Malaysia’s Penang: The Pearl of the Orient

August 24, 2015


Malaysia’s Penang: The Pearl of the Orient

by Zairil Khir Johari

Penang1 Pearl of the Orient and Rugged Society

When tabling the 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP) in Parliament on May 21, the Prime Minister waxed lyrical about the government’s intention of “anchoring growth on people” in this upcoming five-year development plan that is set to bring Malaysia towards the “aspiration of an advanced nation that is inclusive and sustainable by 2020.”

As usual, the Prime Minister is never short on verbosity. The 11MP document is replete with impressive jargons that tick all the right check boxes. However, the devil is always in the details, and the details in this case belie the grand promises of the Prime Minister.

Is the 11MP truly inclusive?

The term “inclusive”, for example, is used judiciously throughout the entire document. This implies a commitment towards ensuring that any gains from development and progress would be spread and shared by all Malaysians. Unfortunately, the inclusiveness of the 11MP is cast in serious doubt when one finds that the RM260 billion development plan has conveniently ignored certain regions, despite its massive scale.

For example, one of the six “game changer” strategies that have been introduced – “investing in competitive cities.” This strategy rightly recognises cities as a critical growth engine of the 21st century economy which plays a key role in spurring growth not only by providing jobs and trade opportunity, but also by connecting them to rural and suburban areas. Such a strategy is all the more relevant given the current context of a globalised world where talent migration is increasingly influenced by choice of city before choice of jobs.

Therefore, the 11MP seeks to develop “competitiveness master plans” for four major Malaysian cities, namely Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. These master plans are based on the principles of “creating density, expanding transit-oriented development, strengthening knowledge-based clusters, enhancing liveability, encouraging   development and practices, as well as ensuring inclusivity.”

The list of chosen cities appears to have one major exclusion – Penang.Notwithstanding the fact that Penang is the most well-known and developed city after KL, as well as the most liveable city in Malaysia and the eighth most liveable in Asia according to ECA International, the exclusion of the city-state is also incongruent with the very criteria purportedly used in making the selection.

According to the 11MP, the four cities were chosen based on their potential in terms of “population size, GDP contribution, existing major infrastructure, concentration of higher learning institutions, geographical advantage, and also the principle of inclusivity and fair distribution.” On each of these criteria, there is nothing that suggests why Penang should be sidelined.

LGE1LGE leads a Clean, Accountable and Transparent Government

In terms of population, Penang constitutes 1.7 million people, while the “Greater Penang Conurbation” metropolitan area covering parts of central and southern Kedah, along with northern Perak, encompasses almost three million people. In addition to that, Penang can boast of having the second highest population density in the country after KL, with about 1,500 people per sq km. These are ideal conditions for a competitive city.

Statistics from the 11MP itself also recognises Penang as a major GDP contributor. In 2014 Penang produced a GDP of RM67bil, which is the fifth highest in the country after KL, Selangor, Johor and Sarawak – a significant achievement considering the fact that Penang is also the second smallest state after Perlis. This translates to an impressive GDP per capita. This year Penang is expected to surpass Selangor with a GDP per capita of RM46,019, compared to RM45,617 for the most developed state in Malaysia. Thus, there is no better evidence of Penang’s role as an integral cog in the Malaysian economy.

Where infrastructure is concerned, Penang is already an established logistics hub for the northern region, in which the principal seaport, airport and rail station are located. In fact, the conditions are ripe for the government to invest in expanding and integrating the existing infrastructure in order to create a world-class urban conurbation.

In terms of higher learning institutions, Penang is also a well-known centre for education at all levels. Besides nine international schools, Penang also houses one of the country’s top public universities, USM, along with many other private colleges and university colleges. In addition to that, Penang has also attracted foreign institutions such as Hull University from the UK which will be setting up a campus in Batu Kawan in the near future.

As for geographical advantage, it is almost impossible to deny Penang’s optimal location, be it by air, land or sea. More importantly, Penang is also an important link that connects northern Indonesia to southern Thailand.

