August 17, 2013
The Saturday Profile
Barred From Malaysia, but Still Connecting With Critical Jabs
by Gerry Mullany, published: August 16, 2013
But that does not silence Ms. Rewcastle Brown, who is one of the most effective voices calling attention to deforestation in Malaysia. The booming economy there, she contends, has been fueled in part by the country’s willingness to tap its natural resources in ways that have enriched the leadership of her native Sarawak, a vast state on Borneo Island long known for its stunning natural beauty and biodiversity.
Through Internet postings and shortwave radio transmissions from London, Ms. Newcastle Brown has given voice to growing concerns among Malaysians about environmental degradation. She spreads her message on social media, her Sarawak Report Web site and broadcasts on Radio Free Sarawak.
“They can’t do this in Malaysia,” she said by phone of her reporting on a country that holds regular democratic elections, but where the government nevertheless exerts strong controls on the news media. “They’d be arrested immediately, and their livelihoods would be destroyed.”
Malaysia is emblematic of Asian nations that are enjoying newfound prosperity, but struggling to adhere to democratic ideals in a world where social media is shaping public opinion and testing entrenched leaders. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, was recently re-elected, but the governing coalition failed to secure a majority vote for the first time in 44 years. Through the global reach of social media, Ms. Rewcastle Brown found easy entree into Malaysia’s brewing environmental debates from her perch in London.
Ms. Rewcastle Brown, 54, the daughter of a Police Officer in Sarawak during colonial days, recalls flying away from Borneo to attend boarding school as a child.
“I have vivid memories of leaving North Borneo at 8, and I remember the vast canopy of rain forest,” she said.
Four decades later — after a journalism career at the BBC World Service, ITV News and Sky Television in London — she returned to Sarawak for an environmental conference in Kuching and was taken aback by the destruction of the forests.
“You had a tiny clique — a family — that is driving this. There are a handful of people making the money out of this,” she said in reference to relatives of Abdul Taib Mahmud, the chief minister of Sarawak. Mr. Abdul Taib, she asserts, has used his control over timber concessions to enrich himself and his relatives, who, she says, park many of their assets overseas.
“For the next year I looked into the subject,” she recalled, “and was perturbed nobody was covering it.”
WITH help from the Bruno Manser Fund — named after a Swiss environmental activist who disappeared in Malaysia in 2000 and is presumed dead — she started the Sarawak Report in 2010, tapping into online discussions in Malaysia and, with the help of others, writing investigative news reports in English for a Malaysian audience from Covent Garden in London. (She would not say where the operations are based now, citing safety reasons.)
Next came Radio Free Sarawak, helped along by a drive that put 10,000 shortwave radios in the hands of Malaysians to hear the broadcasts, an effort aided by local churches and opposition groups.
“They have verandas where families will sit together and listen to the radio,” Ms. Rewcastle Brown said. To increase the audience, they eventually moved the broadcasts to later in the day to accommodate workers coming home from rice paddies.
Her effort was anonymous at first — Sarawak Report was started while her brother-in-law, Gordon Brown, was in his last months in office as the British Prime Minister. She is married to Mr. Brown’s younger brother, Andrew.
“I kept my head down while he was Prime Minister,” she said. But relatives helped persuade her to go public to raise the profile of her work. “It was my family who said it was best to come out into the open.”
Her news outlets focus heavily on assertions that Mr. Abdul Taib’s family has accumulated billions of dollars of wealth, channeling it to real estate in North America and London, while dominating various industries in Malaysia helped along by his political influence.
MR. ABDUL TAIB (Pehin Sri Taib Mahmud) is now facing an inquiry by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, and has lashed back at the panel, calling its members “naughty and dishonest” for looking into his activities, and saying allegations that he has Swiss and other overseas bank accounts are “malicious falsehoods.”
In early July, Ms. Rewcastle Brown arrived at Kuching International Airport in Sarawak, only to be detained at the airport and put back on a plane for Singapore.
Bridget Welsh, a Political Science Professor at Singapore Management University and an expert on Malaysian affairs, credits the two news outlets that Ms. Rewcastle Brown runs for their “impact on the political debate” over deforestation in Sarawak.
“Taib’s leadership has been badly affected in the urban areas, especially among the Chinese, as the revelations have reverberated among the more educated and Internet connected,” she said. Still, she said, deforestation would likely continue, since “the elite in Malaysia are concerned with making money.”
In the meantime, Ms. Rewcastle Brown faces her own challenges, like Web sites created to undercut her work by using similar names, and aggressive Malaysian-financed public relations efforts that seek to portray the Malaysian government’s environmental efforts in a positive light. And she does her work while she and her husband, Andrew Brown, a former journalist now working in the energy industry, raise two teenage boys.
Does she regret her shift into opposition journalism from afar? She recalled how she had been inspired by the work of Mr. Manser when she started looking into the deforestation of Sarawak.
“I must try to do something,” she said of the genesis of her efforts. “I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t try.”