Declaration of assets: Start with Taib

FROM the ongoing investigation into the fabulous wealth of the former prime minister (PM) that had been compounded by the police, this question immediately springs to mind: Is the accumulated wealth by Najib and his wife exceptional among Malaysian public officials? Are they an aberration? Are there any other Malaysian public officials wallowing in such wealth?

From the ferocity of the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government's actions against the former PM, it must be assumed that their top priority is fighting corruption and promoting good public governance. Hence, making it mandatory for all public officials to declare all their assets, including those of their spouses and children, as it is crucial to the campaign of preventing corruption in politics.

An obvious target for assets declaration would surely be the former chief minister (CM) of Sarawak for more than three decades, Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud who has been touted to be the richest individual in Malaysia. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir has been quoted as saying that no action can be taken to investigate Taib because no police report has been made against him.

Soon after, he said that he was soundly contradicted by Baram PKR chairman Roland Engan who said that he had filed a recent formal complaint against Taib Mahmud for alleged corruption and power abuse while still chief minister. He said the report was lodged at the Miri office of the MACC on June 6, a week after he lodged a similar report against Taib with the Miri police on May 29. Other state leaders have also said that they had made similar police reports against the former CM through the years. In the peninsula, Suaram will be making a report so that it catches the eye of the PM.

Perhaps the richest man in Malaysia

For years, the former Sarawak chief minister controlled all the state and federal contracts handed out in Sarawak and privatised most of its key industries into his own family companies. An audit on the Mahmud family, conducted by Swiss NGO, the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), has estimated his wealth at more than RM46 billion – perhaps the richest man in Malaysia, richer than anyone in the Forbes 50! The business activities and personal wealth of Taib's family extends to business interests in Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, the UK, the US and other countries. These family members include his four children, his siblings, cousin Hamed Sepawi and also his two sons-in-law and brother-in-law, Robert Geneid.

According to the evidence gathered by BMF, Taib had distributed his largesse among his family members: Taib's elder son, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, a major player in the Sarawak construction, property and energy business, has been rated at US$1.5 billion; Taib's daughter Jamilah Taib Murray (US$1 billion); Taib's brother Tufail Mahmud (US$600 million); sister Raziah Mahmud (US$500 million); daughter Hanifah (US$400 million) and son Sulaiman (US$300 million). Timber conglomerate Ta Ann founder and Sarawak Energy chairman, Hamed Sepawi is rated at US$175 million. Their respective spouses are beneficiaries of his spectacular wealth.

One such property, Sakti International Corp in the US manages properties totalling an estimated US$80 million including the Abraham Lincoln Building, which houses the FBI's offices in Seattle, Washington.

In the 30 years of Taib's reign as chief minister, timber companies have cut more than 90% of the tropical rainforest, leaving forest-dwellers like the Penan deprived of their ancestral lands and means of subsistence.

What happened to MACC's investigations into Taib's fortunes?

In June 2011, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) said that it had initiated investigations into Taib's alleged millions in Swiss banks after Swiss financial authorities began looking into his tangled fortune. The Swiss Anti-Corruption Agency had frozen his assets over allegations of timber corruption. MACC commissioner Datuk Seri Abu Kassim Mohamed said it was in the process of gathering more information regarding the matter. So far, we have heard nothing more of these investigations.

Meanwhile, BMF has said it is willing to share with the Pakatan Harapan government, the results of a seven-year evidence-gathering process on alleged corrupt practices by Taib, who is Sarawak governor. This was in response to Mahathir's call to show evidence on his alleged corrupt practices.

On April 20, 2018, Taib and his family were accused in a lawsuit of funnelling proceeds of corruption to fund the expansion of the Ottawa-based real estate company Sakto Group's US$259 million real estate empire. Sakto is run by Sean Murray and his wife, Jamilah Taib. Sakto, founded in 1983, owns several office and residential towers in Canada's capital, including offices in the Preston Square office complex as well as the 158-unit luxury condo building, The Adelaide.

BMF has estimated the combined net worth of 20 Taib family members at close to US$21 billion, spread over 400 companies around the globe accumulated over three decades. The family has controlled the granting of logging and plantation concessions, the export of timber, the maintenance of public roads as well as the production and sale of cement and other construction materials. The Taib family's flagship company, Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS) has benefitted from untendered public contracts worth hundreds of millions of US dollars such as the RM10 billion Bakun dam, another mega project under the Mahathir administration in the Nineties; RM300 million state legislative assembly building in Kuching; maintenance of all 4,000km-long state roads in Sarawak and a 15-year concession to maintain 643km of federal roads.

PH government must be consistent in their war on kleptocracy

Najib failed to take action against Taib but the new PH government has pledged to wipe out kleptocracy and it was what gave them the victory at GE14. They must not disappoint the people of Malaysia, especially Sarawakians who have seen the wealth of their state sucked dry by the rapacious greed of the kleptocrats there. They can start by making former chief minister Taib declare all his assets and those of his spouse and family's. The MACC should reveal the results of the investigations into Taib's fabulous wealth. The PH government has shown us that where there is a political will in getting to the root of the 1MDB scandal, there is a way to rid Malaysia of corruption and crony capitalism.

Kua Kia Soong is adviser to Suaram. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com