Some may choose to forget that Taib Mahmud will not be a candidate in this upcoming general election at all. That is a reality that will have an impact in the voters’ psyche in Sarawak. He has relinquished his parliamentary seat since 2008 as part of his succession plan and he had stated that the last state election in 2011 was his last foray in politics. The same can’t be said to other old guards who are still clinging to power without any hint of retiring.
Anyway I picked this interview from The Mole’s website which had an exclusive one on one with the Chief Minister of Sarawak a few days ago. It touched on various issues ranging from the video political campaign by Global Witness to the political realities of Sarawak’s geopolitics. The interview ran into three parts but I took the liberty to combine all three into one article. Please read all the lines. There are valuable information about Sarawak which we in the peninsular do not know about.
Sarawak Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud who was implicated in a ‘sting’ video which was released last month by a non-governmental organisation Global Witness described the allegation as a smear campaign against Sarawak leadership and society.
The video which was released last month alleged that there is a systematic corruption and illegitimate practices committed by Taib’s family on land matters including Sarawak’s deforestations.
Setting the records straight with The Mole and several online media practitioners in a recent interview in Kuching, Taib offered his insights on the allegations and the misrepresentation of facts about Sarawak in the new media.
Q: Recently there was a video by Global Witness on alleged corruption in Sarawak. Can you comment on that?
A: Yes, sure. I have watched it and was quite shocked. The issue they are creating is not happening at all. There is no truth at all. Before this I’ve seen a lot of propaganda and I normally tolerate it. But today it becomes clear that they are trying to manufacture evidence (on this issue). For people who are expert on evidence matters, they know it is not evidence… it is a campaign.
In the first place, the people they trust as their “middlemen” are not people who are close with me. I am good with them because of blood ties. Tun Rahman (Yakub) is my uncle and I don’t like to quarrel for the sake of unity among our community.
But I also noticed these people also do not know why such questions were posed to them by someone who claimed to be a land buyer, who wanted to find out on business requirements.
To use a business talk as an evidence to allege someone else it is a bit far-fetched. Any businessmen will try to promote himself with all the glorious connection he’s made, isn’t it?
This is a normal business practice. I know this, all people in Malaysia know this. I don’t think we can trust this talk unless they can show us their proof that there are money that will be given to me or my bank account on how much I have received it. However this has not been shown at all. These are simply claims by “middlemen” which I don’t even know, except for Tun Rahman’s family. That’s why my first response is, well they want to promote themselves, I have no objection to it but I have nothing to do with it.
Q: What is your comment when the NGO which produced the video is one of the fund recipients from Soros?
A: I call it manufacturing of evidence. First you can see the way they approach it, which I’ve explained just now. Number two, why now? During the election time? It’s very obvious. They sneaked in and timed it very carefully. If they want to come in and want to smear Sarawak’s leadership and society, I can tell you we have done much better than what the British has done before (when Sarawak was a British colony).
Q: In the video it stated that there are only five per cent of forests left in the state. What is the actual status from the state’s record?
A: As of today, we have approximately 60 per cent of forest cover.
We have reserved one million hectare of our forests for national park. Almost five million hectares have been reserved for long-term forests. It (forest plantations) will be harvested for timber but it will have to comply with very strict rules. By strict rules we mean that for every hectare, only seven trees will be allowed to be cut down for timber for every 25 years. There are no such strict rules like this even in the European countries for logging activity.
This 25-year cycle sustainable forest management has been certified by ITTO. I am puzzled why people who criticise Sarawak did not look at the satellite pictures of our forest cover. You will see nothing is bold in Sarawak, you can see it straight away. But they refused to see. It is their propaganda and they completely turn their blind eyes to the realities. To me it is not fair. These critics and NGOs are not looking after the interest of the world environment but what they are just interested in smear campaigns.
Q: Do you know Bruno Manser (Fund) and do you know George Soros personally?
A: George Soros was known to us… and the former Prime Minister (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) isn’t impressed with his international performance. I understand he’s backing some of the NGOs (non-governmental organisations) against Sarawak because Sarawak happens to be a part of Malaysia which he (Soros) doesn’t like. Nevermind, it’s okay.
I wish that if he only knows what we try to do for the people of Sarawak to bring them from poverty, to a developed nation status by the year 2020. I think any feeling of fairness in him (Soros) would prompt him to support us rather than supporting any NGOs’ action against Sarawak.
A lot of the things are based on lies. For example anybody can see the forest in Sarawak is still there. We have nearly 60 per cent of the surface of Sarawak covered by trees. We have a very rigorous strict silviculture programme, very rigidly controlled harvesting policies for our timber. Therefore some of our timber today are being harvested at the third time (from sustainable forest plantations).
This just shows that the rules were laid out for more than 50 years ago. It proved to be quite a sustainable practice and I think people like George Soros should learn the fact independently from international bodies like ITTO (International Timber Trade Organisation) and from the studies by the FAO undertaken in end of 1960s and 1970s which we have accepted as the basis for our timber policies in Sarawak.
So organisation like Bruno Manser Foundation…they are just blind to any facts. They just want to make themselves popular as the savior of Sarawak’s forest.
I did not take his antics very seriously before. BMF…Bruno’s foundation that follows his policies is not fighting any real cause, more of an imaginary cause rather than a realistic one.
