A judicial scandal could ruin former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, writes Baradan Kuppusamy
We want to make sure our friends are there for the sake of the prime minister and the sake of the country.' Such was the now infamous comment by a prominent lawyer caught speaking in a 14-minute video clip that sparked a scandal in Malaysia in September and is now the subject of a high-powered public inquiry into corruption at the highest levels of the judiciary.
The clip and the inquiry, observers say, hangs like a dagger over former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led the government for 22 years and retired in 2003.
'This clip is Malaysia's version of Watergate and leads straight to his [Dr Mahathir's] doors,' said writer and political analyst Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who runs the Malaysia Today website.
Lawyer Sivarasah Rasiah, the first person to view the clip on September 10, said: 'The contents of the clip are scandalous. We expect the inquiry to open a can of worms, to expose Dr Mahathir's inner court and how it works.
'We have long suspected corruption at the highest levels of the judiciary and government, and the collusion between the two. Now we have the proof.'
In the clip, whose authenticity has not been contested, the lawyer who often acts for Dr Mahathir is purportedly telling Ahmad Fairuz, the chief justice of Malaysia, who retired last month, that good men had to do things for the sake of the 'PM and country'.
The lawyer, identified by opposition leader Lim Kit Siang and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim as V.K. Lingam, discusses trials involving political opponents and how to advance judges friendly to their interest and bring down unfriendly judges.
'Not for us, not for us but for the country,' Mr Lingam said, and told Mr Fairuz: 'You are one of us ... 110 per cent loyal.'
Mr Lingam has not denied the clip but said he would defend himself before the inquiry. Mr Fairuz issued a denial through a minister and has since remained silent.
The secretly taped video made public by Mr Anwar on September 19 implicates not only Dr Mahathir, but also a serving minister, a powerful retired minister, four serving and retired judges, several prominent lawyers and two business tycoons - virtually the entire line-up of power brokers in Dr Mahathir's 22-year administration.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi last week announced the five-member inquiry commission, headed by a retired top judge, that has three months to investigate and compile a report.
Like lawyers and opposition lawmakers, Mr Anwar also has called for thorough investigations into the scandal to expose the relationship between business, government and the judiciary.
'This video recording implicates the highest office of the judiciary. It shows a conspiracy to influence the appointment of senior judges, fix certain cases and pervert the course of justice,' said Mr Anwar, who was sacked by Dr Mahathir as deputy prime minister in 1998.
Mr Anwar was found guilty of corruption in a trial condemned by some as biased, but he served the six-year prison term. He was also sentenced by a lower court to nine years for sodomy, but was acquitted and freed by the country's highest court in December 2004.
'The clip vindicates me ... it shows I am a victim of conspiracy at the highest levels,' Mr Anwar told the South China Morning Post.
Hundreds of thousands of Malaysians have viewed the 14-minute clip that is posted on many Malaysian websites, blogs and on YouTube. Mr Anwar and others have also screened the clip to crowds across the country in road shows.
The screening of the clip has sparked intense public interest.
'We suspect the conversation was recorded using a spy device like a recorder hidden in a pen or similar innocent-looking devices,' Mr Sivarasah said. 'We don't know why or who recorded it.'
The clip shows Mr Lingam dressed casually and walking about in his living room and talking on his mobile phone with someone, who was later identified by Mr Lim and Mr Anwar as Mr Fairuz.
After the telephone conversation, Mr Lingam picks up a wine glass as someone asks him: 'Sir, who is that [on the phone]?
'Ahmad Fairuz, the chief judge. I put him there,' Mr Lingam said. The image is grainy but the voice is clear and sharp.
Another person in the room is encouraging Mr Lingam to open up, with leading questions. The person comes into view. Mr Anwar declined to identify the person but said he is a 'well-known Chinese businessman'.
According to Mr Sivarasah, the clip dates from early 2002 based on the events mentioned in the video.
Mr Lingam is clearly in command and tells the person identified as Mr Fairuz not to worry as everything is being done to raise him from third position to the top judge in the country.
'Vincent [a business tycoon] and Tengku Adnan [the then minister of law] will see Dr Mahathir and see to it,' Mr Lingam appears to tell the person on the phone.
In a later part of the recording, Mr Lingam boasts of his links to top judges and Dr Mahathir and says: 'Knowing the law doesn't give you the winning formula, you must also kowtow to the emperor.'
Although widely viewed and discussed, several aspects of the explosive clip remain shrouded in mystery.
The greatest mystery is who recorded the clip and why. Others have wondered where the clip has been for the past five years, why it surfaced in September and not earlier, and if Mr Anwar, an arch political enemy of Dr Mahathir, was used to release the clip.
'We don't know the answers to these and other questions. The origins of the clip are shrouded in mystery and we hope the upcoming inquiry will throw some light on the darkness,' said Liew Chin Tong, executive director of the Centre for Research and Social Advancement, an independent think-tank.
According to Mr Anwar, the three unidentified people who gave him the clip have promised to testify before the inquiry.
But the mystery only deepened after Mr Anwar confirmed the three told him they did not record the clip, leading to speculation that they were just couriers for the video.
For some political analysts such as Raja Petra Kamaruddin the answer lies in the two-year battle between the former and the current prime ministers. He pointed to Mr Abdullah's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, as the person behind the 'brilliant' leaking of the Lingam tape.
Within less than two years of retiring in 2003, Dr Mahathir was back and publicly attacking his successor as a person unfit to run the country.
Over the next two years Dr Mahathir rallied his formidable support club and launched a public campaign to force Mr Abdullah to throw in the towel and walk out of the top job.
The campaign grounded after Dr Mahathir suffered a third heart attack and underwent a second heart bypass operation on September 4. He remains politically inactive.
Political insiders see the emergence of the clip as payback time by Mr Abdullah.
Mr Khairy, 33, is the man 'everyone loves to hate' because of his youth and meteoric rise to political prominence. 'The only thing they haven't blamed him for is the current spell of bad weather,' said a newspaper editor close to Mr Khairy, laughing off suggestions that Mr Khairy is involved in releasing the clip.
But Mr Khairy, who is often described as the brains in Mr Abdullah's camp, was frequently attacked by Dr Mahathir and his supporters - so much so the son-in-law had to abort a business deal involving a government-linked company, suffering considerable financial losses.
'There is no love lost between the young upstart and the retired veteran,' said a lawyer who closely followed the tape scandal but declined to be identified. 'He has the motive and the access to skeletons ... it is conceivable but still we don't know and probably never will know.'
Mr Khairy, who could not be reached for comment, is the deputy leader of the powerful youth wing of the ruling Umno party and is tipped to be its president by 2009.
Another theory is that a high-level business rivalry saw one party want to 'punish' the other by giving the explosive clip to Mr Anwar.
'The clip is obviously longer than 14 minutes but we don't know how long and what the conversation was,' said Tian Chua, an opposition party leader. 'Somebody who had access to the full recording gave Anwar a 14-minute slice of the explosive conversation.'
Mr Anwar, who has seen his political career ruined and spent six years in prison, is promising more revelations that he says will rock the country. 'I have more incriminating evidence against the people mentioned in the clip,' he said.
'I will testify before the inquiry commission and reveal everything.'