Controversial Sarawak’s long-time leader Taib Mahmud passes away amid mixed legacy

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Taib Mahmud

21st February 2024 – (Kuala Lumpur) Taib Mahmud, the influential former Chief Minister of Malaysia’s Sarawak state, passed away early Wednesday after a period of illness, his family has confirmed. The 87-year-old, who reigned over the resource-abundant region for over three decades, died in a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur. The announcement of his death was made on his daughter’s Facebook page.

Mahmud’s tenure as the head of Sarawak, situated on Borneo Island, was marked by significant economic strides, as he steered the state away from its traditional agricultural roots towards becoming a hub for hydropower and aluminium production. However, his legacy is marred by controversies, with accusations from rights groups of graft and rampant deforestation.

The late tycoon, who transitioned to the ceremonial role of Governor after stepping down as Chief Minister in 2014, remained a key figure in Malaysian politics, allying with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s ruling coalition. His role in the industrialisation of Sarawak is undeniable, but it is a legacy that carries the heavy burden of environmental cost.

Peter Kallang, the chairman of SAVE Rivers, lamented the ecological and social repercussions of Taib’s policies on Sarawak’s rainforests and indigenous communities. Sarawak’s primary forest cover has plummeted from 90 per cent in the 1960s to around 10 per cent today, with vast swathes of land lost to logging and palm oil plantations.

Investigative efforts by groups like the Sarawak Report and the Bruno Manser Fund have highlighted extensive global investments tied to Taib’s inner circle, suggesting a complex web of wealth and power. Clare Rewcastle Brown, a journalist who faced a ban from Malaysia for her reporting, has been vocal about the need for accountability in Taib’s financial dealings.

In the wake of his death, opinions on Taib’s impact on Sarawak are polarised. James Chin, a Malaysian expert at the University of Tasmania, pointed out the stark divide in how Taib’s rule is perceived, noting that while political elites may mourn him, many in the Dayak community felt politically sidelined during his time in power.

Chin contextualises Taib’s approach to governance within an era of ‘strongman politics’, comparing him to figures like Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad. Despite Taib’s belief in maintaining a tight political grip, his legacy is overshadowed by the intertwining of his business interests and familial ties.

A groundbreaking report was released by the Swiss-based NGO Bruno Manser Fund (BMF) earlier, revealing the estimated assets of Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s family. According to the report titled “The Taib Timber Mafia: Facts and Figures on Politically Exposed Persons from Sarawak, Malaysia,” the wealth of Taib’s family is estimated at a staggering US$21 billion (RM64 billion). Taib himself is said to possess a remarkable fortune of US$15 billion (RM46 billion), surpassing Malaysia’s renowned tycoon Robert Kuok, who holds US$12.5 billion.

The report, which provides an in-depth analysis of the business activities and personal wealth of 20 members of the Taib family across various countries such as Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, the United States, and others, was released in Brussels. This release coincided with the visit of Malaysian Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Bernard Dompok to the European Commission.

The primary objective of the report is to generate international pressure against Sarawak’s first family and offer substantial evidence to investigative bodies, journalists, Sarawakians, and interested parties regarding the extensive financial empire of the Taib family. BMF estimates that the combined net worth of these 20 family members amounts to nearly US$21 billion, with their wealth spread across 400 companies worldwide. This vast fortune has been accumulated over three decades, capitalising on the Taib family’s near-complete control over the political and economic landscape of Sarawak, one of Malaysia’s poorest states.