Defying Sarawak’s ‘White Rajah’ has paid off, says activist

by Gan Pei Ling, 3 Dec 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

DESPITE stepping down as Sarawak chief minister almost four years ago, Abdul Taib Mahmud is far from forgotten, at least for one environmental activist, who is determined to ensure the “White Rajah” is held accountable for the alleged embezzlement of billions of ringgit during his reign.

Dr Lukas Straumann, the executive director of Swiss-based environmental watchdog Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), has spent much of the last decade trying to track down and convince Malaysian and international authorities to look into the Taib family’s immense wealth.

In 2012, following years of investigation, BMF published a groundbreaking report estimating that Taib’s family had amassed assets worth US$21 billion (RM86 billion) worldwide.

In that report, Taib’s family was linked to real estate in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, and hold stakes in more than 400 companies in 25 countries.

The wealth, claims Straumann and many of his colleagues, are proceeds from illegal and unsustainable logging, and he is trying to convince international prosecutors to look into the allegations and return the money to Sarawak.

“Taib was very smart. He didn’t put all his eggs in one basket. He went to different places as a safe haven for his money.

“He bought the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide (Australia) worth US$50 million today. Sakto in Canada, maybe US$200 million.

“The FBI building in Seattle is worth US$50 million today. Luxury properties in London.

“We are trying to get legal assistance in these countries to have these assets frozen,” he said.

Straumann’s soft-spoken nature belies his ferocity in following the trail of Taib’s wealth, leading some people to accuse him of having a personal vendetta against the Yang di-Pertua of Sarawak.

It’s an accusation he takes in his stride, insisting that he is motivated only by the desire to seek justice for the people of Sarawak.

“We have often been accused of being against the government.

“I think it’s important to see that we are against certain policies and corruption, we are not against certain people because they are them,” Straumann told The Malaysian Insight.

The historian and former journalist said as a Swiss-based organisation, BMF could access information and release documents that would be difficult for a Malaysian-based group to do.

“Taib is still around as governor. No one wants to touch him. Many people are scared.

“Some people are also compromised because they helped him. It’s a bit easier for us from the outside. We have more access to information. We are not living within these political systems,” he said.

Taib served as Sarawak chief minister for 33 years. After stepping down in February 2014, he became governor.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had investigated Taib in 2011, but the trail has since gone cold.

In response to allegations that his wealth was amassed through the awarding of illegal logging concessions, Taib claimed that his family acquired the wealth through his daughter Jamilah Taib Murray’s business acumen.

In an interview with The Malaysian Insight, Straumann speaks about the BMF’s latest efforts to convince international authorities to investigate the Taib family wealth.

TMI: Can you share what happened after your book was published in 2014?

Straumann: The book (Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia) made the connection between unsustainable logging and money being taken out of the country. It’s very telling when you go to the logging concessions in Borneo. You see lorries full of timber going out. If you think of timber in terms of money, a lot of money is being taken out. The question is where is the money?

Our task was to follow the money. So we spent a long time investigating the Taib family. We found real estate they own in Canada, England, Australia, and the US worth several hundreds of millions.

We wrote to governments, and asked them to open criminal investigations or freeze the money and bring it back to Malaysia. Then we found out no foreign government nor public prosecutor in these countries would do anything.

They were either not interested, or they said there was not enough evidence or they didn’t have enough resources.

Like in London, the biggest financial centre in Europe, we filed a police report in 2014 against the company subsidiaries with proven links to Taib’s family. The National Crime Agency said there was nothing it could do at this stage.

Q: Why do you think this is the case?

Straumann: We don’t know why. [But] one of the reasons could be because Malaysia is not cooperating. They cannot get mutual legal assistance from Malaysia.

With these international cases, you need mutual legal assistance from the country of origin.

We know for instance that the Swiss attorney-general requested legal assistance from Malaysia on the 1MDB (1Malaysian Development Bhd) investigation but Malaysia did not provide legal assistance.

Q:Have you tried the MACC?

Straumann: We sent them a letter back in 2011. We sent a letter to the MACC, IGP (Inspector-General of Police) and the attorney-general, sharing information we have collected on the Taib family, and we asked them to arrest the Taib family on criminal conspiracy. They didn’t reply.

