*Pic: Abdul Taib Mahmud ...
A sad tale of the Asian timber mafia and the man who did more than anything to create it, Abdul Taib Mahmud. By Lukas Straumann, Bergli Books. Softback, 313 pp. Available in major bookstores.
On Oct. 3, 2011, a depressed, paranoid former chief operating officer for a San Francisco-based property company called Sakti International named Ross Boyert slipped a plastic bag over his head, taped it tight and suffocated himself to death in a Los Angeles hotel room. He was 61.
But Boyert, however delusionary he was when he died, left behind him an explosive legacy – the details of virtually all of the properties owned by Abdul Taib Mahmud, the longest serving public official in Malaysia. It is a breathtaking collection according to the documents that Boyert – who was fired by the Taib interests—gave to a crusading journalist named Clare Rewcastle Brown. They show that Taib, through nominees, family members and other subterfuges, is worth in excess of US$21 billion.
Taib is not mentioned on the Forbes list of Malaysia’s richest, but if he were, he would be worth almost twice as much as the man listed as richest—Robert Kuok, whose fortune is in property, sugar, palm oil and shipping. He would also be about halfway up the list of the world’s 50 richest billionaires although his name is not mentioned there either. That is because, according to this book by Lukas Straumann, Taib amassed his entire fortune illegally, as undoubtedly a handful of others have around the world that remains hidden. Nonetheless, according to Boyert’s documents and the research by Rewcastle Brown and Straumann, he is an engine of corruption the likes of which the world has never seen.
Taib built his real estate empire in Canada, the United States, Australia and the East Malaysia state of Sarawak on timber. Into the process, in his 33 years as chief minister, he staged some of the most depressing environmental destruction on the planet. An estimated 98 percent of the old-growth timber of Sarawak, a state three times the size of Switzerland, is gone, sold via timber permits to logging companies, many of them connected to him, that shipped the logs to Japan, China and across much of the rest of the world.
Using the documents furnished by Rewcastle Brown, and with considerable additional reporting, the story of Taib’s looting of Sarawak is told by Straumann, the director of the Basel-headquartered Bruno Manser Fund, an NGO named for a Swiss naturalist who fought to save the indigenous Penan tribe from the depredations of the loggers’ bulldozers, and who disappeared into the forest in 2000 and has never been found. It is an explosive book. Taib has threatened to sue Amazon if it distributes it. So far, Amazon has backed away from delivering it.
The book, Money Logging: On the Trail of Asia’s Timber Mafia, published by Bergli Books, also of Basel, tells the story of Taib’s rise to power, starting in 1965 as minister of agriculture and forestry. By the end of that decade, he would be Sarawak’s richest politician. Today he holds interests in property companies that own prestigious buildings in Seattle, San Francisco, Ottawa, London, Adelaide and in Malaysia itself. The major companies he controls through family members or by proxies, according to Boyert’s documentation, include Sakti International, Wallyson’s Inc., Sakto Group, Citygate International, Ridgeford Properties, Sitehost City and literally scores of smaller ones. He is believed to control more than 100 companies.
One of the most important things about this story is that Taib was first anointed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the father of Malaysia and the country’s first prime minister. Abdul Rahman was followed in office by five other prime ministers who sat in Kuala Lumpur and later the Putrajaya government complex and did nothing about him. It was hardly a secret that he was both looting the country and stealing, on a breathtaking scale, the resources that belonged to the Dayak, Murut, Penan and other local tribes that make up the peoples of Sarawak.
Nothing was done about him because he developed a political machine that could deliver votes to the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition in Peninsular Malaysia. Taib is a Muslim. Most of the Sarawak tribes are either Christian or animist. And, to the government across the South China Sea, it would have been unthinkable to have a non-Muslim government leader in charge. Later, during the current administration of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, it became clear that the Barisan’ very survival depended on Taib and his fellow Kleptocrat, Musa Aman, who continues stealing the people of the neighboring state of Sabah blind, although on a smaller scale.
What’s worse is that Taib’s activities in Sarawak, according to the book, spawned a series of giant timber companies including Concord Pacific, Samling, Shin Yang, WTK and Ta Ann Holdings – all of which have received backing from the international banking community including HSBC and others – and have expanded far outside of Malaysia to Cambodia, Australia, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Papua New Guinea and just about every other country with less than reputable governments and tropical timber to loot.
“Virtually all of this timber (from Papua New Guinea) was exported to China in the form of logs and other Asian destinations and the trickle-down of wealth in the country itself remained minimal,” Straumann writes. That is true of virtually every country in which the Malaysia-based lumber companies operated.
There is one more sad corollary to this story. As a Dec. 23, 2014 story in the New York Times about Costa Rica’s rainforests demonstrates, tropical forests will regenerate, and, given the space of time, return to their former state. The forests of Sarawak, if not all of Borneo, once one of the world’s greatest green lungs, will not. Sarawak’s forests are being replaced with oil palm plantations.
Taib has stepped aside as chief minister and is now the state’s governor. He ostensibly is under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission after the Swiss government forwarded allegations to the Malaysians of money-laundering into Swiss banks.
