By: Our Correspondent

The looting of the riches of the Malaysian state of Sarawak has earned the family of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud billions of US dollars through investment in as many as 400 companies in 25 countries, according to allegations by an NGO that has been stalking him for months.

Research by the Switzerland-based Bruno Manser Fund said official documents show the Taib family stake in 14 Malaysian companies alone is worth US$1.46 billion. The fund has uploaded all of the documents onto the Internet. They can be found here: http://stop-timber-corruption.org/resources.

However, the fund said, its research only covers publicly available information from Malaysia’s Registry of Companies and other official documents and the total of all of the Taib family’s holdings could run well in excess of that amount.

“Not counting their more hidden wealth, this puts the Taib family firmly into the category of one of the richest families in the world and makes them far richer than the Queen of England (whose assets are a mere half billion pounds),” the fund said.

In all, according to the fund, named for a Swiss environmentalist who disappeared in Sarawak in 2000 while trying to aid the Penan tribe, the family also has stakes in companies in Australia (22 companies), Bermuda (1), the British Virgin Islands (7), Brunei Darussalam (1), Cambodia (1), Canada (9), the Cayman Islands (1), Fiji (3), Hong Kong (7), India (2), Indonesia (3), Jersey (1), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1), Labuan (1), New Zealand (5), the People’s Republic of China (2), the Philippines (1), Singapore (2), Sri Lanka (1), Thailand (2), the United Arab Emirates (1), the United Kingdom (4), the United States of America (6) and Vietnam (1).

On May 12, in the wake of previous revelations by the Bruno Manser Fund and another reform NGO, the Sarawak Report, 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. There has been no indication of the progress of that probe.

At the time, a Taib spokesman said the funds had been legitimately deposited and that there was no evidence of criminality.

Allegations are that as chief minister, Taib granted timber access permits to a plethora of companies, most of them owned by ethnic Chinese, that have denuded much of the state, Malaysia’s largest, of much of its tropical rainforest. The two NGOs previously reported that Taib’s children are the shareholders and directors of numerous companies controlling residential and commercial buildings in Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States together worth hundreds of millions of US dollars. Many of the assets came into their possession when they were in their early 20s and were still college students with no visible access to legitimate resources to invest.

Although the two NGOs have filed numerous complaints with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the anti-graft agency only reluctantly agreed to investigate Taib’s holdings after the Swiss decision. A well-placed source told Asia Sentinel at the time that the MACC had no choice but to do so in the face of an international probe or face embarrassment. But, the source said after the new allegations, “that investigation has gone cold.”

Taib is the linchpin to control of Sarawak by the Barisan Nasional, the national coalition that controls the government in Kuala Lumpur. Despite widespread and embarrassing publication of Taib’s holdings by the Sarawak Report, both Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad campaigned energetically for Taib in April state elections, which the Barisan won, although with a sharply diminished ethnic Chinese vote. Although news media in Malaysia carried stories saying Taib had agreed to step down as chief minister after the election had concluded, he has not done so and there is little sign that he will.

Taib has been chief minister, finance minister and planning and resources management minister of since 1981. “He has been long criticized for corrupt practices and abuse of office but the Malaysian authorities have failed to take action against him, despite an ongoing investigation by the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission,” a fund spokesman said in a prepared release. “Taib is a key supporter of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib run Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.”

Taib, his four children, eight siblings and his first cousin Hamed bin Sepawi have stakes in 332 companies worth several billion US dollars in Malaysia, the report says. “The Taib family’s share in 14 large companies’ net assets alone has been calculated at 1.46 billion US dollars (RM4.6 billion). The three largest Taib family-linked companies are the 84 percent Taib-owned Cahya Mata Sarawak (net assets RM2.4 billion), the 25 percent Taib-owned Custodev Sdn Bhd (net assets RM1.6 billion) and the at least 35 percent Taib-owned Ta Ann Holdings Bhd (net assets: RM1.4 billion).

Cahya Mata Sarawak is a construction conglomerate listed on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange (KLSE 2852) that has benefited massively from a cement monopoly and from untendered public contracts awarded by the Taib-led Sarawak state government. Ta Ann Holdings Bhd (KLSE 5012), which is chaired by Hamed Sepawi, is an internationally active logging company. Since its foundation in the 1980s, Ta Ann has been granted more than 675,000 hectares of logging and plantation concessions by the Taib government. Privately-held Custodev Sdn Bhd is a Sarawak-based property development company. Achi Jaya Holdings (net assets 550 million Ringgits), which is wholly owned by the Taib family, holds a monopoly over log exports from the timber-rich state.

“We consider these corporate interests of the Taib family to be illicit assets”, said Bruno Manser Fund director Lukas Straumann in the prepared release. “There are many clear indications that Taib has abused his public office to build a corruption and fraud-based billion-dollar empire.”

“We are shocked to see that the Taib family has so shamelessly enriched itself while the people of Sarawak have to struggle with widespread poverty and an appalling lack of infrastructure and government services.”

The Bruno Manser Fund called on anti-corruption and anti-money-laundering authorities worldwide to investigate the Taib family’s business activities and freeze Taib family assets in their countries.