Q: Any follow up since 2011 with the Malaysian authorities?

Straumann: We didn’t follow-up in Malaysia because we realised they are not interested. The institutions are not independent in Malaysia to handle politically sensitive cases.

That’s why we decided to go to the countries where the money was transferred. Anti-corruption and asset recovery legislations have advanced a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.

We are (still) trying to get legal assistance in these countries to have (Taib family’s) assets frozen.

We found out later there is an instrument called private prosecution. If the state fails to prosecute a crime, you can come in as a private citizen or institution to assist the public prosecutors.

We have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that money has been laundered in Canada, which has been stolen by corrupt officials. We filed a court case in Canada last July. Litigation is ongoing. BMF and a Sarawakian living in Canada are the plaintiffs.

Q: Have there been moments where you just wanted to give up?

Straumann: Yes of course, when I first heard about the 12 dams being planned. First you came with logging, and then plantations, and now you want to drown everything. That was a bitter moment.

But then we realised the communities could do something about it. It was a big victory for the communities and the environmental movement when they successfully stopped the dam. It pays to be persistent.

Some of the old village headmen, they tell me it’s worth being defiant. Defiance has paid off.

Why Chinese voters still favour the opposition

by Gan Pei Ling, 28 Nov 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

AT a kopitiam in Pandamaran town, Klang, the owner and his regular customers laughed when asked why local Chinese do not support MCA and Barisan Nasional any more.

To them, the question seemed rhetorical and answers were obvious: The weak ringgit, government mismanagement and alleged corruption and the rising cost of living.

Many Chinese Malaysian voters, who make up 29.68% of the voting population, remain strong in their support for the opposition, as they have since the watershed election of 2008 when BN was denied its customary two-thirds majority and lost four more states to the opposition.

“We don’t care whether it’s a white cat or black cat, as long as it can catch  rats (corrupt politicians and civil servants), it’s a good cat,” said Charlie, an elderly customer at the kopitiam.

He said BN’s mismanagement of the country’s economy, corruption and wastage had led to a weak ringgit, resulting in the people struggling with rising cost of living.

“Our ringgit has weakened significantly compared to the Thai baht and Singapore dollar over the years. We used to be able to get 1,100 baht or more with RM100, now it’s only 770 baht.

“Our exchange rate with Singapore was RM2 to SG$1, now it’s more than RM3! Don’t you think importers and locals who do business with them feel the pinch?” said the retired businessman.

The kopitiam owner, Mark Gor, said few locals bought into BN’s rhetoric that the economy was doing well with its GDP growth, foreign investment figures and upcoming mega projects like the East Cost Rail Link or proposed upgrading of the ports in Klang and Kuantan.

“How much money is actually ending up in the people’s pockets? Everything is more expensive now because of GST (Goods and Services Tax).

“Times are tough for small- and medium-sized businesses. Many kopitiam in Bukit Tinggi (another town in Klang) have closed in the past few years to become hawkers (to save on rent).

“A friend of mine used to have four hardware shops, but had to close three and is now managing with just one.

“Many local construction subcontractors are also out of jobs. He is one of them who hasn’t had work for more than a year (he pointed to a customer seated at another table).

“Even if they are offered work, they are worried if they will get paid,” he said.

MCA still seen as Umno proxy

A combination of factors led to a 40% swing in Chinese support to the opposition in the 2008 polls, including the use of social media and greater political frustration.

This surge in support for the opposition also swept traditional MCA strongholds like Pandamaran, which has been held by the ruling Chinese party since the state seat was created in 1984.

The semi-urban seat in Selangor was abolished after the first two elections and re-established when electoral boundaries were redrawn for the 2004 elections. That year, MCA’s candidate Teh Kim Poo beat DAP’s Tee Boon Hock to clinch the seat.

However, in the 2008 and 2013 electins, Pandamaran voters ditched MCA for DAP. The Chinese-majority opposition party won 63.7% of the votes in 2008 and 68.75% in 2013.

