Bye Bye Crocodile?

Bye Bye Crocodile?

Abdul Taib Mahmud was levered out of the Governorship of Sarawak a month before the end of his extended term of office.

However, apart from that, he departed largely on his own terms: he had remained in the job, deemed to grant him immunity from his actions over four decades in office, well past his ability to perform the role or to be sensibly brought to justice.

His cotton-wool landing as he enters a highly pampered dotage contrasts with the accountability now being experienced by others of his era, and there seems little likelihood of any immediate retribution taking place.

Yet, everyone knows the extent of the looting and resource grabbing that took place under his watch, much of it somewhat fruitlessly exposed and denounced by this website.

Over four hundred native land rights cases that have ground through the courts are testimony to  what happened – all David and Goliath battles by impoverished villagers against crony concession holders (too often members of Taib’s own family) backed by the full force of Taib’s government.

Contracts, licences, concessions – all were granted at the expense of the state and its people to a tight knit group of Taib’s business partners, political supporters and family, always in the name of ‘progress and development’ or, these days, ‘green energy’ projects.

When he assumed the office of Chief Minister in 1981, thanks to the support of his own uncle who preceded him and had mentored him for the role, Taib already had a clear vision as to what constitutes power and its trade offs.

In 1974 he had, whilst Federal Energy Minister, sold out the interests of his own state by pushing through the unconstitutional Petroleum Development Act (which was never put before the state Parliament) passing control of Sarawak and Sabah’s oil reserves to Petronas in return for a drastically diminished royalty of 5%.

This boost to West Malaysia’s federal coffers was rewarded by a free hand offered by Taib’s old friend Mahathir Mohammad who became Prime Minister shortly after Taib took over in Sarawak.

The two men traded political territory, in that in return for the vast flow of royalties Mahathir left Taib to his own devices in Sarawak as the latter amended the land code to curtail native land rights and roll our vast timber and plantation concessions on indigenous lands (some of which ended up in the hands of Mahathir’s family members).

Taib had an attitude towards his home state and its people imprinted on every act he took. It was no secret that he had acceded to power over a fantastically resource rich state, so far largely unspoiled by human activity, and he wanted to extract as much of that wealth as possible as quickly as he could.

The established constitutional rights of the small and remote populations of isolated and vulnerable indigenous people who lived off those lands were not to be allowed to get in his way, now that he had the levers of power.

They were “good for a museum” as Taib once put it to this writer, adding their descendants should learn to live in the town. As for enriching the Dayak with the prosperity unleashed by the unsustainable assault on their lands and resources, he was reportedly of the view that it was better to keep them poor so they could not cause him difficulties.

Indeed, there was a tint of revenge within his attitude towards the Christian Dayak communities, whom he was known to observe had historically abused his own minority Muslim Melanau people.

To ensure his absolute power in order to gain total control of the distribution of the wealth of the state, Taib had rapidly assumed all key portfolios for himself. Not only was he chief minister, but also appointed himself finance minister and planning and resources minister.

His family were already entrenched in the other key institutions in the state thanks to similar manoeuvrings of his uncle before him and Taib soon placed his own in-laws, cousins and cronies into the top  management at the Sarawak Economic Development Council, Energy Board, Forestry Department and Timber Industry Development Corporation.

However, the crucial move towards breaking the protections for Native Land Rights that had been accorded by the constitution came with his creation of the so-called Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA) soon after assuming office in 1981, of which he made himself chair.

What irony that he should designate himself a custodian, as if people could put their trust in his guardianship of their best interests!

The actions of that office were eventually denounced in a devastating report by Malaysia’s own human rights organisation Suhakam in 2014, which details how Taib took ‘into custody’ great tranches of native land under the auspices of his alterations to the land code which allowed for indigenous communities to enter into ‘joint ventures’ with companies given concessions by the state to log and plant rainforest lands.

It was Taib’s own LCDA that assumed the custody of the land ‘on behalf’ of the communities who under the new laws were given the Hobson’s choice either to agree to enter into the forced ‘partnerships’ or to have their land rights confiscated.

The Suhakam report mirrors the multiplicity of complaints heard in the numerous ensuing court cases over lack of consultation, strong arm tactics and downright bullying to force through these land grabs in the name of allegedly giving communities a share of the profits in enterprises they had been given no part in managing – merely the opportunity to work as labourers in a desperate wage competition with imported Indonesian and other trafficked workers.

Sarawak Report has detailed some of these corrupted deals, usually involving enormous kickbacks to local parliamentary representatives and also to government appointed headmen (Taib was also responsible for replacing these elected community leaders with government paid appointees).