Finally, the four chosen cities represent the two states of Borneo, as well as the central and southern regions of Peninsular Malaysia. This induces a very glaring question – why is the northern region of the peninsula left out? How then, can the choice of cities be said to reflect the principles of inclusivity and fair distribution?

Based on all the above criteria, Penang not only qualifies, but should in fact be a prime candidate for the development of a competitive cities master plan. Clearly, Penang’s progress would help drive growth in the entire northern region in particular and Malaysia in general. Unfortunately, despite such a logical corollary, the federal government has chosen to exclude Penang for reasons known only to them.

The Malaysian stepchild?

It must be noted that this is not the first time that Penang has been unfairly treated. In the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010), Penang was promised many things, including two massive public infrastructure projects in the form of an rm 2 billion monorail line and an RM1.5 billion highway called the Penang Outer Ring Road (PORR).

We don’t double check – we trust what people tell us. They might be lies, but I think a lie invented by a person who is lying also tells you something about them.

Both the monorail and the PORR projects were put on indefinite suspension during the mid-term review in 2008, coincidentally following the 12th General Election in March the same year.

The monorail project looked set to be on its way when a tender was held in 2007 and awarded in 2008. However, both the monorail and the PORR projects were put on indefinite suspension during the mid-term review in 2008, coincidentally following the 12th General Election in March the same year, which saw the ruling BN coalition losing power in Penang. Two Malaysia Plans later, both projects have yet to resurface.

Penang Port. The state is already an established logistics hub for the northern region of Malaysia, where the principal seaport, airport and rail station are located

Penang Port. The state is already an established logistics hub for the northern region of Malaysia, where the principal seaport, airport and rail station are located.

However, in spite of the federal government’s non-cooperation, the Penang state government has moved to resolve the longstanding problem of traffic congestion in the state by developing the Penang Transport Master Plan. This long-term transport infrastructure project seeks to alleviate traffic congestion by incorporating transport systems with development plans in order to achieve optimum mobility.

At a total estimated cost of RM27 billion, this integrated plan is based on comprehensive studies that began in 2011, and will encompass the construction of new road highways, a light rail system in the form of LRTs and trams, upgrading of the existing bus system, innovative features such as water transport and South-East Asia’s first under-seabed tunnel.

penang-free-schoolThe Oldest School-Born 1816-Fortis Atque Fidelis

Despite many challenges and financial limitations, the Penang state government has signalled its commitment by pressing ahead with its ambitious plan. Currently, the public transport portion is being tendered for a Project Delivery Partner, while some of the highway improvement projects are scheduled to be completed in two to three years’ time.

The federal government’s attitude towards Penang is, on the one hand, regrettable, and on the other, ironical. Treating the state as an unwanted stepchild is akin to cutting their nose to spite their face. And while they may feel smug about it now, they will regret it in the future when they realise that Penang will, as it has in the past, prove its resilience as the prodigal child of Malaysia.

Zairil Khir Johari is MP for Bukit Bendera, Penang, and executive director of Penang Institute.

Cambodia and China: Chinese Investment and Aid

July 18, 2015

Cambodia and China: Chinese Investment and Aid

by Heng Pheakdey, EISD

The China–Cambodia relationship has reached new peaks in recent years. China is now Cambodia’s largest foreign investor, a major donor of aid and an increasingly important trading partner. But this growing relationship is also accompanied by renewed controversies.

China undeniably plays a crucial role in Cambodia’s economic development. China invested a total of US$9.17 billion between 1994 and 2012. Chinese investment in the textiles industry has increased Cambodia’s exports and created employment for thousands of women in rural areas, while investment in the energy sector, particularly in hydropower development, has helped reduce Cambodia’s chronic energy shortages. China is also a major source of foreign assistance for Cambodia. By 2012, Chinese loans and grants to Cambodia reached US$2.7 billion, making it the country’s second-largest donor after Japan. Cambodia has been using China’s so-called ‘no strings attached’ aid to build roads and bridges, helping to improve the country’s much needed infrastructure.