What happened in Pandamaran was reflective of a larger shift among Chinese Malaysians in the 2008 and 2013 elections.

“Usually the Chinese would split their vote for Parliament and state seats. In 2008 and 2013, it was synchronised, with all their votes going to the opposition for both Parliament and state seats,” said Merdeka Center For Opinion Research’s research manager Tan Seng Keat.

MCA suffered its worst electoral outing in 2013, winning only seven out of 37 parliamentary seats and 11 out of 90 state seats it contested. In comparison, DAP won 38 out of 51 parliamentary seats and 95 out of 103 state seats it contested.

BN chairman Najib Razak has challenged MCA to win at least 15 parliamentary seats in the next elections to justify the three cabinet posts the party holds.

MCA president Liow Tiong Lai boldly proclaimed during the party’s annual general assembly that DAP would tumble in the 14th general election.

However, Tan said many Chinese still perceived MCA as a proxy of Umno, and it was ineffective in addressing their core concerns of the country’s economy and governance.

Attributing it partly to DAP’s successful campaign, Tan said the perception that MCA ministers and the party could not do much for the Chinese community persists among most Chinese voters.

In a September poll conducted by Merdeka Center, more than two-thirds of Chinese respondents (68%) believe the country was going in the wrong direction, compared with 51% in a similar poll done in April 2013 prior to the elections.

Tan predicts that even if there was a voter swing back to MCA in the next polls, it would come from traditional MCA supporters who voted for the opposition in 2013 in the hope for a change of government.

MCA is said to have some 1.09 million members and is the second largest component party in BN. However, only 661,469 Chinese voters (18.4%) voted for BN in 2013, while 2.92 million (81.5%) voted for the now defunct opposition bloc Pakatan Rakyat.

Tan said MCA and BN were unlikely to win back youth votes, where between 90% and 92% of voters between the ages of 21 and 30 voted for the opposition in 2013.

He said a small number of Chinese voters, particularly youth, disillusioned with the opposition’s infighting might spoil their vote or not turn up to vote, but that would not affect the larger trend.

Cost of living top Chinese voters’ concern

Tan believes the GE14 will be a “GST elections”.

“A lot of people talk about 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) but that is factored into the broader good governance and leadership issue.”

An Institut Darul Ehsan (IDE) survey in August found that more than two-thirds of the Chinese respondents (68%) still favoured Pakatan Harapan. Only 21% supported BN, while 7% were undecided and 4% supported PAS.

IDE also found that the rising prices of goods topped the list of concerns among Chinese respondents (53%), followed by the pressures of life (23%), wages (10%), crime and social issues (6%), infrastructure development (5%), unemployment (2%) and other issues (3%).

Tan Ah Poh (not her real name), 80, who has been running a sundry shop in Pandamaran for almost six decades, said GST and rising goods prices have hit her business hard.

“My shop is busiest in the beginning of the month, when people just got their salaries. By the middle of the month, there will be fewer customers. Towards the end of the month, it can grow so quiet that I could doze off,” she said.

“Even during the 1997-1998 financial crisis, business wasn’t as bad as it is now,” she added.

She said she understood that other countries had GST, but in those countries, the people’s wages were higher, too.

“Our wages are low. When the people don’t have enough cash to spare, they shop less,” said the grandmother with only primary school education.

“The rich are okay, but the poor are doing worse,” she said.

More KL folk take on City Hall to save suburbs from development

by Gan Pei Ling, 18 Nov 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

RETIRED civil engineer Frank Yeh and other residents in the newly set up Protect Taman Desa Coalition have never been activists in their lives.

But plans for new projects in their Kuala Lumpur suburb of Taman Desa — 13 new developments in all, including high-density condominiums — made them decide to step up last year.

“It’s too much, way too much. The roads are already congested and the water pressure is low. This is not sustainable development. The authorities should improve the local infrastructure before they approve more development projects,” Yeh told The Malaysian Insight.

The coalition is backing a suit filed by 11 residents against Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) for approving a project of three condominium blocks – The Address, on Tenaga Nasional Bhd reserve land.

The suit was filed in March and the court will hear on November 29 the developer’s application to be made a party to the suit.

