For 33 years Taib Mahmud has ruled the East Malaysian state of Sarawak as a personal fiefdom. He has more years at the helm than perhaps any other Southeast Asian leader, longer even than Hun Sen, who has ruled as prime minister of Cambodia for the most part since 1985.
In the process, Taib – known as 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.
As departing chief minister Taib, 77, said he remained optimistic that Sarawak would develop further with the potential to become the richest state in Malaysia by 2030 if its people continued to preserve their existing “strong unity and spirit of mutual co-operation.”
“Thank you for your support to me for the last 50 years and, especially in the last 30 years that I have been your chief minister,” Taib said. “With our unity and co-operation, we can even perform beyond our expectations in pushing the state development to its highest level.”
It was a low key statement that played down his achievements and predictably ignored allegations of gross human rights and environmental violations. Tom Picken, Forest Campaign Leader at Global Witness, says that after decades of industrial logging and plantation development just five percent of Sarawak’s forests remain intact.
“Mahmud has ruled the state for over three decades and controls all land allocation and forestry licensing,” Picken once told The Diplomat. “He is widely understood to abuse this power to enrich his family and associates.”
A Global Witness investigation finalized two years ago into Taib and his family’s financial interests produced an extraordinary video that included senior members of the clan offering detailed advice on costs and how to do business in the Malaysian state.
The accusations were far from new and the findings hardly surprising.
Allegations of corruption have blighted Taib’s career as chief minister of Sarawak for decades. He was named as a key figure in an investigation by Swiss authorities into claims that UBS Bank was involved in laundering $90 million through illegal logging in the neighboring state of Sabah.
A report by the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) has warned of “cultural genocide” given plans by Taib to dam nearly all the rivers in Sarawak’s interior, which will result in the destruction of the state’s remaining rainforests amid infrastructure investments worth $105 billion over the next 16 years.
The fund, a conservation group that campaigns out of Switzerland, also says Taib is worth $15 billion, with the combined worth of the top 20 members of his family at $21 billion.
That valuation makes the Taibs the world’s fifth richest family, after the Walton family of Walmart fame. Not surprisingly, Taib’s preferred mode of transport is Rolls-Royce and private jet.
By 2030, the BMF argued, the indigenous cultures of the Kelabit, Kenyah and Penan would be facing “extinction,” with their lands cleared of forests for timber and dammed.
Fifty dams are planned for Sarawak, a state already suffering from an oversupply of hydro-electricity. Chances are good that Taib will still be around to witness the results of his handiwork because he is not expected to fully retire.
Despite the objections of civil society groups Taib is expected to take on the position of state governor, a predominantly ceremonial job but one that will keep him within the halls of power.
“He will never willingly give up power as it would be too dangerous for him and threaten the business empire he has built up across Sarawak,” said Clare Rewcastle Brown, a long-time critic of Taib and Editor of the Sarawak Report Website.
She added retirement meant Taib was simply “moving upstairs,” where he can maintain his influence over the Christian-majority state within Muslim-majority Malaysia, a role that has won him numerous fans among ruling politicians in Kuala Lumpur.
His politicking ensured the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has dominated Malaysian politics at the national level since independence, maintained its 57-year grip on power. Without Taib’s influence and the 25 seats his party delivered at elections last year Prime Minister Najib Razak would have probably lost his job.
But outside his political and family circles Taib remains a divisive and questionable figure. Fifty-five non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have launched a petition claiming it would be a “national disaster” if Taib was made governor – or Yang Di-Pertua – of Sarawak.
“He had exploited the natural resources of Sarawak excessively for his personal gain,” the NGOs said, adding his mega-dam construction projects were illogical and had impacted badly on the natural environment in the state.
“The irony is that Sarawak remains one of the poorest states in Malaysia, despite being rich in various natural resources,” the NGOs, which included human rights groups like Suranum and the youth wings of political parties, said in an open letter. They also noted that while Sarawak remained poor Taib had become one of the richest men in Malaysia.
Taib is also under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Opposition politicians are calling on the authorities to extend their probe to include members of Taib’s family, in particular his brother Onn Mahmud who has become embroiled in a kickback scandal in Japan dating back to 2007.
“The investigation by the Tokyo Regional Tax Bureau has revealed that kickbacks were paid to a Hong Kong-based company, Regent Star Company Limited, which is owned by Onn,” said Rafizi Ramli, strategy director for the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
“The payments to Regent Star were made by the Japan shipping cartel, also known as the NFA (National Freight Agreement). The NFA had made annual payments to the Regent Star and attempted to claim the amount paid as a deductible business expense.”
Shortly after the calls for an extended probe into his family were made, the Swiss-based BMF announced it had lodged a report with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police offering new evidence implicating a financial link between Richfold Investments Ltd in Hong Kong and Sakto Development Corporation in Ottawa, a multi-million-dollar company run by Taib’s daughter, Jamilah Taib Murray.
Further investigations are pending.
Whether Taib can overcome strong objections within his own state and hold onto both his political career and his family’s massive fortune amid a barrage of legal assaults from home and abroad is a tough ask and the stuff of Hollywood movies. However, his 33-year legacy will forever be as legendary as it was shrouded by dirty deals and missing billions, which have made his family among the richest on the planet while consigning the indigenous of Sarawak to poverty.