Thursday 22 September 2011

British lord urges probe into House of Taib

Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud faces further international scrutiny of his fortune, amassed over 30 years while in charge of Sarawak's land and timber resources.

NONEA British crossbench (non-partisan) peer, Lord St John of Bletsoe (left), a noted advocate of environmental protection, has urged his government to follow the example of Germany and Switzerland in launching investigations into Taib's(right) alleged corrupt logging practices and capital flight to Europe.

According to the Hansard, Lord St John directed his call to Baroness Verma, Minister in the Department for International Development, in the upper chamber of the British Parliament during a debate on deforestation on Sept 13.

"My Lords, can the noble Baroness give any indication as to whether our Government will be following the moves by Switzerland and Germany to investigate money-laundering of the proceeds of timber corruption by the chief minister of Sarawak in Malaysia?" he asked.

Baroness Verma replied: "The noble Lord talks about a specific case, which I will not refer to. In a more general response, I would like to say...that we are ensuring that we respond proactively to the difficulties we are all facing with this issue."

Sarawak logging: No best practices

"What other measures are being taken to identify and sanction those large international logging companies which do not ensure best practice in sustainable logging?" Lord St John asked, in apparent reference to Sarawakian loggers, close allies of Taib's administration.

Sarawak's home-grown timber behemoths, such as Samling, Rimbunan Hijau and Ta Ann, have exported their unique expertise to NONEfour continents.

For example, Ta Ann Holdings, a Sibu-based logging company boasting annual revenues of more than RM827 million, has been hogging international headlines recently.

Ta Ann has also been in the crosshairs of environmentalist direct action protestors in Tasmania, Australia, as well as the influential Greens Party leader, Senator Bob Brown.

The company was granted access to extract timber from Tasmanian forests, and was even subsidised to do so by the Australian government, to the tune of AUS$10 million (RM32 million).

Ta Ann had declared a credulity-straining A$11 million loss (RM54 million) in Australia in the last financial year, despite this enormous subsidy.
Ta Ann is chaired by Taib's cousin Abdul Hamed Sepawi. This kinship follows a pattern of Taib's influence in many of Sarawak's richest companies.

Taib and Hamed Sepawi's cosy relationship has raised alarm among international conservation NGOs, like the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), and the somewhat less confrontational World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

International clampdown on errant firms

In response to Lord St John's pointed questions about Sarawak, Baroness Verma emphasised to the British Parliament that "multinational companies that deal in illegal logging will find that the penalties for this will be severe.

NONE"That is the agreement we are trying to get from all our partner countries so that it is not just a small group of countries that are willing to apply severe penalties, but that the penalties will be severe at every border that illegal timber comes through."

The importance attached to multinational co-operation, in fighting corruption and deforestation, is evident in the robust global campaign run by the BMF against Taib's administration.

The BMF has succeeded in piquing the interest of Germany's BaFin and Switzerland's Finma, the Financial Supervisory Authority of each country, to investigate the BMF's allegations of Taib's money-laundering via the Deutsche Bank and Swiss banks.

The US State Department, too, seems to harbour no illusions about Taib. Wikileaks released a 2006 confidential US embassy cable stating, rather undiplomatically, that the Sarawak "state government remains highly corrupt and firmly in the hands of its chief minister.

"The $82 million (then RM300 million) state assembly building now under construction serves as perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of the self-enrichment of the state's chief minister."

The BMF has also urged ministers and the Canadian police to look into theTaib family's vast property fortune in that country.

NONEThe Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) refused to confirm or deny it was investigating Taib, in order, it said, to preserve evidence, international relations and reputations.

However, the RCMP wrote, in its letter to the BMF, that it "respects the efforts the Bruno Manser Fund has undertaken with regard to the depletion of tropical forests and the plight of indigenous peoples."

The RCMP insisted that "those who commit serious capital markets fraud offences will be discovered, investigated, prosecuted, and incarcerated."

Malaysia's Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has announced its own probe into corruption allegations swirling around Taib and his family, but has refused to report on any progress.

The MACC must be acutely aware of the increasing international attention being brought to bear on Taib. But it remains doubtful that 'investigation' or 'incarceration' is on the cards.

Publicity stunts butt of jokes

Taib has tried to repair his tattered international reputation by consorting with Prince Albert of Monaco, together with Malaysian premier Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah.

According to investigative reporting website Sarawak Report, Taib also hired the British publicity firm FBC to provide sycophantic interviews screened by the CNBC and BBC.

Taib also donated to academic causes such as Oxford's Said Business School, and the University of Adelaide, his alma mater in Australia.

However, these public relations efforts have backfired somewhat.

The University of Adelaide named a campus plaza 'Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak Court' in 2008.

Observers joked that Taib's appearance at the ceremony to honour him was the only time Sarawakians are ever likely to see their chief minister in court.

NONE"The Chief Minister's personal generosity has continued in numerous ways over the years," said Vice-Chancellor Professor McWha, according to the Adelaidean, a campus newsletter.

This led to calls in March for the Vice-Chancellor to resign.
This embarrassment was reminiscent of the scandal that forced the head of the London School of Economics (LSE), Howard Davies, to quit in February, after details emerged of donations to the LSE from Saif al-Islam, son of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
However, crucial differences remain between the two scenarios: Taib carries more electoral legitimacy, as head of an elected government, than Gaddafi or his sons did. Taib's rule, though almost as long as Gaddafi's, was also less brutal.

And Taib is, after all, likely to retain the bulk of Sarawak's 31 parliamentary seats, up for grabs in the upcoming general election.

If, as expected, he helps preserve Barisan Nasional's perfect winning record, he will continue to enjoy the protection of the federal BN and premier Najib, regardless of the storms brewing beyond our home shores.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - 'anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at

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