“We’re not against development per se. We are against overdevelopment. The existing infrastructure in Taman Desa is inadequate to support these new projects.

“Since 1977, there has only been one bus route servicing Taman Desa. The main water pipes are old and rusted. Existing roads also need to be re-tarred,” said Yeh.

He said current public amenities such as a small community hall and a few fields in the neighbourhood were insufficient to cater to the needs of the existing population of 38,000 people.

The Address — to comprise 649 units in three blocks between 34 and 42 storeys high — is to be built on a site marked for utilities and not for development. Furthermore, according to the KL Draft City Plan 2020, the site was supposed to be gazetted as a green lung.

If built, the condominium would increase the area’s population density from 60 people per acre to 650 per acre.

The other dozen projects in the pipeline for Taman Desa will add more than 7,000 affordable homes and condominium units, 48 shoplots and 168 office units to the neighbourhood.

“This is not just Taman Desa’s problem. Overdevelopment is happening all around us,” said another Taman Desa resident M. Gunasekar.

He was shocked to find out recently that a 52-storey high condominium will be built on a 1.3 acre plot of land, previously a playground, behind his home at Armada Villa, Danau Desa.

The Protect Taman Desa Coalition is holding a press conference to voice their concerns about the project today.

“I’ve been trying to help solve other people’s problems all my life. Now, I’m a victim. I couldn’t protect my own backyard,” said the businessman, who helped gather nearly 1,000 residents to submit their individual objections to DBKL against The Address last year.

No paradise in suburbia

The Protect Taman Desa Coalition is not the first suburban community in the Klang Valley to speak up against development that threatens their quality of life. As developers seek new spaces in already congested areas for more projects, residents have begun to fight back.

Residents in the affluent Taman Tun Dr Ismail housing suburb have become increasingly vocal in opposing projects they fear will congest the neighbourhood further and encroach on the only two green lungs in their area: Taman Rimba Kiara and Bukit Kiara.

The residents took DBKL and the mayor to court this year for approving a high-rise housing project in Taman Rimba Kiara. The Kuala Lumpur High Court granted the residents’ leave for judicial review in August 2017.

In 2015, Petaling Jaya residents foiled the Selangor State Development Corporation’s (PKNS) plan to develop a field and sports complex it owned in Kelana Jaya into a sports city.

The Petaling Jaya City Council had came under fire for altering the field’s status from recreational to commercial without going through due process in 2011, and eventually cancelled the developer’s application in 2015.

In 2011, Subang Jaya residents defeated Sime Darby Properties’ bid to build a 350-unit condominium and extend its medical centre on 7.7ha of the 29.39ha Subang Ria Park.

The Selangor Town and Country Planning Department Appeals Board rejected Sime Darby’s application for planning permission on the ground that the park was gazetted in Subang Jaya’s local draft plan for recreational use.

Philip Phang, a retired accountant and another spokesperson of the Protect Taman Desa Coalition, said DBKL should have consulted the residents before approving the development projects and altering recreational land for commercial purposes.

The residents had to find out about the development projects through their own research and are funding the campaign to rally and inform other residents out of their own pockets.

“Have they (DBKL) taken into account the wellbeing of the people they are entrusted to protect before approving these projects? The development process was not transparent. The residents are also being deprived of amenities they rightfully deserve,” said Phang.

He has lived there for more than four decades and has watched Taman Desa transform from a green neighbourhood, with fresh air and morning mist, to its now congested state, with high-rise condominiums being built and traffic jams to no end.

“We know this is going to be a long battle. We’re going up against an institution (DBKL) and, indirectly, the developers, but somebody has to do it for the sake of future generation of Malaysians as a whole,” said Phang.

“Nothing is safe if this goes on. You may think you’re buying a house next to a green lung, but 10 years down the road it may turn into a condominium.

“We want to warn potential buyers to think twice,” said Yeh.

He said another group of residents from the Taman Desa Residents’ Association are also running a campaign against the development projects, in collaboration with DAP’s Seputeh MP Teresa Kok.

“We decided to set up our own group and run our own campaign as we want to remain independent and non-partisan,” he said.

