If the people of Oxford had not heard of Abdul Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak, until today, they certainly know all about him now. His visit, tied to Sarawak’s heavy sponsorship of the Said Business School’s ‘Inaugural Global Islamic Branding and Marketing Forum’, was supposed to buy him credibility. In the event it ended up as a public relations disaster, as his reputation preceded him and was stuck up on banner headlines by protesters outside.
Even though it is the sleepy summer holiday period, a colourful crowd of demonstrators descended on the School to express their outrage that the University should have welcomed such a man and accepted such dubious sponsorship from the Timber Industry of Sarawak. The local press was soon on the scene, followed by Malaysian news teams, who had clearly been brought along to puff up the Chief Minister’s profile. Even the flunkies could not ignore a demo like this and they were soon filming, taking notes and conducting interviews.
Panic and concern was soon evident amongst the organisers, who called the police and sent an army of Special Branch officers to photograph the protesters, who were banned from entering the building by anxious bouncers. The School, clearly taking no risks, had hired a phalanx of extra personnel to protect their awkward guest and to block entry to the plainly respectable gathering of locals and some Malaysians who had come to explain to the Oxford the true nature of their guest. Many reminded the organisers that the criminals were among the ones inside, while the people outside were lawfully making a very valid protest.
The forest of banners said it all. “Taib Mahmud Declare The Source Of Your Wealth”, “How Much Forest Is Left?”, “Respect Native Customary Rights”, ”Stop Sexual Harassment and Rape of Penan Women and Children”, “Save Sarawak”, “The EU banned illegal timber, Why won’t you sign the VPA?” and much more. Passers-by were handed leaflets and a string of civil society groups meanwhile coordinated across Britain to produce and sign a declaration of protest that is now being handed to Oxford University. One organisation, Forests Monitor, stated:
“For decades Taib has headed a regime which has ridden rough shod over the rights of indigenous and local peoples in Sarawak, treating the province like a personal fiefdom, worse even than his colonial predecessors. He has overseen the abuse of Sarawak’s own laws and profited enormously from it. By taking his money the Oxford Said School for Business is setting the worst possible example for its alumni. They too should be demanding answers from the Dean, who apparently considers himself an expert in corporate governance”.
The protest certainly denied Taib his grand entrance. He had been due to arrive in style, greeted by the University’s Vice Chancellor (the sponsorship must have been huge) to give the opening speech for the two-day conference, but he ended up being sneaked in past the protesters and ushered in through the back of the building.
Malaysiakini newspaper has reported details of a humiliating security operation that involved him being transported in a blue, windowless van and then bundled in through the kitchen. His entry was spotted and a break-away group surrounded what turned out to be his decoy car and waived their banners in disgust.
According to the protesters the police, who, unlike in Sarawak, do not see it as their duty to interfere with legitimate freedom of expression, remained a good natured and supportive presence throughout. One said:
“We needed that even-handed support, because the University bouncers were out of order. I was roughly manhandled out of the building after taking a photograph of the Chief Minister, which was stupid as scores of his own people were filming him too”.
The protester went on to say:
“I am concerned that the Said Business School, which used Oxford’s tradition of free speech as its excuse for taking Taib Mahmud’s money and receiving him in this way, should deny us our chance to come in and voice the truth about what is happening in Sarawak. Will the School be willing to receive some speakers from Malaysia’s repressed opposition in the near future? or can we expect the next move to be an Honorary Doctorate for Taib Mahmud?”
The image and the reality
Meanwhile, as the conference got underway, the disadvantages of the School’s modernist architecture were becoming plain to the embarrassed delegates. The great glass front to the main forum provided an unwelcome ‘Goldfish Bowl’ effect as the people outside were able to look in, waive their banners and photograph the awkward attempts to carry on as normal.
Inside, a kitsch display area, of the type favoured by Taib, promoted a ‘tourist image’ of Sarawak with cuddly orang utan toys and a live Dayak music troupe in full ‘national costume’. They confirmed they had been transported with the Chief Minister’s enormous cavalcade from Sarawak.
However, right alongside the forest and indigenous people display, was a mass of information about the Chief Minister’s new drive to turn Malaysia’s Christian State into the world’s biggest Halal Products Hub, with the help of massive investment, much of it from the Middle East. The industrial reality behind the fake traditional-style promotions.
The information available about the latest Tanjung Manis project has created widespread concern. It indicates that the Hub is set to destroy 70,000 more hectares of valuable mangrove area and lowland peat forest – zones, described in Tanjung Manis literature as being uselessly unproductive in their current state. Information has leaked out that experts from Oxford University have been consulting Sarawak on this so-called ‘Green Development Project’. The questions and protests against Oxford’s ill-judged event will not end here and the Tanjung Manis Project may discover that instead of finding investors on its UK trip it has acquired unwelcome notoriety instead.
As Taib left after his speech the demonstrators’ success in photographing him both from inside the conference hall and the outside, through the glass, created havoc amongst Taibs security men. Burlesque scenes ensued as they rushed round the building lowering blinds and pulling screens in front of the glass walls to protect their horrified boss from the glare of unwelcome publicity.
It was clearly a rare and unnerving experience for Taib Mahmud, a specialist in managed press and mass personal protection. As the laughter grew on the outside, his party on the inside was publicly ruined. That’s the problem with turning up in a free country Taib and we bet you think twice about doing it again any time soon.