But behind these impressive numbers lie hidden agendas and serious social and political implications. While Chinese investment and aid is much needed for economic development, China’s unquestioning approach to how its aid and investment money is distributed and used has exacerbated corruption, deteriorated good governance and human rights, and ruined Cambodia’s resources and natural environment. Human rights activists have often accused Chinese textile factories of abusing worker’s rights, while China’s hydropower investments have destroyed protected areas, forest biodiversity and wildlife habitat.

Samdech Techo Hun Sen

In return for its generous financial aid, China has exerted its influence on Cambodia to propel its own political interests. Cambodia’s decision to deport 20 ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers to China upon Beijing’s request in 2009 is a clear example of this. In another instance, after receiving millions of dollar in pledges from China last year, Cambodia refrained from discussing the South China Sea disputes during the ASEAN Summit, which was harshly criticised by the international community and resulted in the failure by ASEAN’s foreign ministers to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN history. Cambodia has also been accused of favouring Chinese investment, putting China’s investment interests above that of other nations. According to a report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, 50 per cent of the land concessions granted since 1994 — totalling 4.6 million hectares — were given to Chinese companies to invest in mining, hydropower and agriculture in Cambodia.

There are concerns that the government is at risk of losing its autonomy. If it were to rely solely on China, Cambodia also risks losing face and trust from the international community, and its role in ASEAN might be marginalised if it continues to put China ahead of ASEAN.

There is no doubt that Cambodia needs China’s assistance to further its economic development. Likewise, China sees Cambodia as an important ally for exercising greater influence in Southeast Asia and counterbalancing the United States. Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Pan Guangxue recently said that the positive relationship China and Cambodia have built over the years serves as a role model of friendship between countries of different social systems. He is convinced that, with the careful guidance of its leaders and the efforts of its people, China and Cambodia can further deepen their mutual trust for one another and improve cooperation, so as to develop the relationship to a greater level.

To ensure this long-lasting relationship is mutually beneficial, the two nations must work together to improve transparency, promote participatory and inclusive development by involving all relevant stakeholders, and minimise environmental degradation. Cambodia must strengthen its institutions, implement policies that encourage responsible investment and link aid to poverty reduction. China needs to rebuild its image as a good neighbour and international citizen — one that is accountable for its foreign investment and promotes sustainable development.

Heng Pheakdey is a doctoral researcher at the UV University Amsterdam and Founding Director of Enrich Institute for Sustainable Development.

Next Steps for U.S.-South Korea Civil Nuclear Cooperation

east-west-center-asia-pacific-bulletinNumber 316 | July 1, 2015

July 2, 2015


Next Steps for U.S.-South Korea Civil Nuclear Cooperation

by James E. Platte

On June 15, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se signed a new agreement on civil nuclear cooperation (a so-called “123 Agreement”) between the two countries, and U.S. President Barack Obama submitted the proposed 123 Agreement to the U.S. Congress the next day. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee will have 30 days to review the agreement, and then the whole Congress will have 60 days for review. The proposed 123 Agreement will enter into force unless Congress enacts a joint resolution opposing the agreement, and the South Korean Ministry of Government Legislation also will review the proposed agreement.

The new 123 Agreement comes after several years of difficult negotiations and represents a step forward for bilateral nuclear cooperation, but this does not mark the end of negotiations and debates between Washington and Seoul in the civil nuclear energy field. South Korea and the United States have a long, robust history of civil nuclear cooperation, going back to the Atoms for Peace program and the initial 123 Agreement in 1956. Since then, the United States has played an integral role in the development of South Korea’s civil nuclear industry, which now comprises 24 operational reactors that generate about 30 percent of South Korea’s electricity.

South Korea has become virtually self-sufficient in nuclear reactor design, construction, and operation but still relies on U.S. firms for some nuclear fuel and engineering services. In addition, South Korea and the United States cooperate on numerous bilateral and multilateral nuclear research and development projects. All of this cooperation is facilitated by the 123 Agreement. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires that a 123 Agreement be in place for the United States to cooperate with international partners on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Given the importance of nuclear power to the South Korean economy, maintaining civil nuclear cooperation with the United States is vital for Seoul. Yet, negotiations on the new agreement were difficult and lasted nearly five years.