The so-called dividends and profits that were supposed to lift the lives of the communities thus deprived of their valuable lands have universally proven pitiful and dwindling, leaving them penniless to fight their court cases.

Those battles have dragged on for years, by which time the precious natural heritage of their forest lands have all been stripped bare and replaced by monoculture oil palm and acacia. Even so, judgement has often been in favour of the native litigants as courts have observed the outrageous and unlawful tactics employed.

The compensation has always been far too little and far too late, nevertheless contested all the same by the overwhelmingly powerful and wealthy defendant in the form of the state government, leaving Sarawak’s struggling native populations vindicated but further disempowered.

The logging and plantation concessions themselves have gone mainly to the so-called big six Sarawak companies owned by Chinese tycoons and in the case of Ta Ann, Taib’s own cousin. Taib’s government has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with all of the Big Six trading licences for massive kickbacks, political support and funding.

How else, as Sarawak Report detailed time and again, could the fantastic and ostentatious wealth of the Rolls Royce collecting Chief Minister and his extended family, all dripping in jewels and major property concerns both in Sarawak but mainly abroad, be otherwise explained?

The Swiss NGO, Bruno Manser fund, has calculated that a modest assessment of Taib’s stolen wealth amounts to $21 billion – putting the thefts of Malaysia’s now imprisoned Najib Razak into some perspective.

Of course, as he doled out licences and grabbed native lands, Taib was also using his decision making authority to ensure that contracts and privatisations equally benefited himself and his wider family.

Government concerns such as CMS, which still holds the monopoly on cement in Sarawak, were ‘privatised’ into his family ownership and has now, thanks to numerous favourable contracts, expanded into a major listed conglomerate.

Likewise, the construction middle-man entities such as Parabena, owned by a favourite sister. Numerous valuable land concessions and government construction contracts have been filtered out through Parabena and other Taib family concerns, before being sold on at substantial profits to genuine concessionaires.

Other key families and political cronies have benefitted likewise from the court of the so-called White Haired Rajah in return for supporting and cementing his position, acting as proxies and implementing his regime.

Taib postured as the king of all he beheld during this laying to waste of the land of the Hornbills (following his 30 years in office less than 5% of the original jungle was left standing).

He preferred the term ‘CEO of Sarawak’ once he had moved into what he liked to think of as an ‘industrialisation phase’ of development having destroyed the landscape and progressed to a programme of dam building that destroyed vast areas and displaced more native communities. Many have called him The Crocodile instead.

However, it is debatable to what extent this ostentatiously wealthy politician and his billionaire family, all setting up property empires around the globe with the proceeds of their contract and concession skimming, really controlled this process.

In many respects Taib was merely the facilitator and beneficiary of state capture by the same resource extracting companies which, through him, had sucked Sarawak dry.

Thanks to the compliant state apparatus and the non interference of a federal government ever reliant on Sarawak petroleum and Sarawak votes, it was the interests of the timber barons that reigned supreme.

These crony Chinese business interests coined billions, flexing ever more power and influence over their surrounding community, while it was the minority Malay and Muslim groups who dominated in government and official positions, with the top layer kept rich by kickbacks through the system.

A small elite of Dayak leaders gained access to the magic circle, generally by betraying their own communities in return for a fat percentage of the profits from selling off their lands and resources.

The vast inequalities of wealth, lack of communication, contacts and education together with the underdeveloped democratic institutions of the state made the manipulation of elections in distant Dayak communities an easy task for the incumbents in this alliance of Chinese business elites, Malay/Melanau rent seekers and client Dayak ruling families.

A few ringgit to each voter and the ‘close management’ of polling by a government friendly state apparatus has produced victory for the Taib related political coalitions ever since his uncle gained power in 1970.

Bright New Future?

These realities were kept hushed for decades of course.  Registers that should have been open to the public, listing timber and palm oil concessions and land surveys, were kept secret and contracts as hidden as possible to conceal the truth of what was going on.

Lies were promoted by a controlled media and greenwash PR claiming Sarawak’s unparalleled natural heritage was still largely untouched. The Dayak were left largely voiceless with their more prominent leaders already made part of the system that oppressed them.

However, modern communications had caught up by 2104 with the development of the internet and pressure on secret contracts. The Badawi government had opened up the register on public contracts (subsequently shut tight again by Najib and his successors) and Sarawak Report obtained further leaks from the Land & Survey Department and Forestry that revealed the shocking extent of the concessions handed to the family and cronies of Taib Mahmud.

