Achievements of Sarawak’s Taib Mahmud muddied by family dispute, graft allegations

Sarawakians applaud the development and modernisation that took place under Taib Mahmud’s chief ministership, but his achievements remain clouded by allegations.

Taib Mahmud, a Sarawak politician, walks with his colleagues
In 1981, Taib Mahmud was appointed Sarawak chief minister. He was the state’s longest-serving chief minister. In 2014, he was appointed Sarawak governor, despite calls from NGOs to not do so. (Photo: Getty Images)

Taib Mahmud, the man who held Sarawak in his grip for 23 years as chief minister and another 10 years as governor, died at the age of 87 before dawn on 21 February.

Taib’s remains were taken to the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur and then flown to Kuching, Sarawak. Today (22 February), his body was taken to the State Legislative Assembly for the public to pay their last respects from 8am to noon.

Subsequently, the body of the man who was called the Father of Modern Sarawak was taken to Demak Jaya for burial.

But, in bringing about modernisation and development, he was accused by environmentalists of allowing logging to destroy Sarawak’s rainforest. He was also accused of corruption and amassing immense wealth.

According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, court documents filed in the early 2010s revealed that his family had assets worth more than US$1 billion.

However, it has to be stated, Taib was never charged with any crime.

Many Sarawakians had respect for him, and credited him with much of the physical development in the state, which created jobs and raised the livelihoods of many.

Armed with a law degree, the son of a carpenter was appointed a state minister at the age of 27 before moving on to federal level politics where he held several ministerial portfolios.

In 1981, Taib was appointed Sarawak chief minister. He was the state’s longest-serving chief minister.

In 2014, he was appointed Sarawak governor, despite calls from NGOs to not do so.

Just weeks ago, on 26 January, he was replaced by Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar due to an unnamed and prolonged illness.

Tributes from even his adversaries

As expected, when someone dies, tributes will pour in. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said Sarawak had lost a respected statesman and that his service and dedication would always be remembered.

The man who replaced Taib as governor, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said: “It is an undeniable fact that the late Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud had sacrificed 63 out of 87 years of his life to serve Sarawak and helped transform a backwater Sarawak to what it is today.

“Being the chief minister for all Sarawakians, he fiercely guarded Sarawak’s immigration rights, kept all negative elements off Sarawak’s shores, and built a paradise ‘Land of the Hornbills’, which celebrates religious freedom and racial diversity.”

Sarawak Premier Abang Johari Openg, in praising Taib, pledged to continue his legacy of development.

Sarawak tourism, arts and culture minister Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah, once a political secretary to Taib, was quoted as saying: “Much of the peace, racial harmony, political stability and growth that we see in Sarawak can be attributed to him. He was a visionary, and a great strategist.”

Former international trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz said he was “very forward-looking” when it came to developing policies and initiatives and that he was “truly a towering Sarawakian and Malaysian”.

Even opposition DAP Sarawak chairman Chong Chieng Jen had this to say: “Though we may have disagreed on certain policies during his tenure as chief minister, overall, he contributed tremendously to the development of the state.

“He laid a strong foundation for the present government to take Sarawak to another level.”

Taib is known to have promoted unity in diversity, and to have worked to ensure Sarawak’s multireligious, multicultural people of various ethnicities would continue to live in peace.

Taib promoted unity in diversity

In fact, a former national leader of a peninsula-based organisation who had met Taib when he was a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in the early 1970s told me on 21 February that even then Taib had promoted unity.

He said Taib had even tried in the early 70s to establish a centre where leaders of all religions could sit and discuss issues but that he had faced opposition from some Muslim groups which felt it would place Islam on the same level as other religions.

He famously ensured that UMNO – which was then the backbone of the federal government - remained out of Sarawak.

In fact, it was reported that Taib told Sarawak leaders to keep UMNO’s brand of racial politics out of Sarawak when he stepped down as chief minister in February 2014.

UMNO was thought of as a party which used identity politics to stay in power and Sarawak parties felt its “Malay and Islam” politics was anathema to Sarawak’s concept of embracing all ethnic groups and all religious beliefs in the state.

Then Sarawak Barisan Nasional secretary-general Stephen Rundi was quoted by the media on 10 February, 2014, as saying that Taib told them to vigorously protect the state's rights as spelled out in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963.

Rundi said they were told to stand up to the federal government in safeguarding Sarawak’s interests, and this included stopping UMNO from coming into the state.

Corruption allegations against Taib

Taib was often accused of corruption by both Malaysians and foreigners, especially Swiss-based NGO the Bruno Manser Fund. But he consistently denied these allegations.

In 2011, for instance, the NGO Movement for Change Sarawak lodged reports against Taib with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the police.

In July 2013, Australia’s Adelaide University was reported to have removed Taib’s name from its plaza near its law school in response to pressure from the Bruno Manser Fund, Australian environmental NGO the Bob Brown Foundation and students.

The university had named the plaza the 'Taib Mahmud Chief Minister of Sarawak Court' in 2008 after receiving substantial donations from Taib.

In May 2018, after the Barisan Nasional lost in the general election, the Bruno Manser Fund said it was “willing to share with the new Malaysian government the results of a seven-year evidence-gathering process on the alleged corrupt practices by Taib Mahmud”.

Pressed on this in Parliament in July 2017, then de facto Law Minister Liew Vui Keong said the MACC had received information from whistleblower website Sarawak Report and the Bruno Manser Fund about Taib.

However, he was quoted as saying: "They were not new evidence that would allow MACC to open a new investigation paper.”

MACC says no case

In July 2018, a former MACC chief commissioner, Mohd Shukri Abdullah, told the media that the commission had in fact opened 15 case files against Taib between 2015 and 2016.

However, he said, investigations showed there were no cases that could be linked to Taib.

Taib, therefore, leaves a legacy of bringing stability, development and harmony to Sarawak, but, at the same time, one which is clouded by accusations of environmental degradation and questions over his massive wealth.

Some, such as political analyst James Chin, feel that history will not be kind to him.

It is also unfortunate that when people think of Taib’s achievements, they will also likely think of the legal battle between his second wife, Syrian-born Ragad Kurdi, and Taib’s sons from his first marriage over Taib’s assets.

Tussle over Taib

People will also remember the tussle between Ragad and Taib’s children and siblings over Taib himself just before he died.

Allegations surfaced that Ragad had forcibly removed Taib from intensive care at a specialist hospital in Kuching on 3 February. She denied this.

On 5 February, his brother Mohammad Tufail Mahmud was reported to have lodged a police report saying his brother had been forcibly removed from the hospital where he had been staying, adding: "None of my siblings nor any of my brother's real children know of his current whereabouts and the current condition of his health.”

On 7 February, inspector general of police Razarudin Husain said police had launched an investigation after receiving reports from Taib’s children and lawyer alleging that he had been abducted.

He said Taib had, in fact, been taken to his residence and that Taib’s children and siblings were “free to visit him at his residence, where there are doctors and nurses in attendance”.

On 11 February, Razarudin said Taib was receiving treatment at a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur.

It’s sad, of course, but I’m sure some will be wondering if all this is not karma.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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