In 2013, the two sides even approved a two-year extension of the previous 123 Agreement, which was set to expire in 2014, in order to give them more time to work out a deal. The major sticking point in the negotiations was over uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies, which have the ability to produce fissile materials either for civilian nuclear fuel or for nuclear weapons.

The previous 123 Agreement was signed in 1974 and prohibited South Korea from enriching or reprocessing. Two other developments around that same time entrenched U.S. nuclear cooperation policy toward South Korea. First, the Indian nuclear test in 1974 changed U.S. nonproliferation policy in general, shifting from promoting reprocessing abroad to staunchly opposing the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Second, Washington found out about then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee’s clandestine nuclear weapons program in the mid-1970s and applied significant diplomatic pressure to stop that program. The U.S. government has consistently opposed granting South Korea consent to enrich or reprocess ever since.

Seoul pushed hard to gain that consent from Washington in the new 123 Agreement for several reasons. First, South Korea wants reprocessing technology in order to manage the country’s growing stocks of spent nuclear fuel. All spent fuel currently is kept on-site at reactors in temporary storage facilities, but some of these facilities may soon reach capacity, as early as 2016 according to one estimate, which would cause reactors to shut down. An interim solution is needed to alleviate this situation, but South Korea sees a type of reprocessing called pyroprocessing as a long-term solution to spent fuel management.

Siting radioactive waste storage facilities has been difficult in densely populated South Korea, but Seoul believes that pyroprocessing could significantly reduce the volume of waste and necessary storage time. Second, Seoul wants enrichment technology to support its nuclear reactor export business. South Korea won a $20 billion contract in 2009 to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates and is looking to secure contracts in other countries, too. Because South Korea has no enrichment capability, the UAE contracted with North American and European companies to source natural uranium and supply enriched uranium for Korean companies to fabricate into fuel. Third, Seoul desires to be viewed on an equal footing as the other major nuclear technology suppliers, especially Japan, to which the United States granted consent for enrichment and reprocessing in 1987.

Despite a strong diplomatic push by Seoul, the new 123 Agreement does not give South Korea advanced consent for enrichment or reprocessing, at least not yet. The new 123 Agreement facilitates the continuation of a ten-year Joint Fuel Cycle Study (JFCS) between South Korea and the United States that was launched in 2011. The stated purpose of the JFCS is to assess the “…technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability…” of technologies related to reprocessing and spent fuel management. A separate Nuclear Technology Transfer Agreement governs the transfer of technologies during the course of the JFCS, and the new 123 Agreement establishes a High-Level Bilateral Commission (HLBC) to enhance cooperation and address issues related to spent fuel management, fuel supply, and nuclear security.

Taken together, these agreements and mechanisms formed since 2011 significantly upgrade U.S.-South Korea civil nuclear cooperation, and they provide South Korea with formal channels to conduct research on reprocessing technologies and request consent for using these technologies in their civilian nuclear industry. They also set up times in the future that likely will see U.S. and South Korean negotiators once again discussing enrichment and reprocessing.

In 2018, the U.S.-Japan 123 Agreement, with advanced consent for Japan’s reprocessing program, is set to automatically renew unless either party calls for renegotiation, which appears unlikely, and this could be a time when Seoul asks, through the HLBC, why they also do not have advanced consent.

Three years later at the scheduled conclusion of the JFCS in 2021, Seoul may request permission to use the reprocessing technologies developed during the course of the study. The next foreseeable milestone is in 2032, when the new 123 Agreement requires the two parties to consult on whether to pursue an extension. Other developments, such as particularly acute spent fuel storage problems or more reactor export deals for South Korea, may also spur new talks over enrichment and reprocessing. Thus, the new 123 Agreement is a step forward for U.S.-South Korea civil nuclear cooperation, but the bigger steps regarding enrichment and reprocessing for South Korea remain yet to be taken.

