Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Death of a dynasty?

The face of a devil in all consuming greed

The successor to the powerful Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, 74 has yet to be resolved. The increasingly frail Taib has been in office for 28 years, the longest term of any chief minister or menteri besar in the history of Malaysia.
Taib's son Sulaiman has been mooted as the most likely candidate. This would continue the mini-dynasty established by the minority Melanau ethnic group, beginning with Taib's uncle and predecessor Abdul Rahman Ya'kub.
The Melanau make up barely five percent of the population of Sarawak. Their political and economic dominance has caused deep divisions, even within Taib's (right) own dominant party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Sarawak (PBB).
Iban, Malay and Bidayuh, making up 34 percent, 21 percent and eight percent of Sarawak's population respectively, resent the accumulation of vast wealth within Taib's own family and ethnic group. Rahman was Sarawak's third Chief Minister from 1970 to 1981. He and his nephew Taib presided over a sustained period of rapid expansion of logging, resulting in deforestation and logging blockades.
Income disparities in Sarawak have ballooned, and are now among the worst in Malaysia. High profile reports of human rights abuses, including the loss of Native Customary Rights (NCR) land of the indigenous Dayak, and sexual abuse of local communities by loggers, have drawn international condemnation.
Taib has found it difficult to shrug off reports of alleged nepotism and corruption. These include a story broken by Malaysiakini detailing RM32 million worth of kickbacks paid by Japanese timber importing companies to a Hong Kong agent allegedly linked to Taib, and a report of his daughter Jamilah's purchase of a 'palace', the second most expensive house in Ottawa, Canada, worth RM28 million.
Taib has sued Malaysiakini over its special report on the Japanese timber import scandal, described as 'the tip of the iceberg', but has been unable to silence outrage both at home and abroad.

CM needs a supportive successor

Amidst such controversy, Taib must be extremely careful with the choice of his successor. The next chief minister must be loyal, and protect Taib and his family, both from any possible legal consequences, and from the vagaries of the free market.
Taib's family dominates Sarawak's economy through the Cahaya Mata Sarawak (CMS) conglomerate. CMS, widely disparaged as 'Chief Minister and Sons', makes money from a huge range of industries, ranging from cement to road maintenance to the posh international Tunku Putra school in Kuching.
Taib's heir apparent, Sulaiman, entered Parliament by winning his father's old seat, Kota Samarahan in 2008. The PBB Youth vice-president was immediately elevated to Tourism Deputy Minister.

The ageing politician was seen as grooming his son for his eventual, triumphant return to Sarawak as chief minister, after Sulaiman created his own networks and gained experience in national politics
Sulaiman (left) resigned from the federal cabinet over a month ago, creating speculation that he could not work with Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen. Ng denied they could not see eye to eye.Sulaiman did not explain his abrupt resignation, but Taib later announced that "he was not very happy and a bit upset" over his mother's death from lung cancer last April.
Some observers still maintain Sulaiman is next in line to succeed his father. They wonder whether he may have resigned in order to contest a state seat in Sarawak's upcoming State Assembly elections. However, Sulaiman certainly has significant baggage in tow.. He has been dogged by controversy.
In 2003, national news reports that he had assaulted a television news presenter, Avaa Vanja Ramli. Reports splashed across the front pages outlined allegations that he had beaten and strangled the young woman. She was said to have described him as "her boyfriend" in her police report. The case was subsequently closed by the Attorney General's office.
Sulaiman did not win admirers, too, for his lacklustre performance as executive chair of RHB Bank, beginning in 2003. He was reported to have had little enthusiasm for attending board meetings and was widely derided for attempting to change the bank's name to 'CMS Bank'.
He was eventually removed as chairperson by Bank Negara, an unprecedented move in Malaysian banking.
"How can he run a state if he could not even run a bank?" asked one political observer. Unlike his strongman father, Sulaiman does not command much grassroots political support, as evidenced by Sulaiman's relatively humble post in the PBB party structure.
In fact, credible candidates to take over the PBB president's position, and therefore the chief minister's post, as is the custom in Sarawak BN, appear thin on the ground.

The frontrunner

Awang Tengah Ali Hassan, Second Minister for Planning and Resource Management, appears to be another frontrunner. Awang Tengah is Taib's powerful right hand man, in matters of land acquisition and awarding of lucrative licences and land in the logging, plantation and other industries.
Awang Tengah (left) has drawn criticism for telling NCR landowners they can be expelled from their land at the state government's discretion, and for asking the Auditor General to change his department's annual 2008 report, alleging poor forestry management and enforcement..
PBB deputy presidents Alfred Jabu and Abang Johari Openg are not likely to ascend to the chief minister's post. Alfred Jabu is not considered to have the political mind for the job.
Abang Johari (right) is considered divisive in the Malay-Dayak-Melanau party as he is seen to represent the Malay faction in the party. Malays resent Melanau dominance of the economy, and most rural Malays remain poor and disenfranchised.
Whoever takes over as chief minister will have to struggle with Sarawak's stagnant economy, depleted natural resources, and primitive race-based politics. Perhaps the choice of any particular individual personality as Taib's successor will not prove as important, in the long term, as the new, stumbling efforts to reform Sarawak's moribund political culture, and deep rooted corruption in its economic life.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - 'anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. His weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at

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Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times

Who is Mahathir Mohamad?

