For some weeks Sarawak Report has been attempting to question Adelaide University about the circumstances surrounding its decision to name a large chunk of its campus after the Sarawak Chief Minister.
The ‘Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak Court’ was designated in honour of the controversial East Malaysian politician in 2008. It was described at the time as “a newly landscaped social space” in publicity material, which also provides a photograph of the billionaire politician, strolling through the area with the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor James McWha.
Our requests however, have failed to receive an acknowledgement. There has been no reply to our emails or to questions made verbally to the University’s press department. Equally snubbed have been a number of Malaysian graduate alumni of the University, who had previously raised their own concerns about the honouring of Taib Mahmud last December, complaining in a joint letter:
“It is a shame for us all that our university is honouring a kleptomaniac and a person who is also a human rights abuser”
The reason for this failure to elicit a civilised response would appear to be that while Taib Mahmud has showered the University with huge amounts of cash, Sarawak Report and the other alumni have not.
Taib graduated from Adelaide in law in 1961, but then received a further honorary doctorate in 1994, followed by repeated accolades and statements of support. Announcements by the University have indicated some of his donations over the years, however owing to the current silence, it is hard to calculate the full amount.
Adelaide has acknowledged that Taib’s first donation was made in 1987, six years after he became Chief Minister and started to display a serious level of disposable income. His North American property company, Sakti International, was founded by himself and close family members in the same year and is now worth well over 100 million Australain Dollars. This first donation was used to refurbish the Law School, according to the University.
In 2001 it would appear that another $300,000 was donated by the Chief Minister, some of which was used to establish a new “Malaysian Room, complete with furniture and artifacts from Sarawak”. The University describes the room as:
” a tribute to the generosity of the Chief Minister, who is also one of our most distinguished alumni and long-time benefactor”.
In the absence of any official response, we can only surmise that a considerably larger sum was expended before the naming of the Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak Court in 2008. Indeed at the time of the designation, the Vice Chancellor, Professor James McWha, thanked Taib for his “significant support and tireless work” and went on to say:
“The Chief Minister’s personal generosity has continued in numerous ways over the years”
Unfortunately, at no stage during these years of donations rewarded by status and accolades does the University appear to have questioned how a person in Taib’s position could legitimately have come by the means to extend such ‘personal generosity’. As an elected holder of public office Taib’s salary is a matter of public record and (thanks to all his simultaneous positions) it adds up to a perfectly comfortable RM20,000 a month (approximately $10,000 Australian Dollars). This means that the Malaysia Room alone cost more than double his annual salary.
Only slightly deeper enquiries by the University would have revealed even more concerning issues surrounding Taib’s wealth. There is no shortage of information and evidence linking the Chief Minister to a vast web of timber corruption that has seen the entire Sarawak Rainforest razed to less that 5% of its original size during his 30 years in office.
In fact, the destruction by companies associated with the regime of Taib Mahmud has developed into a global threat. Taib-related companies are operating with ruthless and wanton efficiency across the remainder of the Island of Borneo, in Irian Jaya, the Solomon Islands, the Congo Basin, Amazon and Siberia, as reported by numerous NGOs. What’s more, somewhat closer to home, the Green Party in Tasmania has also been questioning why a Taib-related company has been subsidised to the tune of $8 million by the State to saw down trees for export back to Malaysia, which has now largely been stripped bare?
The impact of this orgy of destruction has been devastating to the wild life, rivers and eco-systems of what was until very recently the most bio-diverse and intact remaining jungle on the planet. It has also left hundreds of thousands of native peoples, whose territories have been invaded, without sustenance and, likewise, on the brink of extinction.
Few of the people of Sarawak have received any benefited from the wealth generated by the destruction of their forests. Instead it is the University of Adelaide that has profited, not from the ‘personal generosity’ of the Chief Minister, however, because it was not his wealth to give, but from the plunder of his people.
It was for these reasons that Sarawak Report framed a limited number of questions that we hoped that the Vice-Chancellor would be prepared to answer. We wished to know if the University holds any ethical guidelines when it comes to the acceptance of donations, and if so how Professor McWha could have concluded that Taib Mahmud was an acceptable partner for Adelaide?
We also requested information about the total extent of the donations which have been received from the University, on the basis that such sums could very well be identified as money laundered from the proceeds of corruption and therefore assets which should lawfully be returned to the people of Sarawak.
Indeed, since the University has made clear on numerous occasions that the donations have been the product of ‘personal generosity’ there can be no question that this is money that Taib Mahmud cannot legitimately account for on the basis of his limited official salary.
Of course, as NGOs have often pointed out, there are plenty of other Taib properties in Australia, adding to the mystery of the Chief Minister’s millions. The 380 room Adelaide Hilton is one company registered under the names of his children and late wife and there are a string of other properties and enterprises belonging to the Mahmud family elsewhere.
Given Australia’s own perfectly adequate wealth, would it not be more appropriate for Universities like Adelaide to find funding from legitimate and domestic sources, rather than profit from the exploitation of the poor people of Borneo and offering in return for this gift of much needed credibility to their corrupt Chief Minister? Surely that credibility should have been denied?