someone, they had obtained their approval or agreement.

When it is off the record, meaning not for publication, journalists are expected to honour it and not quote the source, whoever he or she may be.

Of course, there are those who reneged on such practices, but that is what separates the ones with integrity and those who give the profession a bad name.

A student of any prestigious English university would have been well aware of the Chatham House Rule. Any professional, legal practitioners included, accomplished or otherwise, would have known about the non-disclosure agreement or the confidentiality clause whenever accepting or agreeable to serve a client.

And Thomas did quote numerous individuals in his book and used them to justify his conclusions or narratives.

The problem with deciding to quote someone without the person realising that what he said would end up being printed is that it would expose the source unfairly, apart from being unethical. Further to that, such opinion may have changed substantially, especially when the circumstances are very fluid.

As much as it is a given that when Thomas shares his opinions, they are privileged and confidential, the same principle applies when someone shares something with him.

Furthermore, when a conversation is between two persons, the truth is shared and not the monopoly of the person who chooses to reveal it.

Of course, there are those with the opinion that it is important that some matters need to be exposed even if it means compromising the ethics and principles of confidentiality.

Indeed, such a position should only be taken when a crime is committed and keeping quiet could result in being accused of abetting and aiding the criminal.

That, the nation had witnessed when there was an honour, even among thieves.

But Thomas’ revelations had nothing to do with a crime that required him to breach the tenets of privileged information and trust.

To make it worse, some of his revelations had been disputed by those he shared the conversation with or sourced the information. It leaves a very bitter aftertaste.

Integrity and trust are then turned into commodities.

  • Shamsul Akmar is the editor of The Malaysian Reserve.