Video uncovers top level corruption in Sarawak over indigenous forests

Jeremy Hance
March 20, 2013

Logging roads criss-cross Sarawak's forests. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.
Logging roads criss-cross Sarawak's forests. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.

Tax evasion, kick-backs, bribery, and corruption all make appearances in a shocking new undercover video by Global Witness that shows how top individuals in the Sarawak government may be robbing the state of revenue for their own personal gain. Anti-corruption groups have believed that corruption has been rife in the Malaysian state of Sarawak for decades, but Global Witness says their investigation offers undeniable proof.

"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," said Tom Picken, Forest Team Leader at Global Witness. "It shows exactly how they do it and it shows the utter contempt they hold for Malaysia’s laws, people and environment."

By sending in individuals posing as foreign investors seeking land for a palm oil plantation, the organization documents how connected individuals, such as Chief Minister Taib's cousins, are able to use forest lands as pawns to accrue personal profit. In their bid to buy land, a lawyer promises the fake investors that they can buy it tax-free by paying into an account in Singapore, which the lawyer calls "the new Switzerland," instead of paying the full amount in Sarawak as law requires. The lawyer tells the investor that be working with Taib's cousins, he is "talking to people of substance, okay? People who have assets in their hands."

At one point, another lawyer even suggests to the investors that they would need to pay a certain percentage of the price, in this case 10 percent, to an unnamed contact who would then funnel the money over to Chief Minister Taib as a kick-back.

Meanwhile documents show that relatives of Taib, in this case his cousins, have received land at a pittance and thereby are able to sell it for a small fortune.

The land in question is currently inhabited by indigenous people, who have seen their fortunes fall heavily in Sarawak over the last few decades. Although they have inhabited much of Sarawak's forests for centuries, indigenous people have no legal ownership to their lands. Industrial logging and plantation have displaced and impoverished whole communities, while it appears top government officials have reaped the benefits. Such people are referred to as "naughty" and "squatters" by Taib's cousins in the video.

But what is perhaps most surprising is the candor and flippancy with which family members of Chief Minister Taib and lawyers discuss not just skirting Sarawak law, but knowingly breaking it. Over and over, the fake investors are told "it's been done before," and not to be concerned about future ramifications since, as they imply, there won't be any.

"The Taib family and their friends have treated Sarawak's natural resources like a personal piggy bank for decades," adds Picken. "Until Singapore and other financial service centers stop allowing corrupt politicians and criminals to shield themselves and their loot from justice back home, the likes of Taib will continue to get away with stealing from their own people."

But Chief Minister Taib has denied any of the allegations raised by the video.

"I saw the so-called proof. Could it not be someone trying to promote themselves to become an agent to get favors from me?" he told journalist Liza Bong when asked about the video. "It has nothing to do with me right? I think it is a bit naughty of them for using their big power to blacken my name."

He added, "They are trying to frame me."

A recent report by the Bruno Manser Fund estimates that Taib, who has headed Sarawak for over 30 years, is worth $15 billion or just slightly less than the entire state's annual GDP. The report estimates the full worth of the Taib family at $20 billion. The bulk of this money, according to Bruno Manser, has been made through corruption in logging, agriculture, property, and media.

While Taib recently claimed that 70 percent of Sarawak's forests are intact, satellite imagery puts that number closer to 5-10 percent. The Sarawak government has not allowed foreign inspection of its forests since 1991.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (March 20, 2013).

Video uncovers top level corruption in Sarawak over indigenous forests .