Review By :
Mr. Hill is the H.W. Arndt professor of Southeast Asian economies at Australian National University.

Dr. Mahathir's personal story, as recounted in Barry Wain's "Malaysian Maverick," tracks the country's broader post-war history. The prime minister's origins wouldn't necessarily have augured a great political future. Born in 1925 to parents of modest means, he grew up on the "poor side of the river" that bisected the town of Alor Star, in northern Malaysia. Of mixed Indian and Malay ancestry, he was a member of neither the Malay aristocracy nor the ethnic Chinese business class in a country where race did, and still does, significantly determine a person's prospects.
As a child, he was driven, impatient, energetic and intelligent. His teenage years were overshadowed by war and the Japanese occupation, when he became a street hawker to eke out a living. Returning to school after the war, he excelled and found his way to Singapore to study medicine in 1947. He was stunned by the relative wealth and sophistication he found on the island, a stark contrast with colonial Malaya.
Returning home in 1953 to practice medicine, it was only a matter of time before politics beckoned. Dr. Mahathir entered Parliament in 1964, representing a local Kedah constituency for the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The '60s were turbulent for the newly independent country: "Malaysia" was officially birthed in 1963 by combining Malaya with Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah, but in 1965 Singapore broke off as an independent city-state. Following the general election in May 1969, brief but vicious conflicts broke out between the Chinese and Malay communities. Dr. Mahathir also lost his seat at that election and, following some bitter political infighting, was expelled from UMNO.
His retreat from politics provided an opportunity to reflect more deeply on national issues. He penned "The Malay Dilemma," arguing that the country's ills resulted from the country's extreme ethnic imbalances. The book was immediately banned, but it became an influential political document. It asserted that the Malays were the country's original "definitive race" and that this should be embedded in national institutions and policies.

Malaysian Maverick

Dr. Mahathir was by now a national figure, and the departure of Malaysia's founding prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, with whom he frequently quarreled, opened the way for his re-entry into politics in 1974. He quickly rose through the ranks, winning the premiership in 1981—the first "commoner" to hold the post. He quickly set about implementing his vision of modernization: developing a vibrant Malay business class while also embarking on a "Look East" strategy of heavy industrialization.
Dr. Mahathir saw himself as a nation builder and a champion of third-world causes. He liked to think big, whether it was the construction of the nation's north-south highway stretching from Thailand to Singapore or the new capital he started at Putra Jaya. Inevitably, these and other projects became entangled within the complex web of UMNO money politics. They tended to be very expensive, rely on nontransparent bidding and favor contractors with ties to UMNO. But the book presents little evidence that Dr. Mahathir saw these projects as vehicles for personal enrichment—even if it is alleged some of his cronies and family apparently did.
More than his economic program, however, Dr. Mahathir's personality has attracted attention. As Mr. Wain makes clear, he displayed a well-developed authoritarian streak and a propensity to lock up dissidents. The most infamous of these was the jailing of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in September 1998 on charges of financial and sexual improprieties, an event that deeply shocked the nation. Dr. Mahathir has denied the charges were politically motivated, and Mr. Anwar was later acquitted. The international media were also targeted, including this newspaper, which was banned for a period for its articles about the economy and then Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin.
This new biography contends that Dr. Mahathir cemented his rule in part by weakening institutions like the judiciary, media and professional civil service that could have challenged him. Although Dr. Mahathir contests that claim, he did introduce press controls, bypass the civil service with his own direct appointments and dismiss the lord president of the Supreme Court during the constitutional crisis of 1988. His personalization of power "cut Malaysia adrift institutionally," Mr. Wain writes, rendering more difficult the country's transition to modern statehood.
Mr. Wain's book is biography at its best. The author, a former Journal editor and Malaysia bureau chief, builds on extensive interviews with Dr. Mahathir, his family and close associates. But Mr. Wain also gives plenty of airing to the critics, and he has meticulously sifted through the Malaysian press, the scholarly literature and "underground" commentary, offering no fewer than 1,236 footnotes to support his rich narrative. The result is a balanced, comprehensive and nuanced study that apportions praise and criticism in equal measure. It replaces a much earlier work, Khoo Boo Teik's 1995 "Paradoxes of Mahathirism" as the seminal study of Dr. Mahathir.
Yet Mr. Wain could have stepped back a little more and asked whether Dr. Mahathir fundamentally changed the course of Malaysian economic development. Under his leadership growth was no more impressive than under his three predecessors or two successors. Arguably, Malaysia's growth record is attributable more to the country's consistent openness and prudent macroeconomic management—it has never suffered the fiscal crises, hyperinflation, financial collapses that have afflicted other developing countries—combined with its rich natural resources.
While this debate deserves more attention, Mr. Wain's important biography sheds light on a fascinating character. As the winds of reformasi and the inexorable rise of the Internet pry open the country's controlled print and television media, there will likely be further revelations about the tight nexus between politics and money that flourished under his rule.

My sincere thanks to my friend Hornbill-Hornbil..

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