Sarawak Chief Minister's London Connection

This is the third installment by the Sarawak Report, an NGO in the East Malaysian state, detailing the vast overseas property holdings of the family of Abdul Taib Mahmud, the long-serving Sarawak chief minister. Asia Sentinel prints the report as a public service.

Racehorses, residences in swanky Fitzrovia and offices next door to the Bank of England. The family of Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud is in London too. In this latest exclusive investigation, Sarawak Report can reveal the full details of Ridgeford Properties Ltd, a multi-million pound property company in the UK owned and funded by the Taib family.

The London base of the Taib international property portfolio was started in October 1996 under a Canadian, Chistopher Murray. Christopher Murray is the cousin of Sean Murray, who is married to Jamilah Taib, the Chief Minister's daughter and a key linchpin for his foreign property empire. Sean Murray acts as Chairman of Ridgeford, while Christopher has been appointed the London-based managing director. Sean Murray is also president of Sakto Corporation in Canada and Sakti International in the US as well as a director of Sitehost Pty in Australia. These are all major property companies of which his wife and her family (the Taibs) are the owners and shareholders.

Again, while an impression has been given that Ridgeford Properties is part of a wider business started and owned by the Murray family, Sarawak report has established that it in fact relies on millions of pounds worth of soft loans from a private investor based in the British Virgin Islands. This investor has clear links to the Taib family fortune and to the public Sarawak-based company which they largely own, Cahya Mata Sarawak, or CMS. Many questions have been raised as to the legitimacy of the Taib family's ownership of CMS, which was once Sarawak's largest state-owned company, but was then 'privatized' by the chief minister into the hands of his own close family.

Scores of Stylish Flats for Sale

Ridgeford Properties Limited currently boasts seven major Central London 'mixed-use' developments, including luxury flats and thousands of square feet of rental office space. According to the company's own online information just one such property, Tokenhouse Yard adjacent to the Bank of England, is netting the company £1.5 million in annual rent, while of course remaining a valuable and appreciating asset.

Another stunning showcase for Ridgeford is 50 Bolsover Street, in Fitzrovia near Oxford Street. This massive development is in partnership with the prestigious Royal National Othorpaedic Hospital and All Souls College, Oxford along with a fellow developer, the Manhattan Loft Company. According to our research, the first part of the two-stage development consists of 210,000 square ft of prime property sold as 66 flats and four penthouses for between £1,000 and £1,200 per square foot – giving a total value of well over £210 million (just over one billion ringgit at current exchange rates). The second phase of the project, which is due for completion in 2012, will consist of another 60 flats for sale, making it almost as lucrative as stage one.

Meanwhile, in trendy Clerkenwell another Ridgeford development, Ironmonger Row, has seen 12 'prestige apartments' and two penthouses sell for what the company describes as 'well in excess of previous developments in the area'. The company retains the lower part of the building for rent as retail and office space and boasts that this is occupied by top shoe designer Christian Louboutin. Another property, a bright red, modern office high-rise, 'Maple Street', has secured a 15-year rent as the headquarters for the famous travel company Thomas Cook at record prices, according to Ridgeford's publicity material.

Developer with a difference is bullish over recession

Interestingly, while most London developers are now cash-strapped because of the credit crunch, Ridgeford Managing Director, Christopher Murray, says the company sees this period of recession as a good opportunity for more business. As he explained to one reporter, ”we see this period as an opportunity to buy right, as there is less competition. Where there were once 30 companies chasing one development now there will just be two.” His statement clearly implies that Ridgeford is less vulnerable than most to the current loan squeeze and this ties in with evidence from the company's public financial records, which show that Ridgeford has access to sizeable loans on highly favourable terms from a mysterious donor named Tess Investments, based in the British Virgin Islands. Sarawak Report has found clear links between Tess Investments and the Taibs.

Links to Sakto Canada and the Taib Family

Ridgeford's company website acknowledges that Ridgeford is a 'sister company' of Sakto Corporation, based in Ottawa Canada and run by Sean (Hisham) Murray, the husband of Jamilah Taib. Numerous members of Murray's family have been employed by Sakto since Sean's marriage to Jamilah in 1987, including Brian Murray who is in charge of office letting in Ottawa, Thady Murray who acts as President of City Gate Corporation, another sister company, and Christopher Murray in London.

Christopher Murray claimed in a recent interview that Sakto is a “family business” started by “my cousin's father and my father. They had an architectural practice and then got into development”. However, Sakto was in fact started in 1983 in Ottawa by Onn Mahmud, Mahmud Taib and Jamilah Taib, the Chief Minister's brother, son and daughter, well before Jamilah met and married Sean Murray. Likewise millions of dollars had been invested in developments before Sean Murray became involved in the company.

Sarawak Report contends that Sakto and its sister companies are in fact a Taib family business, which employs several members of Sean Murray's family in different departments of its property empire. According to Ridgeford's financial records Christopher Murray was paid a salary of £178,175 in 2009, a considerable rise from £47,917 in 1998, which apparently enables him to live in a £5 million apartment, as he claimed in the same recent interview. Ridgeford accounts also indicate the company has funded a racehorse in past years, indicating certain added value to be gained from working for the in-laws.

The financial connection

Ridgeford Properties, according to its 2009 Financial Statement 'relies significantly' on loans. This includes more than £15.5 million of mostly interest-free and open-ended loans, from Tess Investments, c/o Equity Trust (BVI) Ltd, PO Box 438, British Virgin Islands. Tess Investments was incorporated on 23 October 1996, the day before Ridgeford was incorporated in London on October 24 1996. The majority of these loans are not secured on any properties owned by Ridgeford, representing stunningly generous terms from anyone who was not a direct shareholder of the company.

The original shareholder of Ridgeford was in fact a company called Astar Properties, incorporated on October 4th 1996, also in the British Virgin Islands tax haven and also sharing the same Equity Trust Agent and PO Box 438 address. Astar Properties also has shares in Sitehost Pty, the Australian property company belonging to the Taibs.

It is notable that CMS, the once state-owned company, also has a banking division in the British Virgin Islands. CMS in the BVI is also registered at the same PO Box 438 address and with the same agent as Astar Properties and Tess Investments, according to information made public by Equity Trust and available on the internet.

In 2001 documents show that Astar's shareholding in Ridgeford was then passed directly to City Gate International Corporation, which is based at Sakto's Headquarters in Ottawa. Jamilah Taib and Sean Murray are the registered directors of City Gate and Thady Murray is employed as President.

Sarawak Report challenges Abdul Taib Mahmud to acknowledge that Ridgeford Properties in London was set up and financed by the Taib family and remains part of the Taib global property empire, which is largely owned and ultimately controlled by him. We further ask how with him earning a salary of just RM20,000 a month his family has been able to afford to pay millions of pounds into this property company and others across the globe. So far the Chief Minister has found no answer to our revelations, so will it be different this time?