About the Author: James E. Platte, PhD is an Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, DC and a non-resident Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellow with Pacific Forum CSIS. He holds a doctorate in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He can be reached at

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Leadership by moral legitimacy

June 7, 2015

Leadership by moral legitimacy

by Graham Harris*

*After completing a degree in Botany and PhD in Plant Ecology atgraham_harris Imperial College, London in the late 1960s, Professor Graham Harris worked at McMaster University in Canada for 15 years where he became a Professor of Biology and carried out research on the ecology and management of the Laurentian Great Lakes.

He came to Australia in 1984 and worked for CSIRO for over 20 years where he held many research management and senior executive appointments. Graham has worked in a range of disciplines including plant ecology, freshwater and marine ecology, space science and remote sensing. He was the foundation Chief of Division for CSIRO Land and Water, and until 2003 he was Chairman of the CSIRO Flagship Programs. After completing this task he stepped down as Flagships Chair and was made a CSIRO Fellow. He left CSIRO in early 2005.

Graham is the Director of ESE Systems Pty. Ltd., a consulting company specialising in research into, and the management of, complex environmental, social and economic systems. He is an advisor to a range of universities, research agencies, private companies and government jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas.

Graham is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. He was awarded the CSIRO Chairman’s Gold Medal in 1996 and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1997. In 2002 he was elected a life member of the International Water Academy, Oslo. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in April 2003 for services to environmental science and technology. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.

The_Thinker_in_NTHU_TaiwanThe Thinker @NTHU, Taiwan

We still seem to be fighting Cold War battles over whether neoliberalism and individualism – the “bottom up” strategy – is the best model for modern democracies, or whether more state intervention – the “top down” control model – is preferable. The debate in the West is quite brutal with polarized politics and biased media coverage frequently providing only a partial view.

[The Web does however provide an antidote to the prevailing ethos by providing access to other points of view; blogs by George Monbiot and Harry Shutt for example.]

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are under determined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.-G. Harris

As we find we have to deal more and more with systems of systems – which requires both systems thinking and an appreciation of complexity – we are finding that simple slogans and remedies do not suffice (even though the air waves and the Web are flooded with them). To quote H.L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The predominant debate is too simplistic and does not provide sufficient nuances or sophistication.

I am reminded of David Berlinski’s concluding words in “On systems analysis: an essay concerning the limitations of some mathematical methods in the social, political and biological sciences” (1976): viz. “Grand efforts brought low by insufficient means”.

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are underdetermined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.

Faced with such a situation we have both a knowledge problem and a collective action problem – and they are inextricably intertwined. The conjunction of constraints, complexity and community provides us with a perfect epistemological, political and moral storm. There is a moral space for communities to fill, but it is presently vacant. We require a new approach.

David Colander and Roland Kupers in “Complexity and the art of public policy: solving society’s problems from the bottom up” (2014) – hereafter C&K – have provided an alternative – middle ground – view on how to organise institutions and economics in a complex world. They favour what they call laissez-faire activism – combining both top down and bottom up innovation and facilitation. In a complex system of systems knowledge will always be partial, and neither the market nor state regulation will be able to provide complete solutions. History shows us the truth of this.

We can do without the brutal debates between the political right and left (they are more and more indistinguishable anyway), between the positivists and the relativists or between, say, the followers of Hayek or of Keynes. Indeed C&K show how the debate has been engineered to deliberately polarise the political and economic landscapes. The original positions of many intellectual luminaries were much more nuanced and sophisticated than is now made out. It is the old story: the messiah got it right – just beware the disciples.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.–G. Harris

As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued in “Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers” (2006) the prevalent liberalism and positivism favours the belief in value free (scientific) “facts” because we can hold and assert our own individual beliefs. Values, on the other hand, are more about things we share and how we deal with each other in communities. So values require us to discuss and debate their context and efficacy, but because the mantra is “there is no such thing as society” we rarely do this.

C&K take an optimistic view of people as “smart and adaptive” and argue that the role of government is to set norms for behaviour and to provide leadership by moral legitimacy. They agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah who argued in “The honour code: how moral revolutions happen” (2011) that it is morality and values – our shared norms – that best regulate how we deal with each other and our environment.

