Finally, after decades of allegations and overwhelming evidence, the new chief minister of Sarawak in East Malaysia Adenan Satem, has called a spade a spade and denounced the state’s illegal timber merchants and some of its law enforcement officers as “corrupt.”
In a rare gathering of timber barons, Adenan apparently stunned his audience, telling them that he will “put the fear of god into people who are dishonest.”
“Some, of course not all, pretend they don’t know. The reason is very simple; either they are stupid, cowards or corrupt,” he said in a cracking break from the past.
Illegal logging and alleged massive fraud has been extensively documented by foreign NGOs like Global Witness and the Swiss-based Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) but has been rarely touched upon by the traditionally government-friendly mainstream press in Malaysia or the authorities.
BMF noted in a statement that “for the first time in the history of Sarawak, since 1963 in a Federation with the peninsula and Sabah” a chief minister had shown some mettle and taken on the timber industry.
“The timber industry has for long been Sarawak’s economic backbone but is currently facing decreasing yields due to non-sustainable harvesting practices in past years.”
Adenan was appointed following the retirement earlier this year of his predecessor Taib Mahmud, who with his family had amassed a fortune worth more than $20 billion after 33-years at the helm of a state that he ran as a personal fiefdom. That effort earned him comparisons with Hun Sen, the long-serving prime minister of Cambodia. The Taibs are the world’s fifth richest family.
Taib is already under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and there are calls to extend the probe to include members of his family, particularly his brother Onn Mahmud who was involved in an alleged kickback scandal in Japan about seven years ago.
But with Adenan adopting such a refreshing and honest approach to government in Sarawak, perhaps it is time for his government to launch its own independent inquiry into the rule by Taib and his family and the companies that supported them.
His counterpart in the neighboring state of Sabah, Musa Aman might even consider following suit. His media advisor Afeiza Khan, who has kept a close eye on local reports regarding illegal logging with ruthless and professional efficiency, would no doubt applaud Adenan’s remarks.
Musa has enjoyed close ties with Sabah timber merchant Michael Chia and his Lamborghini-loving family. Chia was once detained in Hong Kong for attempting to smuggle around $15 million out of the territory. Musa’s sons and his brother Anifah – who is also Malaysia’s foreign minister – have according to the Sarawak Report also been major beneficiaries of the Chias’ largesse and logging contracts.
Unwanted headlines about Sabah’s environmental degradation, disappearing forests, wildlife and coral reefs has also taken a financial toll with tourists no longer as attracted to the state as they once were. Sabah’s location makes it a transit point between the Southern Philippines and Eastern Indonesia, ideal for smugglers and it is also prone to Islamic militancy.
Adenan also added he would not tolerate officers who flouted Sarawak’s logging laws, saying corruption was “very bad, a reflection of what enforcement officers have not been doing” and warned there would zero tolerance for those who worked “with eyes but blind, with ears but deaf and with mouths but dumb.”
BMF executive director Lukas Straumann added that Adenan’s comments were worth celebrating in Sarawak and in the rest of Malaysia.
“These are the clearest words ever we have heard from a leading Malaysian government minister to combat corruption as a root cause of deforestation and under-development,” he said in a statement.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt