By Debra Chong
Assistant News Editor
KUALA LUMPUR, March 19 — An international activist organisation provided today video proof of shady land deals in Sarawak that implicates the state’s Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud and his family, with parts of the clip aired on the Al-Jazeera news channel at 10am.
In a covert investigation, Global Witness (GW) captured on video dealings with Taib’s cousins and several other intermediaries to acquire thousands of hectares of forest land that the London-based activist said revealed the systematic corruption and illegality that lay at the heart of Malaysia’s biggest state.
“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, in a statement released today.
“It shows exactly how they do it and it shows the utter contempt they hold for Malaysia’s laws, people and environment.”
In a 16-minute video clip, GW investigators, who posed as foreign investors, recorded snippets of their conversation with Taib’s cousins and lawyers, to purchase the land for hefty profit and which the environmental campaigner said would displace thousands of the indigenous people living there.
A recorded conversion with sisters Fatimah Abdul Rahman and Norlia Abdul Rahman — who are the daughters of the state’s former Chief Minister Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’akub and first cousins with the incumbent CM — provided a very telling glimpse into the means of how business is conducted in Sarawak to enrich the ruling elite.
Fatimah: Ample Agro belongs to my family, but my sisters, the four elder ones are in the company. The Land and Survey Department, they are the ones who issue this licence... Of course it’s from the CM’s directive but I can speak to the CM very easily.
GW: Can you?
GW: And you think he’ll agree?
Fatimah: Yeah, he was the one who gave us the land. He’s my cousin [laughs]. His mother and my father are sisters and brothers, siblings. He’s my cousin so it’s quite easy.
The sisters said they were owners of 5,000 hectares of land given to them for a nominal sum by Taib, and which they were looking to sell under their company, Ample Agro, which they admitted to be a shell company.
GW: You’re proposing basically, Ample Agro, which is your company OK, sell your company, rather than the land. And your company owns the land?
Norlia: Yes... I bought that company as a shell company for this land.
Their lawyer, Alvin Chong, was also recorded in the video telling the GW “investors” how to evade real property gains taxes.
Another lawyer, Huang Lung Ong of Huang & Company Advocates, was also recorded trying to sell land for his uncle, a prominent businessman in Sibu, Datuk Hii Yii Peng, said to have close ties with Taib, saying that at least 10 per cent of the sale price would have to go to the chief minister as commission.
In its statement, GW alleged that senior government officials and a timber company executive said it was standard practice in Sarawak for companies to pay a personal fee to Abdul Taib in return for approval of timber and plantation licences.
London lawyers representing the chief minister have denied the allegations, the NGO reported.
“The Government of Sarawak issues licences for land in very controlled circumstances,” the law firm, Mishcon de Reya, was quoted as saying. “This is an administrative exercise, not political patronage.
“Our client never demands or accepts bribes for the grant of licences and leases.
“He has not issued any ‘directive’... illegally to benefit his cousins.”
Taib, 76, has been Sarawak chief minister for 32 years, having taken office in March 1981.
His personal wealth has stirred much controversy, with detractors alleging he gained much of it through dubious means.Revisited: 'No surprise' that Taib is the richest man