As the insurgency in Sabah continues, the leadership in neighboring Sarawak has been stung again by charges of corruption that add to the mounting problems faced by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who must call an election soon.
Voters in the two East Malaysian states could swing the election and cause the United Malaysian National Organization (UMNO) to lose its cherished grip on power, which it has held since Britain left its former colony in 1957.
Allegations of corruption have dogged Abdul Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak since 1981, whose family has amassed a fortune worth billions of dollars. He is under investigation by the authorities in Switzerland.
Global Witness has concluded its investigation of Mahmud and his family and produced a powerful video that features members of Mahmud’s family allegedly offering detailed advice on how to do business in the Malaysian state.
Tom Picken, Forest Campaign Leader at Global Witness, explained that after decades of industrial logging and plantation development just five percent of Sarawak’s forests remain intact. Yet, he added that the state still exports more tropical logs than South America and Africa combined.
“Mahmud has ruled the state for over three decades and controls all land allocation and forestry licensing,” Picken told The Diplomat. “He is widely understood to abuse this power to enrich his family and associates.”
Picken continued, “This film proves for the first time what has long been suspected – that the small elite around Chief Minister Taib are systematically abusing the region’s people and natural resources to line their own pockets. It shows exactly how they do it and it shows the utter contempt they hold for Malaysia’s laws, people and environment.”
From Cambodia to Congo, non-governmental organization Global Witness has run campaigns against corruption associated with environmental damage and human rights abuses in the region for the last 19 years.
To create the film, a Global Witness staff member posed as a foreign investor looking to buy land for oil palm plantations. The investigator approached Regional Corridor Development Authority (RECODA), Sarawak’s government body charged with receiving foreign investment.
“An official at RECODA during a meeting in March 2012 directed our investigator to certain members of Taib’s family looking to sell their company licensed to log and clear land for plantations,” Picken said.
The video that resulted is potentially explosive and could not be released at a worse time for Najib, whose government has struggled to cope with an insurgency staged by 300 rebels who crossed the Sulu Sea from the southern Philippines in an attempt to re-stake an ancient claim to the northeast coast of Borneo.
The possible political blowback from these events could cost Najib dearly at the next election which must be held between now and the end of June.