Malaysia's Sarawak Strongman Steps Back

Abdul Taib Mahmud, alleged to be one of the world’s great resources looters, reportedly is scheduled to end his 33 years as chief minister of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. But don’t count on it. Probably whoever replaces him will have the same emasculated relationship that Russia’s Boris Medvedev had with Vladimir Putin.

The 78 year-old Taib last week said he would tender his resignation and name his replacement, moving up to a ceremonial position as governor, the formal head of the Sarawak state. A flamboyant dresser, the diminutive, white-haired Taib has long cruised the streets of Sarawak in a series of Rolls-Royces. Reports from the capital, Kuching, are that he has already begun adding an administrative wing to the head of state’s palace

According to the environmental NGO Global Witness, Sarawak continues to export more tropical logs than Africa and Latin America combined. It has been long alleged that Taib family interests collect a “commission” on every cubic meter of lumber that leaves the state. It has been estimated that 90 percent of Sarawak’s dense natural forest cover has been destroyed. In Sarawak alone, according to Global Witness, Sarawak land registry documents suggest Taib or members of his family have leases for 200,000 hectares of oil palm plantations conservatively valued at more than US$500 million.

Taib has repeatedly denied all wrongdoing and said through his lawyers that he never has demanded or accepted bribes for the grant of leases or licenses.

Sarawak has been a family affair for decades and it is likely to stay that way. Taib succeeded his uncle, Abdul Rahman Ya'akub, as chief minister in 1981. The state government is packed with legions of people either related to the Taibs or closely aligned with them.

Malaysia’s state-owned press appear eager to allow the retiring chief minister to leave his position full of honors. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak told The New Straits Times he hoped Taib’s successor would “continue his legacy in bringing Sarawak to greater heights, and strengthening the ruling Barisan Nasional’s influence in the state.” Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters Taib had provided “excellent service to enable the Barisan Nasional (BN) to administer the state” and, as the ruling national coalition’s principal partner, his Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu had made the coalition stronger and more united and “contributed much to the state through various development projects.”

It is a mark of the political situation in Malaysia that despite abundant proof that Taib siphoned off billions of dollars from timber companies to denude the state of its vast timber resources, the Barisan Nasional’s leaders in Kuala Lumpur have repeatedly endorsed him because of the need for Sarawak’s steadfast residency in the Barisan camp, dealing up healthy political majorities through the Taib political machine for decades. Without the votes in East Malaysia, the Barisan would have lost the May 10, 2013 general election decisively. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, prompted by a Swiss probe of Taib’s finances, opened a probe into Taib’s dealings that has never been heard from since.

Thus the press, the political leadership and much of the rest of Malaysia appears to have utterly ignored the fact that Taib leaves behind him a state largely looted of natural resources, with a poverty-stricken indigenous population and with a fortune in his and his family’s pockets that probably rivals those of the Marcos family in the Philippines and the Suharto family in Indonesia. The Bruno Manser Fund, named for a Swiss who made it his life’s work to aid the native Penan tribes of Sarawak, estimates the family wealth at as much as US$21 billion, US$15 billion in Taib’s own hands.

Some of the information on the Taib family surfaced in long and nasty divorce proceedings brought by Shahnaz Majid, the estranged wife of Taib’s son, Mahmud Abu Bekir Abdul Taib, who according to court filings is worth more than RM1 billion (US$299.7 million) and had shares in 49 companies himself. Shahnaz had previously testified that Mahmud Abu Bekir has assets worth more than RM1 billion in Malaysia alone. She was asking for half of Mahmud’s assets including seven luxury cars, thousands of hectares of land in Sarawak, homes abroad and shares in about 15 companies.

According to a report by the Bruno Manser Fund, assets were transferred from Sarawak overseas to Canada through the Sakto group of companies, to the US through the Sakti Corporation and related companies, Australia through Sitehost Pty Ltd), to the UK through Ridgeford Properties, Hong Kong through Richfold Investment Ltd and to a number of offshore finance centers, in particular the British Virgin Islands.

The Bruno Manser Fund alleged last year that Taib invested heavily in the Swiss banking system and that Elia Geneid, a Swiss national who married into the Taib family, had profited from the use of lands held by native Sarawakian tribes. In 2011, the Bruno Manser Fund released information detailing the Taib family’s connection to over 400 companies in 25 countries and offshore districts.

Sarawak Report, a blog run by Clare Rewcastle Brown from London, has detailed billions of dollars owned by Taib and his family, often through nominees, in Canada, the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Malaysia itself. Although he appears on no lists of Malaysia’s 10 richest men, or even the top 20, he is a billionaire many times over.

As far as can be determined by Brown’s dogged pursuit of Taib, the family owns or controls at least US$100 million in an upscale shopping complex at Preston Square in downtown Ottowa plus a nearby residence tower called The Adelaide. That is just part of what Sarawak Report describes as “dozens” of other buildings in Canada.

In the United States, in addition to upscale residences in Seattle, the Taib interests, through the Sakti International Corporation, own office buildings including one housing the FBI headquarters. Two multimillion dollar homes were passed to Taib nominees via a US$1 quitclaim deed from the Samling timber interests of Sarawak. Sakti also owns an office block at 260 California Street in downtown San Francisco with an impressive list of clients including Citibank.

He leaves office, however, in a state of political grace. His party has given him the mandate to name his successor. All the four Sarawak Barisan component parties will support whoever he names as successor. At his party’s supreme council meeting, according to local media, the leadership stated it was their view that Taib should be the next governor in recognition of his immense contribution to the state and country.