I never challenged anyone for political positions, says Najib

by Gan Pei Ling, 16 Nov 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

PRIME Minister Najib Razak said he bided his time throughout his political career and never challenged anyone for positions.

“I moved on step by step. Never have I ever challenged anyone in my political life.

“Always, whenever there is a vacancy, I offer myself.

“Alhamdulillah, that recipe has worked, and now, I find myself as the leader of Malaysia, where the stress level is much, much higher.

“I assure you that if you have the chance to be prime minister, you’ll realise this. You’ll realise this huge quantum leap and you’ll have to learn to manage it,” said Najib at the SME Annual Showcase & SME Conference 2017 at the Malaysian International Trade and Exhibition Centre today.

He said he exercised, watched TV and football matches, and read to de-stress.

“There are different ways of managing stress. In my case, I would say, do the things that you enjoy doing, but do the right things.

“For example, I find that exercising is important, and it must be the right form of physical exercise. It must lead to a healthy body.

“Golf is recreational, but it doesn’t lead to a healthy body. Golfers are not healthy. They think they are healthy, but are not.

“My daughter tells me golf is slightly better than not doing anything at all,” said Najib in jest.

The son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, also recalled that he became a member of parliament at 22, deputy minister at 25 and menteri besar at 29.

“I wouldn’t recommend that you follow this route because you have to give up a lot of things in your life.

“At an early age, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. It’s either you sink or you swim.

“I told myself that I had better try to swim. I don’t want to get drowned.”

Why so secretive, civil society asks Selangor, Penang

by Gan Pei Ling, 31 October 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

THE Selangor and Penang administrations have come under fire for their lacklustre implementation of the freedom of information (FOI) law, with civil society groups saying that citizens’ access to state information remains largely unchanged since its introduction.

The sunshine law was enacted in 2011 to promote greater transparency and accountability, by allowing the public access to state information.

However, six years on, both state governments have done “very little or nothing at all to promote the use of the FOI”, said corruption watchdog Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) executive director Cynthia Gabriel.

“There is zero publicity from the state governments. This is very unfortunate, even disappointing,” Cynthia told The Malaysian Insight.

Cynthia, formerly a councillor with the Petaling Jaya City Council, said Penang Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy and Selangor Speaker Hannah Yeoh were among the handful of Pakatan Harapan politicians who have raised public awareness about the FOI.

“The citizens of these states could have used the law more proactively to show the Barisan Nasional-ruled states how an FOI law can be used to improve their quality of life,” said Cynthia.

Due to the low public awareness, Penang only received 71 FOI requests in 2015 and 41 as of June 2016, Dr Ramasamy told a forum hosted by the Penang Institute last year.

Selangor received 163 FOI applications between 2013 and 2015, out of which only five requests were unsuccessful.

Critics have pointed out that these five include requests for the declassification of high-profile cases, such as the Selangor water agreement and documents related to the Kidex highway.

The Malaysian Insight’s efforts to get the latest numbers of successful and rejected FOI requests from both state administrations were unsuccessful. “At the time of publication, the state governments are compiling the data.”

Last year, C4 partnered with another local transparency watchdog, Sinar Project, to launch the Right 2 Know Malaysia campaign, aimed at helping Malaysians learn about the FOI via a website and public talks.

Sinar Project coordinator Khairil Yusof said that the project set out to test how well the FOI law worked in practice at the local council and state level requests.

They found that the Selangor FOI law and process was much better in practice than Penang.

However, the group was surprised that the Selangor executive council denied their request for information on the expenditure of excos under former menteri besar Khalid Ibrahim as well as current Menteri Besar Azmin Ali.

Khairil said the rejection of their request appeared to show that the Selangor administration is not willing to be fully transparent when it comes to executive councillors’ expenditure.

Selangor also denied requests to make public information regarding controversial projects and agreements, such as the Damansara-Shah Alam Elevated Expressway (DASH) and the state’s water agreement.

In response to criticism on the implementation of the FOI law, Selangor’s Select Committee on Competency, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) carried out a public hearing in January 2015 to review the implementation of the law.