Alasdair MacIntyre in “After virtue” (2007, 3rd Ed.) has argued that one of the main failures of modernity has been the demise of morality and the instrumental behaviour of bureaucrats and corporate managers in commercial and institutional settings. There is much confusion of means and ends and people and the environment frequently get used and abused. This is also true of politicians and politics and it explains why there is an evident and rapid decline in trust.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.

At the moment there seem to be few sanctions for unethical or even criminal behaviour in many spheres of public life. Despite clear indications of criminal activities associated with the financial crash of 2008 and of irregularities in global markets since – collusion and market rigging – very few sanctions or criminal prosecutions have been pursued. Worse there is no evidence that anyone feels shame or remorse. The guardians have been inactivated.

Environmental degradation is, likewise, a moral issue. No amount of attempts to monetise environmental values or design market-based instruments will alter this. Easily quantifiable substances like water and carbon dioxide may be traded, but for complex 2nd order cybernetic entities like ecosystems everywhere is different. Concepts like markets for ecosystem services and biodiversity offsets are therefore a fraud. We cannot swap like for like and ill-defined incommensurate values cannot be monetised. Offset payments to a conservation fund are a sop for the conscience.

To arrest the decline in trust and moral behaviour Appiah and MacIntyre argue that we need a return to concepts of virtue, honour, shame and esteem. To grease the wheels of society we need a debate about codes of honour that are compatible with morality and professional ethics. We can have positive regard for people who meet certain standards of behaviour and we can sanction those who do not. Those standards need to be debated, clearly stated and enforced.

C&K see a key role for government in providing the leadership and in setting those norms. Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have noted in “The economy of esteem: an essay on civil and political society” (2005) that because we all (should) have a stake in making society work the cost of policing an honour world is very low and we do not have to worry about who is guarding the guardians. We all have a role to play.

Now I am sure some will argue that liberalism and modernism have defeated such outdated concepts, but the failings of Western politics since the 1970s are now clear: instrumental reason, rising inequality, environmental degradation, lack of political will and moral corruption. Governance and leadership by moral authority and legitimacy? Now wouldn’t that be something to behold!

On Taib Mahmud and The Rape of Sarawak

January 25, 2015

Taib Mahmud: Money Logging and The Rape of Sarawak


Book Review on Money Logging By Lukas Straumann, Bergli 

A sad tale of the Asian timber mafia and the man who did more than anything to create it, Abdul Taib Mahmud.

On October 3, 2011, a depressed and paranoic former Chief Operating Officer for a San Francisco-based property company called Sakti International named Ross Boyert slipped a plastic bag over his head, taped it tight and suffocated himself to death in a Los Angeles hotel room. He was 61.

But Boyert, however delusional he was when he died, left behind him an explosive legacy – the details of virtually all of the properties owned by Abdul Taib Mahmud, the longest-serving public official in Malaysia.

It is a breathtaking collection according to the documents that Boyert – who was fired by the Taib interests — gave to a crusading journalist named Clare Rewcastle Brown. They show that Taib, through nominees, family members and other subterfuges, is worth in excess of US$21 billion.

Taib and Timber

Taib is not mentioned on the Forbes list of Malaysia’s richest, but if he were, he would be worth almost twice as much as the man listed as richest — Robert Kuok, whose fortune is in property, sugar, palm oil and shipping. He would also be about halfway up the list of the world’s 50 richest billionaires although his name is not mentioned there either.

That is because, according to this book by Lukas Straumann, Taib amassed his entire fortune illegally, as undoubtedly a handful of others have around the world that remains hidden. Nonetheless, according to Boyert’s documents and the research by Rewcastle Brown and Straumann, he is an engine of corruption the likes of which the world has never seen.

Taib built his real estate empire in Canada, the United States, Australia and the East Malaysia state of Sarawak on timber. In the process, in his 33 years as Chief Minister, he staged some of the most depressing environmental destruction on the planet. An estimated 98 percent of the old-growth timber of Sarawak, a state three times the size of Switzerland, is gone, sold via timber permits to logging companies, many of them connected to him, that shipped the logs to Japan, China and across much of the rest of the world.

