It can be at least as dangerous a business exposing corruption and worse in high places in Malaysia as getting on the wrong side of the Russia's now out-of-control secret service. The murder by slow-acting but untreatable poison of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London attracted international attention, at least two books and the continues to trouble UK-Russia relations.
The death of Ross J. Boyert, found with a bag over his head in a Los Angeles hotel room, seems unlikely to attract the attention of a mainstream media long frightened off reporting criminalities and coverups in Southeast Asia.
Similarly the death of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, most likely by secret service agents, attracted much international attention and media coverage. But scant outside attention has been paid to the events surrounding the murder of the Mongolian translator and pregnant estranged girlfriend of defense analyst Razak Baginda by the security detail of his close friend Najib Razak, now prime minister of Malaysia.
Questions over Boyert's Death
Whether or not Boyert was murdered has yet to be determined. However what is undeniable is that he was, almost unwittingly, the source of information about the vast Canadian, American and English real estate fortune of the family of Abdul Taib Mahmud, chief minister for decades of the timber rich Malaysian state of Sarawak. Boyert managed buildings in Seattle and San Francisco valued at around US$80 million that were owned by Taib and his family between 1994 and 2006. He was then pushed out as a result of a Taib family feud which led to the California courts and hence to revelations about the extent of Taib family wealth.
Boyert also provided information for the Sarawak Report detailing Taib's asset accumulation which included using companies he controlled to profit from state contracts and squeezing kickbacks from Japanese ship operators.
The extent of Taib's wealth, of which the US real estate is probably just the tip of the iceberg, probably came as a surprise even to Malaysians accustomed to seeing leading politicians amass wealth in unaccounted ways. Taib has been in power for years so his ability to profit from the state's abundant resources was unparalleled. Boyert is known to have been the source of other unflattering revelations about Taib and his son Sulaiman and had previously reported being the subjects of threats, had his car tires slashed and his home subject to break-ins.
The Bank Bumi Scandal
Whatever the truth, the truth reminds me of the murder of another honest Malaysian whistle-blower. In 1983 an auditor sent by government-controlled Bank Bumiputra to its Hong Kong subsidiary Bumiputra Malaysia Finance was appalled by what he found about the relationship of the Hong Kong operation to the greatest fraud that Hong Kong had, till then, ever seen – the Carrian scandal.
About to blow the whistle, Jalil was murdered and his body was dumped in a banana grove. The Bank Bumi financing of was part of a massive system of payoffs to well-placed Malaysians (many non-Malaysian bankers were also recipients of Carrian loan kickbacks). A small-time Malaysian businessman Mak Foon Than was convicted of playing a part in the murder plot. Mak was canny enough not to reveal who ordered the killing and lived to be released after serving his sentence.
In Hong Kong these days corruption is much more subtle and hard to prove. The population generally believes that the administration works hand in glove with the few tycoons who dominate not only real estate but also the utilities and supermarket trade. It is hard to make a specific connection between some arbitrary change in a planning regulation for the benefit of this or that tycoon to the award a couple of years later of a high-paying job to the civil servant who can conveniently retire at only 55 and both collect his pension and work for the tycoon.
Nor does the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which comes directly under the Chief Executive, appear to try very hard to stamp out this sort of big money sleaze which can involve hundreds of millions in additional development profits. Much better just to go after low level police accepting favors from hookers.
The oligarchs and Hong Kong's government
This week's annual Policy Address by Chief Executive Donald Tsang added a new and original twist to institutionalized corruption. The government announced that it is creating a charity fund to which it is contributing HK$5 billion and expects tycoons to put up another HK$5 billion. As the proposal had originally come from one of them it was no surprise that the leading names quickly announced contributions.
What is both bizarre and shocking about this is it an attempt by the tycoons to improve their image and a means for the government to pretend it is doing something for the huge and growing percentage of poor people in Hong Kong.
It is bizarre because the idea of a charity run by government officials is a contradiction in terms. It is mean because only income from the fund will be disbursed – which means at best HK$250 million a year, a meaningless 0.3 percent of the existing budgets for social welfare and health totaling HK$70 billion.
The invitation to corruption
It is shocking because it is an invitation to corruption. If Hong Kong's property tycoons, enriched by government policies not by their own genius, want to contribute to charities for the old, the poor, the sick, the disabled, etc., they have many to choose from – and run by selfless people paid little or nothing, not by overpaid bureaucrats with political agendas.
In short the only reason why the tycoons would contribute to the government's so-called charity fund would be if they expect something in return in addition to the tax relief which will apply to this. Give another HK$100 million to the fund and you can expect $500 million worth of profitable changes in zoning of land!
If that is not corruption, what is?