Sarawak Report has formally responded to the feature length article in Free Malaysia Today, criticising this blog for revealing corruption on the part of Sarawak’s Governor Taib Mahmud and the current regime.
The two main arguments of the unknown author, named Winifred Poh, were that ‘foreigners’ have no right to comment and that readers cannot know if what is written by Sarawak Report and others can be believed.
Ms Poh conceded some important truths in her article supporting Sarawak’s Taib Mahmud and his successor Adenan Satem in Free Malaysia Today last week.
In her own words, “in Sarawak, decisions are being made which are irreversible, at least for a generation. Valleys are being stripped and filled with water, populations moved, factory cities built, and a whole generation of Sarawakians are being sold an industrial future that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. And all the time we see huge areas of forest cut for palm oil, and yet more palm oil.”
So, is all this being driven by genuine policy or corruption, was the question she put, before launching into an angry tirade against what she described as ‘amazingly well funded foreigners’, who have criticized these moves and the motives behind them?
Winifred’s position appears to be that ‘foreigners’ have no right to voice an opinion about what is going on in Sarawak, whereas she does.
Her reasoning reflects one of Taib’s own favourite arguments, which is that there is nothing wrong with Sarawak’s democratic institutions, so outsiders should shut up and let the local people decide for themselves.
Sadly, this is simply not the case. Thanks to Taib Mahmud, Sarawak’s democratic institutions have degenerated into a blatant sham.
Take the State Assembly itself, where the people’s representatives have seen their salaries go up in inverse proportion to the work they are able to do.
These salaries were tripled after the last general election, so that Sarawak’s YBs now earn roughly the same as a UK member of parliament, in a country where the cost of living is a mere fraction by comparison.
And yet, these representatives of the people are only permitted to sit on just 16 days a year (last year the UK parliament sat for 162 days, some years have seen as many as 240 days).
So, how much legislative scrutiny of Taib’s executive decisions does this allow for? Pretty much zero, of course.
The two parliamentary sessions, lasting a mere 8 days each, are largely taken up with opening and closing ceremonies and tedious long speeches by establishment figures.
If ever a YB does raise a topic that the Speaker (who is not appointed by his fellows, but by the Chief Minister himself) finds awkward, that YB has his microphone switched off or he is thrown out of the chamber – usually both.
By contrast, in the UK, the Prime Minister has to face weekly grillings from MPs about any issue they care to raise and must answer in person. Taib Mahmud did not deign to be subjected to unwanted opposition questions over three decades in office.
Adenan Satem can now try to play the reformer, but he has made no changes to the system devised by his predecessor and his best college pal.
For this very simple reason, the fact that the entire state is being chewed to bits and parceled out between political cronies and Taib family members through a handful of corporations is virtually never raised in the Sarawak parliament, which so rarely sits.
So, Winifred Poh, Sarawak is no democracy and its state parliament is a tragic travesty of the Westminster model that it was set up to reflect.
But, that is just the start of the matter.
Both Taib and Adenan Satem have further secured their undemocratic grasp on the levers of power by occupying all the key offices of state and controlling personally over 80% of the public budget.
This means virtually the entire civil service views the Chief Minister personally as their ultimate boss.
Over the years BN have not failed to abuse this power in the most disgraceful fashion, sacking or moving civil servants, teachers or anyone else who ‘stepped out of line’
Time and again Sarawakians have told me that they feel they cannot speak out or openly oppose anything Taib does, because they fear for their livelihood or for the livelihood of a family member who works for the state.
In any genuine democracy there would be strong professional associations and established legal processes to prevent such an outrageous and dictatorial oppression of the rights of individuals and the independence of public bodies.
Yet, in Sarawak Taib has even been known to threaten and then move judges, who rule against his illegal land grabs, let alone anyone else who gets in his way.
Another arm of the public services, which has totally lost its independence to political control, is of course the Election Commission.
Taib was shocked to lose his near 100% control of seats in the 2011 election, after a series of corruption revelations (brought by ‘foreign voices’), with the urban vote no longer willing to be bribed or bullied into voting BN.
So, handily, the Election Commission (known for its army of electoral tricks) has just provided BN with 11 new safe seats, in order to swamp the vast majority of urban voters, who want them out.
There is no need here to launch into further detail about the wider concerns over vote rigging, bribes and blackmail in the conduct of Sarawak’s elections, since everyone knows about it.
Suffice it to ask in what genuine democracy has the same regime managed to hold sway for half a century?
Malaysia has not seen a single change of government since independence, in fact, making it the longest serving ‘democratic’ government in the world – all thanks to Sarawak’s reliable delivery of so many seats at every election. For this reason the protests about cheating are just swept aside by grateful BN.
No one is perfect, so let the media do its job
None of this is to say there isn’t plenty to criticise and improve in all of the world’s other imperfect democracies. Winifred is welcome to do so.
Should she care to set about criticising the UK, for example, no one would bother about that in the least. Few would take notice of her, of course, because the UK is already full of its own far better qualified home grown critics, but no one would denounce her for ‘foreign’ interference.