Selangor executive councillor Elizabeth Wong was put in charge of overseeing the FOI implementation but did not respond to interview requests at press time.

Cynthia from C4 also said that the FOI would always fall short of its ideals of greater transparency as long as restrictive laws, such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA), supersedes it.

“The OSA still supersedes the state FOI enactments. Information on highway projects, infrastructure and road works has been denied on such grounds.”

She said Malaysia, which aims to become a developed country by 2020, must reform the OSA if it is sincere in eradicating corruption.

Trauma lingers on for Ops Lalang detainees

by Gan Pei Ling, 30 Oct 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

THREE decades after Operasi Lalang, the trauma of being detained without trial and interrogated by Special Branch officers lingers on for some of the political detainees.

“One thing that weighed heavily on my mind then was how long were we going to be detained here (at Kamunting). Even a convicted criminal knows their length of sentence.

“It’s difficult to talk about it until now,” one of the four female detainees, Lim Chin Chin, 61, shared with a packed hall at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall tonight.

Lim, Dr Cecilia Ng and Dr Chee Heng Leng, co-founders of the Women’s Development Collective and All Women’s Action Society, and Irene Xavier, who worked with women’s workers organisation Sahabat Wanita, were accused of being Marxists bent on overthrowing the government by rallying women.

The support group for the detainees and their families that later morphed into human rights organisation Suaram was the only good that came out of Operasi Lalang, said Lim.

Irene, 66, said she also endured physical abuse during her 355-day ordeal as a detainee between 1987 and 1988.

“They claimed I was lying, that some of my friends have told them the truth and I haven’t. On that basis, the IO (investigation officer) got angry and beat me,” said Irene.

“However hard I tried to keep my mind sane, I think there are certain things that they have done to me that still bothers me.

“They would repeat names of people you only remotely knew and the memories would come back and become very fresh in your mind.

“I tried very hard (then) to forget the names. I didn’t succeed during the first 60 days. But after that I can forget people’s names very quickly,” she said.

She was also told by the Special Branch officers that she was a very talented leader and they could make sure she became Wanita MIC chief if she supports the then MIC president S. Samy Vellu.

Even after she was released, Irene said the police officers continued to harass her by coming to her house in Seremban at odd hours and shout out her name until she came out.

However, she took heart in her observation that young Malaysians do not share the same fear of being detained without trial as she did in those days.

“Maybe with the setting up of Suaram, something changed. Former detainees (in my time) would only speak when they are alone with you, never in front of others (like tonight),” said Irene.

PSM chairman Dr Nasir Hashim said the Special Branch interrogators would pretend to want to engage in intellectual discourse with him.

“They’ll give you a talk and then ask you what you thought. I’ll repeat the same things they said back to them,” said Dr Nasir.

He added that he was detained underground for the first 60 days and could not tell day from night.

“When they shut the air vent, I couldn’t breath. One time, for three days the ground shook, only when I was released I found out from a contractor that I was detained in Bukit Aman,” he said.

In Kamunting, Dr Nasir, a nutritionist, took up gardening, took care of fallen sparrows and picked up acupuncture.

“I had my clinic and had a special branch couple as my patients. I told them you are my patients in here. Outside of it, we fight,” he recalled.

He was released after 15 months.

Tan Kah Kheng, a detainee and chemical engineer who campaigned against the rare earth refinery in Bukit Merah, said a Special Branch officer bragged about having made many people mad.

Dr Kua Kia Soong said everyone had different coping strategies during their detention, adding that individuals from small political parties like Nasir tend to have it tougher than people from bigger political parties.

Members of the audience asked if the detainees want compensation or retribution from the people responsible for their ordeal.

“We are asking Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) to apologise. We don’t want him detained,” said Kua.

Dr Mahathir has consistently denied responsibility for Operasi Lalang and said it was carried out at the insistence of the then Inspector-General of Police Hanif Omar and Special Branch chief Abdul Rahim Noor.

During Operasi Lalang, 106 people comprising of activists, politicians, academics, students and preachers were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act.

The second biggest mass arrest since May 16 racial riots also saw the revocation of two dailies and two weekly newspapers’ publishing licenses.