Millions of hectares to the timber Big Six and hundreds of thousands to Taib family members. All in all worth billions of dollars worth of resource extraction could be identified, most of which was whisked outside of Sarawak with barely a whiff of tax and  none of the promised investment in the lives of the communities who had lost those resources.

Instead of promised roads, utilities, hospitals, schools and cash, the Dayak communities looked forward (at election time) to gifts of water butts to store rainwater and meagre bribes.

Taib and his record had become an open scandal on the internet and resounding calls for him to be investigated were heard in every corner. Post his election victory of 2013 the empowered Najib made his move to deal with the over powerful satrap.

An MACC investigation was opened and then rapidly shut, as Taib accepted the move upstairs to the Governorship on the questionable grounds that the head of state was protected by ‘immunity’.

And there Taib remained, indeed protected for a further decade until now.

However, in answer to questions such as whether that MACC enquiry into Taib and his family’s stolen wealth might be re-opened, an Indigenous Land Tribunal enquiry held or that policies might change, many obstacles remain.

At the last 2021 state election, held during the coup government in the middle of Covid and the flooding season, the Taib allied PBB/GPS ruling coalition easily prevailed in almost every seat throughout the interior, thanks to the same time honoured tactics by which they have won all previous elections for the past five decades.

The same parties likewise won most Sarawak federal seats in the general election that at last propelled the reform minded Anwar Ibrahim into office. The Anwar government was itself only established after bartering with GPS and others to form a coalition through which GPS holds a prominent and powerful position in the federal government.

And the leading strongmen within GPS still consist to a very large degree of the very same proteges and henchmen whom Taib collected around himself and nurtured at the height of his domination of the Sarawak state government.

Many are now elderly, but their wealth and history remain entangled in the history of Taib’s own acquisitions and the kickbacks that enriched the inner circles of his regime. The Governor may be gone but his immediate cronies still largely dominate the state.

Moreover, the power dynamic remains unchanged with the federal government. Indeed, it favours Sarawak more even than before. The ruling coalition still striving for stability needs GPS loyalty and the practiced power traders of Eastern Malaysia are pushing daily for their rewards in terms of further autonomy to extract yet more wealth and resources from their damaged domain, whatever the native rights or environmental consequences.

Autonomy & Green Energy

The scandal of Taib’s oil deal created a new narrative for GPS, namely autonomy. Greater autonomy was originally called for by opposition parties who sought to keep more revenues to improve services for the rural communities and more cultural independence for the Eastern states.

However, that mantra has long been appropriated by GPS to legitimise further plunder unhindered by federal laws and to channel greater revenues into state managed funds accountable only to themselves.

Abang Jo may envisage a fairer distribution for Sarawak people.  However the current thrust of his state government is as focused as ever on alienating land, renewing timber and plantation concessions to the big six and embarking once more on dam building with a view to generating yet more ‘green energy’.

These project are not for local communities, according to the stated purpose of the latest amendment to the land law to enable easier acquisition of native lands, but to sell to foreign buyers.

Just this week, one government appointed headman who had signalled community consent to a new “green energy” dam project without consultation having taken place, provided the standard old quote to local media criticising protests:

“the state government always plan and want the best for it people… the protest is suppressing the people’s right to receive progress and development from the government”

This after decades of unfulfilled promises of progress and development. Indeed over the past months, as GPS has flexed its autonomy muscles against the Anwar government more than ever before, strife over land grabbing has renewed in every quarter.

DPM Fadillah Yusof has already hived out a new ministry to give him authority over plantations and resources (seen as the ministry overseeing East Malaysian issues) and his allies now state Sarawak’s intention to achieve so-called ‘Environmental Autonomy’ to ignore federal authority entirely over the disposal of lands and resources in the state.

The effect of such a move would, of course, complete the total disempowerment of native communities who stand in the way of the business ambitions of political figures such as Fadillah himself and his brother Bustari Yusof, already made outstandingly wealthy thanks to timber concessions and public contracts obtained as allies of Taib Mahmud over the past five decades.

These old men with their mindsets and methods forever fixated on yet more resource extraction, and their deep and embedded alliances with the timber tycoons, still dominate the present leadership of Sarawak under Abang Johari.

They will resist opening the can of worms into Taib’s ill-gotten wealth which touches on their own. They will resist a Royal Commission or Land Tribunal into the robbing of native lands, in which they played their part.

They still want to extract more wealth from the soil of the battered state in the name of “Green” enterprise and they fear the restitution of law and order and democratic rights for the people they deprived of the benefits of the huge wealth already released from their lands.

They and their super-wealthy business cronies form the main barrier against a new era for Sarawak. Those who wish for something better must consider how to circumvent them.

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