The point is that in Sarawak there is no such local criticism because there is no free media, which is the cornerstone of a genuine democracy.
This is why Taib hates his ‘foreign critics’, because up till now he has managed to get away with his outrageous, corrupt and exploitative management of the state, thanks to his total control of all media outlets and the restrictions on the rights of people to associate with each other, either socially or politically.
In Sarawak you need a government permit to set up a political party or even an association of like-minded friends, let alone to actually print or broadcast anything.
It is a system deliberately devised in order to be abused, by a regime, which makes sure that no one gets a license who is not vetted.
The result smacks less of a democracy than a totalitarian state, where people can’t even set up a society of stamp collectors without government permission.
For this reason Malaysia, which has similar rules at a federal level, is now categorized as one of the most oppressive media environments in the world. Even the ‘independent’ satellite TV station Astra is owned by a BN business crony, who employs 24/7 ‘News Controllers’ to censor anything that might ‘bring the government into disrepute”.
In Sarawak itself, all of the local media is controlled either by Taib timber cronies or the Taib family itself. The one exception has been Radio Free Sarawak (to which this author states a connection), which has been relentlessly jammed and criticised by Taib for ‘poisoning the minds of simple people’.
The attacks on RFS are a sure indicator of just how reliant Taib has been on his suppression of a free media and how vulnerable he feels to any dissemination of uncensored information. Likewise, his furious denunciations of criticism by ‘foreigners’.
In all, therefore, Winifred’s suggestion that matters like SCORE have been openly and democratically debated, supported and decided upon by Sarawak’s citizens is mere fantasy.
Rules of procedure ought to be obeyed, especially by leaderships
The SCORE industrialisation drive was the so-called ‘brainchild’ of Taib Mahmud and as such has gone unquestioned, despite the planetary consequences of destroying this once pristine rainforest region with 12 mega-dams across all of Sarawak’s river systems and the tragic displacement of tens of thousands of people.
To understand the requirements of legitimacy, Winifred should study the research, consultation and debate that go into the construction of any major project of this nature in a genuine democracy. These procedures are designed to genuinely determine if such a project is properly in the public interest and, if so, what forms of implementation would be best.
By contrast, Taib has ignored all due process with regard to SCORE, which is a programme that clearly benefits his own family companies. Before any official go-aheads have been reached for these dams he has already handed out concessions to clear vast areas of timber, licensed construction roads and he is now driving ahead with the dam building in the face of massive local opposition in places like Baram.
This simply is not democratic, whatever the claims Winifred likes to make about the supposed ‘support of the silent majority’ for his destructive plans.
Add to the above controls the draconian powers available to the state to clobber people who do, nonetheless, take up a position to oppose Taib’s will – the people who are now opposing the mega-dams, for example.
Under Malaysia’s ‘emergency laws’, which BN have hung on to for decades after the disappearance of the emergency they were brought in to tackle, any such protestor can still be arrested and imprisoned. This form of harassment has been taking place with regularity, even though it is the state government that is in fact breaking all the rules by pressing ahead with construction.
Winifred, this is not how democracies function. Rather, it is the mark of a very draconian dictatorship.
What all this goes towards explaining is why so many people of conscience have felt motivated to raise their own voices in protest from safer regions of the world.
When, some years back, I learnt from local people in Sarawak about the shocking and corrupted state of affairs and the pillaging of the resources of the state for the benefit of the few against the interests of the many, I asked why did they not speak out or at least organise to vote out Taib?
They could not, they explained, because they have to live there.
Sarawak is a place where gangsters enforce timber concessions against local people and the police turn a blind eye to the situation and arrest people who annoy the company bosses instead.
It is a place where pesky journalists can be sacked by the politicians, who control their newspapers.
This is the reason why there is a role for concerned outsiders to speak out. They are supporting local people who can’t and they are warning the wider world that while Sarawak may pretend to be a democracy, it definitely is not.
The power of the truth in the written word
So, why does this all upset Taib and Winifred so very deeply?
How come the all-powerful Taib, who claims to enjoy so much democratic endorsement, finds such criticism so incredibly dangerous that he protests so loudly against it?
Not long ago he used the state assembly itself (on one of those few days it was open) to lambast Sarawak Report and some other NGOs for being the greatest existing ‘threat’ to the stability of the state.
He even accused us of hatching a ‘neo-colonialist plot’ to steal Sarawak’s oil resources. Rare legislative time was expended on this extended invective against us.
Winifred Poh accused my blog of making ‘manic’ and ‘extreme’ claims for suggesting the Governor is corrupt, but is it not he who is the more prone to exaggeration, given such talk – or are we really that destabilizing for Taib Mahmud?
It is particularly revealing how Winifred and by extension Taib, obsess about how much money they imagine is funding his critics. In her article Winifred repeatedly called Sarawak Report “amazingly well funded” and referred to the “Rewcastle Brown publishing empire”, which sadly is all nonsense.
This letter cost no more than the time it has taken to write. The research that supports our articles, likewise, involves little more than time and brainpower.
