KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s royal rulers will meet on Tuesday to discuss a government plan to appoint the first non-Muslim attorney-general, following strong pushback from groups representing majority ethnic Malays.
The public backlash is arguably the first bout of resistance faced by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad since returning as prime minister last month, after winning a stunning mandate on promises to fight corruption and reform institutions.
“The Malay rulers have been following this development and consider it their responsibility to help resolve this impasse,” palace official Syed Danial Syed Ahmad said in a statement on Sunday.
Mahathir’s government has proposed for the job top lawyer Tommy Thomas, an ethnic Indian Christian whose key task would be to prosecute those involved in graft at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
But the decision has stirred an impassioned response from groups representing the predominantly Muslim Malay community, which makes up about 60 percent of a population of roughly 32 million.
“There are some who say no protection will be given to Islam as the official religion of the country,” the 92-year-old Mahathir said at a function on Monday in Putrajaya, the administrative capital.
“That is not true, as we are also in charge of ruling the country without going against Islam.”
The king, who is constitutionally the custodian of Islam in the Muslim-majority country, has also delayed signing off on Mahathir’s choice.
A source close to Mahathir’s office said one of the concerns among some of the nine rulers, who take turns to preside as king for five-year terms, is that the candidate is not a Malay-Muslim.
In its statement, the palace said it had not arrived at any agreement with the government on terminating the service of the current attorney-general or a candidate to replace him.
Mahathir proposed Thomas for the job nearly two weeks ago, domestic media have said, after ordering the incumbent, Mohamed Apandi Ali, to go on leave.
Mohamed Apandi cleared former Prime Minister Najib Razak of wrongdoing in a multi-billion dollar financial scandal at 1MDB.
Since his surprise defeat in the election, Najib has been barred from leaving the country, and enforcement agencies have relaunched a probe into how the 1MDB funds went missing.
Two other sources with knowledge of cabinet discussions said it was unanimously agreed that Thomas, who has been in the business for more than four decades and is considered one of Malaysia’s top legal minds, would be the sole candidate.
Thomas did not immediately respond to telephone calls from Reuters to seek comment.
“We must avoid appointing an attorney-general whose thoughts have a tendency to go against Islam as the religion of the country,” Nasrudin Hassan, a leader of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS), said in a statement.
Several thousand Malaysians signed an online petition against Thomas’ appointment but another petition in favour picked up a similar number of responses.
Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Praveen Menon and Clarence Fernandez