Written by Simone Adler, Communications and Events Intern
Read more about Timber Corruption in Sarawak
A video investigation released this week by international NGO Global Witness documents the corrupt deal-making that occurs behind-the-scenes in Sarawak between Chief Minister Taib Mahmud’s family and foreign investors buying land for industries such as palm oil. The video, recorded covertly by a Global Witness investigator posing as a potential investor, reveals just how far Taib’s relatives and lawyers will go to secure lucrative kick-backs, avoid paying taxes, and belittle the plight of indigenous communities fighting for the rights to their land.
Taib’s family members and lawyers featured in the video plainly offer advice on how to do business in Sarawak, nonchalantly explaining illegal transactions, including hiding money in bank accounts in Singapore, and assure the undercover investigator that this has “been put to use many a time”.
After decades of industrial logging and plantation development, only five percent of Sarawak’s forest remain intact, explains Forest Campaign Leader at Global Witness, Tom Picken. Picken says that the video is proof of a long-time suspicion “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.”
Approaching the Regional Corridor Development Authority (RECODA), the government agency in charge of foreign investment, Global Witness was able to arrange meetings with several of Taib’s family members seeking to sell their company licenses to investors that want to log and clear land for palm oil. Taib’s first-cousin Fatimah Abdul Rahman, who like most in his family, owns a company with titles to the land, put it simply:
“The Land and Survey Department, they are the ones who issue this license…Of course it’s from the CM’s [Chief Minister's] directive, but I can speak to the CM very easily…he was the one who gave us the land… He’s my cousin so it’s quite easy.”
Fatimah and her sisters are owners of the Ample Agro company. One of her sisters in the video, Norlia, when asked about whether it was okay to sell their company rather than the land. Norlia admitted, “I bought this company as a shell for this land.”
Further along in the video, Fatimah and Norlia express their contempt for the indigenous communities who lack land rights in Sarawak. Explaining that the land in Malaysia belongs to the state, Fatimah says of the indigenous communities, “You know, they’re pretty naughty people – they are trying to make money. The minute they hear [there are] people in the Land and Survey Department who will tell them, ‘Look, this land has been given to a company to do palm oil and what-not,’ they’ll plant themselves there.” In exasperation she goes on, “Technically they cannot claim the land at all but they could make life difficult if you don’t accommodate them.”
Norlia continues, “They are actually squatters on the land because the land does not belong to them. It’s government land.”
In response to the Global Witness investigation, Taib has dismissed the video as an attempt to blacken his name. “It has nothing to do with me…I don’t believe in deals, everything must be made according to government procedures” he claims in an interview with journalist Liza Bong.
It must be that corruption is the “government procedure” Taib is referring to. Corruption in land deals comes full circle in the business of Taib’s family. Global Witness found that some family members are given land for such a tiny fraction of its real commercial value, that they can flip these assets for huge profits; meanwhile Taib has made it standard practice to receive personal kickbacks for plantation licences he grants to companies, typically in the form of 10 percent commercial value of the license. And with the help of Taib’s lawyers, many of these transactions occur illegally in Singapore to evade Malaysian tax.
The release of this video dovetails ongoing efforts to bring attention to the deep-setted corruption pervading Malaysia. In January, Swiss lawmakers called for an immediate freeze of assets held by Swiss banks on behalf of the Taib family due to allegations of criminal activity in the government, reported Bruno Manser Fonds.
Most recently, a petition started by Malaysian citizens has been circulating to improve transparency and accountability in the government, grant the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) independent powers to investigate the corrupt acts of the Taib family, and ensure that prosecutions promptly follow.
The statements in the Global Witness video reveal the heart of the matter for the indigenous communities in Borneo: they are looked upon as an inconvenience, as squatters on what could be a lucrative profits in the pockets of Taib’s family and cronies.
Watch the Global Witness video
Watch the Taib’s response in an interview
Sign the Petition to investigate corruption in Sarawak