So, why are we presented as some kind of powerful empire of moneyed rivals?
The answer is obvious, of course. It is because of the power of the truth – the small voice that demolishes mountains of expensive propaganda.
This is why we are indeed regarded as extremely dangerous by Sarawak’s CM cum Governor.
Taib has used his powers to suppress the truth within the boundaries of his state, but, thanks to the internet, the truth is creeping in from the free world outside.
He cannot tolerate the idea that he has suddenly become accountable and he is becoming increasingly fearful that he cannot handle the consequences.
Winifred’s tactic, like Taib’s in this context, is to put it about that Sarawak Report and the other NGOs who are questioning Taib’s self-interested and extraordinarily self-enriching policies, ‘cannot be trusted’.
How are people to know if what we are saying is true, questions Winifred? As she puts it:
“They [“the amazingly well funded Rewcastle Brown publishing group” et al] claim spectacular levels of corruption and fraud. Every argument about policy, about what we need for our country, gets soaked in the petrol of financial allegations and set alight. Their fixation is on the Taib family, and their allegations are spectacular and exhausting. The problem is that they expect us to accept their analysis and believe their secret sources”.
Winifred, the fact of the matter is that most of our sources are not secret at all. We are merely presenting what is overwhelmingly a matter of public record and what in a free democracy would have been raised in any critical newspaper.
This is why the people who bother to read this blog believe it and why Taib is so upset about the impact.
As for our fabled resources, it costs RM15 to open a company record online, whereas public contracts, stock market (Bursa Malaysia) and public company information are free. Land and Survey information, along with timber and plantations concessions are concealed as much as possible, but with a bit of digging they can be accessed.
So, anyone who knows their way around the internet and who understands basic company accountability can access and check the information being presented by Sarawak Report.
This is why other blogs and many journalists feel safe in reporting what we have revealed – as Winifred puts it:
“Their [Sarawak Report’s] power in turn is amplified by our own informal local media, which simply suck up their comments and faithfully reproduce them without question, debate or editorial oversight. Free speech and an open media should always be encouraged, but perhaps not at the risk of bad and fantastical journalism.”
Winifred is right that we are being quoted, but the the reason we so often are is the opposite to that which she claims.
Our information is not being reproduced ‘without question or oversight’ at the risk of ‘fantastical’ journalism – local blogs and news portals actually have to be very careful, given Taib’s wealth and influence.
Rather, it is because our information can be easily checked and verified to such an overwhelming degree, that local writers feel safe in quoting us.
By the same token, if Sarawak Report was really so completely wrong and inaccurate, as Winifred suggests, there would be a very simple and easy way to destroy our influence.
Taib could merely point out our inaccuracies in all the media outlets available to BN.
We have listed how contracts have been handed to Taib’s family companies without tender, how his family own huge shareholdings in Sarawak companies, how concessions and monopolies have all gone to his family and cronies and how family members control key areas of industry and utilities in the state.
If these details were in fact false, it would be incredibly easy to disprove our claims. Indeed, on the few occasions where we have made a mistake Taib and his supporters have pounced like thirsty travellers and complained for all they are worth.
However, in the main, they have not disputed our evidence, because in the main it has been impossible for them to do so. This is because it is true.
Taib has taken excessive powers over the state and he has abused them in order to make himself and his family fantastically rich. Yet, until ‘foreigners’ started poking their noses in and speaking out about it he was able to get away with preventing any public mention of the fact.
Now he cannot bear to think that he has been exposed by such a simple ploy as the voice of truth or that the millions of public funds that he has poured into rigging elections and controlling local communities could be in any way outflanked by the written word.
Just last month his London lawyers threatened the publishers of the book Money Logging, which details his corruption, by saying since he is a very wealthy man he could demand huge damages should they lose a libel action by him.
Yet, Taib has no business to be so wealthy, after a lifetime on a fixed public salary.
No wonder then that, he has failed to carry through this and any similar threats.
Likewise, he has ample means to sue Sarawak Report and all the critical NGOs were our accusations in any way untrue. Yet, he has failed to act.
He knows that an independent jury in the UK, US or Europe would look at the evidence and dismiss his claims. Therefore, although he and his family have fired off plenty of threatening legal letters, he has never made good those threats.
So, Winifred should conduct a simple exercise, instead of huffing and puffing about grand conspiracies and not being able to believe ‘foreigners’. She should take one of our key articles on corruption and disprove the findings.
Then she could evaluate the motives of Taib Mahmud, who is making billions out of his unrestrained exploitation of Sarawak and decide on the answer to her original question about whether his policiess are driven by corruption, without too much difficulty.
There is one final issue that I take with Winifred Poh, who arrived on the pages of Free Malaysia Today without a trace of any prior existence and so is plainly a pen name for some hired PR.
She claims to have lived 50 years in Sarawak, implying she was not born there, yet she reckons she is no ‘foreigner’. I was born and spent my early years there, so I think I have a legitimate right to an opinion as well, as does anybody else.