Malaysia's Anti-Corruption Cops Go After Sarawak Chief Minister
|Our Correspondent||Jun 13, 2011|
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission's decision to go after Abdul Taib Mahmud over allegations that he had stashed millions in Swiss banks probably was out of embarrassment over Swiss financial authorities' earlier decision to look into the Sarawak Chief Minister's tangled fortune, sources in Kuala Lumpur say .
"We are investigating Taib," commission head Abu Kassim Mohamed told the state news agency Bernama, although the agency refused to give further details.
Although Transparency International Malaysia and other NGOs including the Kuching-based Sarawak Report and opposition political parties for months have lodged detailed reports of Taib's holdings with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the extent of his riches have been the stuff of legend in Malaysia if not the world, the agency has long been silent about the complaints.
"The MACC was compelled to do so after Swiss authorities had done so," a well-placed political source in Kuala Lumpur told Asia Sentinel. "It would be weird if the Swiss produced evidence while the MACC says nothing."
Taib's holdings have been the subject of a devastating and detailed series of disclosures by the Sarawak Report and the Switzerland-based Bruno Manser Fund, minutely describing a vast, allegedly illegal empire stretching from the UK to Canada to the United States to Australia and beyond that is believed to be worth in excess of US$1 billion.
The Bruno Manser Fund is named for a Swiss activist who disappeared in Sarawak's jungles while campaigning against deforestation and its effects on the Penan tribal community. The fund claims that Taib is "the main culprit behind the destruction of Sarawak's tropical rainforests" and is "believed to have acquired billions of dollars of ill-gotten assets, most of which have been sent overseas."
Both Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad attempted to talk the 75-year-old Taib into quitting as chief minister prior to the April state election that the Barisan Nasional won, the source said, although the national ruling coalition was largely abandoned by ethnic Chinese and urban dwellers in the state.
The Barisan Nasional pulled out all the stops to aid in the reelection campaign, criss-crossing the state to campaign along with a flock of other Barisan stalwarts to aid the chief minister's party's reelection campaign.
"In the last elections, Najib had to personally campaign in Sarawak for one week to attempt to quell the discontent over Taib," the source said. "Tun Dr M (Mahathir) also addressed a mass rally, mostly bumis (indigenous tribes), of course. Najib was running all up and down Sarawak trying to get votes. Taib's machinery was more than happy to accommodate the PM, knowing that Chinese votes would go the other way anyway."
That left the premier and the Malaysian political leadership campaigning frantically to try to rescue a man who demonstrably has amassed a huge fortune by allegedly illegally awarding timber harvesting licenses to companies that have denuded vast tracts of the North Borneo state. Environmental activists complain bitterly that flying over Sarawak shows the state's topography is virtually barren up to the border of the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, which makes up the rest of the island. In the 30 years of Taib's reign as chief minister, they say, timber companies have cut more than 90 percent of the tropical rainforest, leaving forest-dwellers like the Penan deprived of their means of subsistence and starving.
Taib "should have done like (former Singapore Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew did, and quit," the Kuala Lumpur political source said. Although Taib has said he would step down after the election, he has so far refused to reveal any detailed succession plans.
On May 12, Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Ray announced that she was asking Swiss financial authorities to investigate the chief minister's assets held in Swiss financial institutions. In a letter to the Bruno Manser Fund, Calmy-Ray indicated that if the probe finds evidence of corruption from timber sales, Taib's Swiss assets could be frozen.
The Fund alleged that Elia Geneid, a Swiss national who married into the Taib family, has profited from the use of lands held by native Sarawakian tribes. In February 2010, the Fund alleged that 49 companies connected to Taib in eight countries are thought to be worth hundreds of millions, if not billions of US dollars.
"Taib is believed to have invested a great deal in the once secretive Swiss banks over past decades, although, following recent reforms, he has more recently focused his attention on Monaco which remains famously lax on the matter of money-laundering," the Sarawak Report said.
The question that arises immediately is who the Swiss authorities would return the funds to if they were discovered to be gained from the illegal sale of timber or other government assets. The Taib-led Barisan Nasional coalition was returned to office with 54.5 percent of the votes but holds 55 of the state assembly's 71 seats. If the Swiss were to indeed freeze Taib's Swiss-based assets, returning them to the Malaysian government would presumably put them back into the hands of the state leadership, his surrogate at the moment even ifhe quits..
In addition to the Bruno Manser Fund, the Sarawak report, in a long series of reports prior to the election, showed, for instance, that family members and corporations connected to Taib have properties in Canada worth in excess of US$100 million. Taib's children are the shareholders and directors of numerous companies controlling residential and commercial buildings in Australia, Britain and the United States worth additional hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sakti International Corp. in the United States manages properties totaling an estimated US$80 million including the Abraham Lincoln Building, which houses the FBI's offices in Seattle, Washington. Records made public by the Sarawak Report showed that a Taib family dwelling in Seattle was purchased for US$1 from a company to which the Sarawak government granted a timber concession.