Using the documents furnished by Rewcastle Brown, and with considerable additional reporting, the story of Taib’s looting of Sarawak is told by Straumann, the Director of the Basel-headquartered Bruno Manser Fund, an NGO named for a Swiss naturalist who fought to save the indigenous Penan tribe from the depredations of the loggers’ bulldozers, and who disappeared into the forest in 2000 and has never been found.

Sarawak--Rape of the ForestMassive Deforestation in Sarawak

It is an explosive book. Taib has threatened to sue Amazon if it distributes it. So far, Amazon has backed away from delivering it.

The book, Money Logging: On the Trail of Asia’s Timber Mafia, published by Bergli Books, also of Basel, tells the story of Taib’s rise to power, starting in 1965 as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry.

By the end of that decade, he would be Sarawak’s richest politician. Today he holds interests in property companies that own prestigious buildings in Seattle, San Francisco, Ottawa, London, Adelaide and in Malaysia itself. The major companies he controls through family members or by proxies, according to Boyert’s documentation, include Sakti International, Wallyson’s Inc., Sakto Group, Citygate International, Ridgeford Properties, Sitehost City and literally scores of smaller ones. He is believed to control more than 100 companies.

One of the most important things about this story is that Taib was first anointed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Father of Malaysia and the country’s first Prime Minister. Abdul Rahman was followed in office by five other prime ministers who sat in Kuala Lumpur and later the Putarjaya government complex and did nothing about him.

It was hardly a secret that he was both looting the country and stealing, on a breathtaking scale, the resources that belonged to the Dayak, Murut, Penan and other local tribes that make up the peoples of Sarawak.

Nothing was done about him because he developed a political machine that could deliver votes to the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition in Peninsular Malaysia. Taib is a Muslim. Most of the Sarawak tribes are either Christian or animist. And, to the government across the South China Sea, it would have been unthinkable to have a non-Muslim government leader in charge.

Later, during the current administration of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, it became clear that the Barisan’s very survival depended on Taib and his fellow kleptocrat, Musa Aman, who continues stealing the people of the neighboring state of Sabah blind, although on a smaller scale.

What’s worse is that Taib’s activities in Sarawak, according to the book, spawned a series of giant timber companies including Concord Pacific, Samling, Shin Yang, WTK and Ta Ann Holdings – all of which have received backing from the international banking community including HSBC and others – and have expanded far outside of Malaysia to Cambodia, Australia, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Papua New Guinea and just about every other country with less than reputable governments and tropical timber to loot.

“Virtually all of this timber (from Papua New Guinea) was exported to China in the form of logs and other Asian destinations and the trickle-down of wealth in the country itself remained minimal,” Straumann writes. That is true of virtually every country in which the Malaysia-based lumber companies operated.

There is one more sad corollary to this story. As a December. 23, 2014 story in the New York Times about Costa Rica’s rainforests demonstrates, tropical forests will regenerate, and, given the space of time, return to their former state. The forests of Sarawak, if not all of Borneo, once one of the world’s greatest green lungs, will not. Sarawak’s forests are being replaced with oil palm plantations.

Taib has stepped aside as Chief Minister and is now the state’s governor. He ostensibly is under investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission after the Swiss government forwarded allegations to the Malaysians of money-laundering into Swiss banks.


“It is up to his successors (as Chief Minister) to correct the state’s course of action and the government’s condescending attitude towards its indigenous peoples,” Straumann writes. “Now, the Malaysian Judiciary and Anti-Corruption authorities need to live up to their responsibility. While it is a good thing that Sarawak’s last ‘White Rajah’ has finally stepped down, he does not belong in the governor’s residence. He belongs in jail.

P.S: That last sentence is sadly unrealistic. Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission and the Attorney-General have no intention of doing anything about Abdul Taib Mahmud. He remains far too valuable to the ruling coalition in Putrajaya to keep the state in loyal hands.