Saturday, November 1, 2014

Exposing Taib Mahmud, Sovereign of Sarawak

I’ve been pondering Tun Taib Mahmud’s penchant for the colour yellow.
Yesterday I learned that Taib likes his buildings painted yellow and always wears something yellow – even if it be but his underwear. Yellow was the colour of royalty in India. Yellow became and remains the colour of royalty in the Peninsula. Does Taib have pretensions to royalty?
I thought of royalty because I had read news reports that the Conference of Rulers met this week. I wondered if timber was on their meeting agenda.
I wondered about timber because when Dr Mahathir (now Tun) began his mission to clip the wings of the royals, he revealed long-withheld information about the royals’ thirst for a share in the timber resources of Malaysia. According to Professor Mark Gillen of the Faculty of Law of the University of Victoria in Canada, the royal thirst for timber concessions was made public on 15th and 18th December 1992 by the New Straits Times and The Star newspapers.
I wondered about timber because that has been the route to riches for Taib – as documented in the meticulously researched book Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia by Dr. Lukas Straumann, a professional historian and Executive Director of the Switzerland based Bruno Manser Fund.

Money is in the title for a reason.
Taib’s wealth is enormous. On the occasion of 77 year old Taib’s elevation from Chief Minister to Governor of Sarawak, The Diplomat wrote this about Taib’s wealth:
“Pak Uban or the ‘white haired uncle’ – and his family have amassed a fortune worth $20 billion or more, and established business tentacles through 400 companies into the tiniest reaches of the state and around the world that will ensure his clan continues to thrive long after his retirement on Friday.”
The Constitution of Malaysia grants to state governments – not the Federal government, not the Sultans – the authority over land and natural resources. Thus the Chief Minister (Menteri Besar), the head of the state government, has the power to determine how land will be used and by whom.
Taib became Chief Minister in 1981, the year Dr Mahathir became Prime Minister. Dr M had many enemies in Umno, in the peninsula. The last thing he needed was a rebellion by the Sarawakians, the “fixed deposit” which kept him in office. Taib turned Mahathir’s insecurity to his advantage.
For a fee, Taib delivered the ‘Sarawak stability’ Mahathir needed. His fee was to reign unchecked, like an old-time royal.
A hallmark of Taib’s reign was his abolishment, in 1985, of the forestry ministry. He replaced it with the ministry of resources planning and appointed himself its head. This gave him the sole prerogative to grant concessions and plantation licenses.
Dr Straumann points out the result of Taib’s manoeuvre: “Exploitation of all of Sarawak – worth billions of dollars – depended on just one person, with no checks and balances, no transparency and no public accountability.” (Page 119)
As I said earlier, it is public knowledge that Taib and his family are worth USD 20 billion or more. Dr Straussman goes further: he names the companies which are the vessels of Taib’s wealth.
The first to appear in his list is Sakto real estate company (Canada, 1983) incorporated two years after Taib became Chief Minister; next is Sakti real estate company (California, 1987); then the reverse takeover of state construction company, Cahaya Mata Sarawak (1993); then Ridgeford Properties (London, 1996); then purchase of RHB bank, Malaysia’s fourth largest bank (2001).
The list and its webs and intrigues are long. Suffice to say that by 2011 “The Taib family had a financial interest in over 400 companies in 25 countries and offshore financial centres.” (Page 303)
The book reads like a thriller. Few readers will detect that it’s a translation of a work first published in German. I hope the publishers are working on a Malay translation.
The Federal government and the State legislature allowed Taib to act like a sovereign. He rewarded those who supported him. He punished those who did not. There are hordes of examples in the book. I’ll just mention one.
Taib turned against his Uncle Rahman Ya’kub, who had brought him into politics and had stepped into the role of Governor to make way for him. The extent of Taib’s vindictive agenda was displayed for all as an example of what would happen to anyone who would resist this Adelaide University trained lawyer.
This quote shows the climate of fear Taib created; it also exhibits Dr Straumann’s readable style:
“Taib was “aggrieved and hell-bent on taking revenge, and everyone has been particularly afraid of him since that time,” reports one of Rahman’s former golf partners. “Whenever Rahman appeared on the golf course in Miri, suddenly there was not a soul left to be seen there. Nobody wanted to be spotted by Taib’s spies on the golf course at the same time as Rahman.” Any business people who had had dealings with Rahman lost their public contracts and were shut out of lucrative deals. Politicians and civil servants suspected of supporting Taib’s uncle were side-lined. “In those days, I used to play golf with Rahman frequently, but in the end I had to stop. My son asked me to; he was afraid of losing his government job.”” (Page 121)
Money Logging is not only meticulously researched; it is thoughtful and comprehensive. It discusses the ridiculous projects spawned to consume the electricity to be generated by Taib’s dams. It describes the injustices done to the natives. It exposes many who contributed to Taib’s “success.”
Even the FBI of the USA and ministries of the Canadian government are implicated, as are banks and countries such as Hong Kong and China. Money Logging is as insightful and explosive a book as Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times by Barry Wain.
The Rulers Conference is attended by the Rulers together with their Chief Ministers. I wonder if the man in yellow from Sarawak attended. I wonder what the Rulers and Chief Ministers think of Taib Mahmud. I hear Michael Douglas saying “Greed is good” and Edmund Burke saying “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Who will prevail?

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