Sarawak election aftermath: Investigating Taib’s billions

The Sarawak election results have come and gone. It has not been able to change the power equation in the state which has for so long been under the control of Taib Mahmud. A combination of dirty tricks and the well-honed BN election firepower of goodies, spin and support from public and private sector bodies, including those that are supposed to be neutral stake players, helped ensure the victory. What lies ahead for the Chief Minister and his state?

During his three decades of rule, Taib – together with members of his extended family – amassed an enormous fortune whilst the great majority of the population sank further into poverty. Several years ago, Transparency International in its Global Corruption Report named 10 of the world’s most corrupt leaders, “whose corruption has contributed to their countries’ low economic status, placing them among the poorest on the planet” (Forbes magazine).  At that time, Taib Mahmud’s name did not appear on the list.

If that roll of dishonour were to be updated today, could Taib’s name appear on the list as predicted by some observers? Some of his defenders – and there are very few even amongst hardcore BN supporters – may argue that the allegations of the size of his fortune have been overestimated.  The onus, if Taib is to silence his detractors, is on him and his family to open the books on the family fortune and to account for the alleged torrent of millions that has flowed into the bank accounts and other assets under the Taib family name and proxies since he assumed the position of chief minister.

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Recently, clues to the enormous size of the Taib family wealth emerged when Taib’s daughter-in-law (left) filed a RM400 million (US$132 million) claim on her estranged husband in court, including what she claims is her share of property worth RM300 million. That case is unlikely to see any further development since Taib’s son, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, apparently is looking for an out-of-court settlement to avoid public scrutiny into how the family gained such wealth.

Even if the extent of the Taib, et al, fortune has been over-estimated, what is perhaps most striking is that the fortune has been amassed from Taib’s political position as chief minister of one of the states of the country. Compare this with the other names that appear on the Forbeslist I cited above. Suharto, Marcos, Mobutu, Abacha, Milosevic, Duvalier and others – these are leaders of entire countries, not of just one state within a country.

There are several concerns that arise from the unusual appearance of a state (not national) political leader in the list of fabulously rich political leaders. One is that if the reports of the wealth of just one chief minister were true, what does it say about the total amount of wealth accumulated by the other state leaders in Malaysia?

The second is that it shows that Taib’s financial vacuum machine must have been extremely extensive and efficient. A recent article in the blogsite Sarawak Headhunter provides in-depth details into what is alleged to be the 10 incomes stream of the Chief Minister.  These include:

  • Income from timber licences
  • Surcharge on timber exports
  • Kickbacks from timber shipping companies
  • Agency and other fees levied on shipping companies
  • Privatization of government companies
  • Illegal logging receipts
  • Federal government contracts
  • Alienation of state land to plantations
  • State contracts

Source: Sarawak Headhunter

The Chief Minister has refuted these claims and in defence has argued that that his daughter’s property empire in Canada and the UK was amassed through the daughter and son-in-law’s business acumen in investing wisely the gratuity which Taib earned from his earlier service in the federal government. This story of parental love and prudent and profitable financial investment is very touching.  It may very well be true but it needs to be substantiated by an opening of the financial records and bank accounts of the family and the companies the family owns or controls in Malaysia and abroad so that Malaysians can determine the truth of the charges and allegations of financial and political impropriety and abuses hurled against the Chief Minister.

Today, in Egypt, as part of the measures to wipe out corruption and to transform the country, the provisional government has begun an investigation into how Mubarak amassed his wealth. A judicial commission has been appointed to investigate not only Mubarak but also his wife Suzanne and his two sons and their wives. In the meantime, the Mubarak family has been banned from travelling abroad and their assets have been frozen. Several Ministers, officials and former members of the National Democratic Party (the overthrown ruling party) have also been banned from leaving the country pending further investigations.

No Malaysian will begrudge the Chief Minister and his family members if their personal fortune is due to honest savings and far-sighted investments and not due to illicitly accumulated wealth. However, to stop the tongues wagging and to silence the critics once and for all, the federal government needs to undertake a similar investigation into the Taib family wealth along the lines of what is taking place in Egypt with the investigation of the Mubarak family wealth.

This election outcome – the public investigation of the Taib family wealth – would be the more significant one for the nation to celebrate.

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