For the first time in 30 years Abdul Taib Mahmud has cancelled the traditional press conference, normally held at the Wisma Bapa Malaysia after the weekly Cabinet meeting.
Even more astonishing, the journalists were barred from the building, as if they were unwanted intruders.
It is often such small, but extremely strange signs, that make us aware of developments that are seismic behind the scenes. Like when a beach suddenly bares before a tsunami or there is rumbling before an earthquake.
So what has made Taib act so out of character? What pressure is he under that he and his ministers have suddenly decided they dare not face what has for so long been their ‘lapdog’ press?
The inescapable conclusion is that the evidence has now piled so high, that Taib suddenly realises that he can no longer brush aside the questions about his corruption and the squalid wealth of his family, both in Sarawak and abroad.
With the issue now making headlines in Malaysia and reaching the international news, even the controlled pressmen of Sarawak would not be able to avoid asking questions about it. And, by cancelling the press conference, it seems clear that Taib has no idea how to answer them.
It is a sign of fatal weakness at the heart of his regime that Taib no longers dares to face the press.
Lost for answers!
People should remember that Taib has already been suffering under siege in the State Assembly.
He may have been able to rig the recent election to produce his customary 2/3 majority of seats yet again, but even after all the bribery and manipulation 45% of voters still voted against him and there now is a strong body of PR opposition YBs, who are fearlessly giving him a far tougher time than before.
So how has he dealt with their outraged questions about corruption and cronyism? How has he met their complaints about lands and contracts being handed out to his unqualified children and siblings, instead of being tendered properly for the benefit of the people of Sarawak?
It turns out he has been reduced to having to switch off their microphones, rub out their statements from the Hansard record and even to throwing these individuals with their rightful concerns physically out of the DUN building!
The only reason for such a farcical reaction has to be that he finds such questions impossible to answer, so he needs to pretend that they haven’t been asked.
In exactly the same way, now that it is the turn of the press to ask the same set of questions, he has been forced to lock the doors and shut them out!
The questions that Taib is frightened of being asked
So, what are the questions that any decent set of journalists would have put to Taib, if he had agreed to open the door? We suggest the following top five:
“Chief Minister, how do you explain the US$1.5 billion dollars worth of assets that have been acquired by members of your immediate family through just 14 of the more than 400 companies that they own?”
“Chief Minister, you claimed that you and your family ‘do no business in Sarawak to avoid being hounded by accusations that you have used your influence to enrich yourself’. So how do you explain the over 300 companies in Sarawak that you and your family own shares in?”
“Chief Minister, your dead wife is the largest single shareholder of Sarawak’s largest single company, CMS. Yet she passed away two years ago. So who is her beneficiary?”
“Chief Minister, why do you keep handing out all the most valuable state lands and state contracts to members of your own family in secret deals, instead of putting them out to open tender?”
“Chief Minister, given that dual citizenship is illegal, is your eldest daughter, Jamilah, Malaysian (as it says on the records of the 87 Sarawak companies in which she holds shares) or is she Canadian, as admitted by her husband Sean Murray?”
There are, of course, numerous other questions that eager journalists, given half a chance might unleash on the Chief Minister and we suggest that contributors to our comments column put theirs forward too. These are also questions that should rightly be asked by the Malaysian police force, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and, of course, Taib’s political colleagues and the Prime Minister of Malaysia!
Jobs for the newsmen
Now that Taib is no longer so interested in talking to the press it is going to give them a bit of a challenge. After all, for the past decades Sarawak newspapers have relied for every page on tedious stories recording the aging Taib and his colleagues’ daily movements, without question or criticism.
The Borneo Post is largely owned by his timber crony Henry Lau of KTS and the Sarawak Tribune is half-owned by his cousin Hamed Sepawi and edited by his own daughter Hannifah Taib. Their fawning praise has, unsurprinsingly, never faltered.
However, if the Chief Minister is no longer going to provide them with a constant stream of ‘stories’ about his comings and goings and lhis atest theories on ‘progress and development’, what can we suggest for them to write about instead?
Again, we would be happy to see suggestions in our comments column. However, we think that the journalists of Kuching should roll up their trouser legs and get out on the roads to examine some of Sarawak’s devastated interior and visit some of Sarawak’s disinherited tribes?
They could consider why the majority of the population no longer have clean rivers and fish to provide food and water. They could cover the landgrab scandal. They could demonstrate the effects of erosion. They could look at the lamentable health problems of the population and ask how corruption has interfered with proper medical care.
They could look at schooling and why it still fails so many native Dayaks? Why promised roads are not being delivered? They could document the gangster attacks on behalf of loggers and go searching to see what remains of Sarawak’s once fabled biodiversity – its trees and animals.
They could feature the lives and problems of some of the ordinary folk of Sarawak, instead of boring everyone to death with yet more dreary and depressing articles about Abdul Taib Mahmud, the ancient Chief Minster, who dare not step down for fear that his successor might challenge all his ill-gotten gains!