“It is up to his successors (as chief minister) to correct the state’s course of action and the government’s condescending attitude towards its indigenous peoples,” Straumann writes. “Now, the Malaysian judiciary and anti-corruption authorities need to live up to their responsibility. While it is a good thing that Sarawak’s last ‘White Rajah’ has finally stepped down, he does not belong in the governor’s residence. He belongs in jail.”
That last sentence is sadly unrealistic. Malaysia’s anticorruption commission and its judiciary have no intention of doing anything about Abdul Taib Mahmud. He remains far too valuable to the ruling coalition in Putrajaya to keep the state in loyal hands. He has announced plans to build a long series of dams on rivers to supply power that, given Borneo’s state of development, will never be needed. But skimming from the contracts will continue to supply a fortune to Taib and his family.
• Pete Godfrey, in Comments: Seems like a perfect fit for Tasmania. Mr Lennon was proud of having lured Ta Ann to Tasmania, what a major boon it was. Even though we only woodchipped poor quality logging waste, Ta Ann would be using logs that would otherwise be going to the chipper. Now they are only using logs that would otherwise end up as valuable sawlogs.
MEANWHILE ... as the State Libs plan to unravel nationally uniform defamation laws ...
• Examiner: Nikolic backs power to sue BASS Liberal MHR Andrew Nikolic has thrown his support behind the state government’s plans to allow companies to sue individuals, despite it unravelling nationally uniform defamation laws. The state government is pushing ahead with plans to amend the Defamation Act 2005 to allow businesses to take legal action against groups or individuals that spread ‘‘false and misleading information’’. The reform is intended to target environment groups that damage the reputation of the forest industry but the opposition fears it could have wide-ranging effects on free speech. But Mr Nikolic said green groups should be responsible for any losses or damages caused for false claims. ‘‘This is a particularly important issue for Tasmania, given it has suffered most from these false and damaging claims, which harm the reputation of law-abiding businesses and cost Tasmanian jobs,’’ he said. The government has used protest action against former timber company Gunns and Ta Ann as examples of why the reform is needed. Deputy Labor Leader Michelle O’Byrne said it was another Liberal policy that was ‘‘rotten to the core’’. ‘‘Just like their draconian and poorly thought through anti-protest legislation, these changes to defamation laws are being widely condemned,’’ Ms O’Byrne said. ‘‘All Tasmanians should be concerned about these laws – which could result in individuals being sued by corporations simply for commenting on web forums or writing a letter to the editor.’’ But Attorney-General Vanessa Goodwin said the government would balance free speech with the potential for misleading claims to destroy jobs. etc
• John Hayward, in Comments: While France is galvanised by concerns about free speech, Tas is offering asylum to corporate hoods wishing only to maintain their culture without interference from the law. Tas should consider a giant gateway statue of a blindfolded Vanessa G holding up a set of balance scales listing radically to the side carrying a golden figure of Taib.
Ancient rain forests give ground to a barren landscape of oil palm plantations and access roads in Sarawak, one of two states in the Malaysian island of Borneo. More than 90 percent of Borneo’s primary forest has been destroyed.
• Simon Worrall for National Geographic: Can Borneo’s Tribes Survive ‘Biggest Environmental Crime of Our Times’? Politically connected timber barons have destroyed most of Borneo’s rain forest. The Penan are fighting to hold on to what’s left. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called the deforestation of Sarawak, a sliver of rain forest on the island of Borneo, in Malaysia, “probably the biggest environmental crime of our times.” In his new book Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia ( here ), Lukas Straumann investigates that crime. Straumann is director of the Bruno Manser Fund ( here ), which works to protect tropical rain forests.
• RJPeak, in Coments: I can’t help but think that the proposed defamation laws are another step in the Putinisation of Tasmania. The government’s cronies and the local oligarchs must be protected no matter what the cost to Tasmania’s ostensible standing as a progressive, 21st century, First World society and economy or its national and international image. With his opposition tied up in the courts, in gaol or fined into penury, I reckon we’ll soon be seeing young Will riding horses bareback and shirtless, giving judo demonstrations, and wrestling Siberian tigers—oops, Tasmanian devils.
• Mercury, Editorial: Laws would stain state Stifling freedom of expression hits at the heart of democracy and now Dr Goodwin’s move is being mentioned in the same breath as the events in Paris. Who is embarrassing this state on the international stage now, Dr Goodwin?
• Pete Godfrey, in Comments: The Libs seem seriously confused, I heard Vanessa Goodwin talking on the ABC about the proposed law changes. She cited Markets for Change and their campaign against Ta Ann and said the laws were going to protect Tasmanian companies from such attacks. Now apart from the facts, like the Markets for Change campaign being based wholly on facts and refuting Ta Ann’s lies to their customers, the Libs don’t seem to know that Ta Ann is not a Tasmanian company. They don’t pay tax, don’t seem to pay for their electricity, their buildings were built for them and they get their logs at below cost. Seems like they are worth saving to me. Not.