Q: Maybe because George Soros has never been to Sarawak…
A: I don’t know. If he wants he can come and see with his own eyes. I can tell him he can travel all the way from Limbang or Lawas to Kuching and he will see nothing else but trees and trees. Most of them are our natural trees, some are palm oil which I think is as healthy a producer of oxygen for the environment as our natural trees.
Q: For the past 15 months there were three different documentaries by BBC on the issue of deforestation of Sarawak, and that it was affecting certain tribes. There’s one which focused on the Penan community. Can you comment on that?
A: There are two misrepresentations in connection with that. In the first place there are barely 5,000 Penans in all of Sarawak. Most of them have been resettled, they enjoy better standard of health and life and make greater penetration into modern education than they ever had during the time when we were a British colony. Sorry as I had to mention it. Five thousand people, a lot of them have settled down and one of them who had settled down in Niah and has now become a millionaire by organising his tribe to open up land to become oil palm plantations. That man is called Datuk Hassan Sui.
So all this imagination in the part of BBC is based on inaccurate reports probably by Bruno Manser before. My advice, why can’t BBC treat us fairly like it treats any other countries that have been relying on their good will?
Come to Sarawak and take independent view and see what you’ll find. You will find Sarawak still have 60 per cent of its surface covered by trees. You’ll find that the Penans are slowly getting better way of life as result of government’s development help and particularly those people who have been resettled due to the building of dams.
Their houses are three times better than the nomadic life they used to live. A lot of their children do not want nomadic life anymore. It’s an archaic concept by outsider that try to preserve the people in pristine condition. I can’t do that. I am a Chief Minister, I can tell you that my people here, the electorate that I serve will in fact accuse me of discriminating against the Penan. I need to look after them (Penan) and see what needs to be done to upgrade their standard of living.
They will get the same settlement, housing and other amenities through our resettlement programme like any other people we help.
I don’t think we should yield to some misperception from outside in order to say “we are very nice to the Penans” by preserving their culture of wandering about in the jungle.
What they (BBC) failed to mention is on the cases of childhood deaths, miscarriages among the Penan communities and deaths in the jungle due to their life.
Things like these to me are regarded as sufferings which we need to elevate the Penans from. I don’t think anyone in Malaysia will accept that I should leave the Penan to live like how they used to a 100 years ago.
Q: How are you going to address the misrepresentation of facts about Sarawak in the new media?
A: People like me coming from a small state like Sarawak, I can’t afford to spend hundred of millions of dollars to have bloggers and all sort of those things.
During the election a lot of political parties can spend money on bloggers, I know one party can get 200 bloggers to work for them for the purpose of election. For me, I got to maintain a kind of system of information that is enough to get my people first, to be able to follow the trend of development and to allow them to participate and to accept development through various stages…it’s part of growing up. That’s my main aim in communication. Still we are using the radio and other means.
Engaging bloggers to me is still relatively a luxurious thing. I could (create a team of bloggers) if I’m politically over sensitive about, but I’m not that over sensitive because I know that even during the last state election the same kind of smearing campaign was launched from outside.
Some people told me not to reply. They said: “Please don’t reply. We know you for the last 50 years”. “We know you for the past 20 years, if you are as bad as they say we don’t see all the progress in Sarawak and good services from public offices, district office at divisional levels and such.”
A lot of people got a lot of common sense in this country. Leave them alone, let them find out. Of course younger people are a bit mad about it but they can fight it back, I have no objection to that. I say thank you to them-lah but I am not in the position to be able to maintain a team of a few hundred bloggers…it’s not a justifiable expenditure for me to run for a state government with the size of budget I have.
Q: There is an online portal, Sarawak Report which had been attacking you for many years now. Will there be any effort to respond to their allegations against you?
A: If we were to reply, there will be too many of it. It’s too much to do. Secondly, a lot of people do not trust it. So, just leave it alone. Everyone knows who is behind Sarawak Report. Those behind it can’t hide anymore.
In the second part of an interview with Sarawak Chief Minister Pehin Seri Abdul Taib Mahmud he shared his views on the setting up of Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate Lahad Datu intrusion in Sabah and believes that it is a good move.
He said it is important to find out the truth about what happened to avoid the government from being accused of creating the conflict.
Taib said Sarawak supports all the efforts to clean up Lahad Datu and it is against any form of intrusions into the country.
Q: What is your comment on the Lahad Datu intrusion?
A: It is very sad because we know Sabah is a very peaceful state. Although there were several claims by others on the state many years ago, it has never resulted in violence.
When it happened in Lahad Datu, this is nothing like the behaviour of Filipinos who lived in the area for a long time. I feel this incident will not simply happen due to strong sentiment to reclaim Sabah. Maybe there was instigation, or an order for this incident to happen…I don’t know, but from what I see this will not happen without any form of instigation.
Q: The Prime Minister and the Home Minister have proposed to set up an RCI (Royal Commission of Inquiry) to investigate the mastermind behind the Lahad Datu intrusion. Can you comment on the suggestion?
A: It’s good because we want to know the truth on what actually happened. If not, there will be people who will accuse us of creating this conflict.
Q: Do you think the incident in Lahad Datu will bring an impact on voters in Sarawak, especially from Chinese voters?
A: I don’t know about Chinese voters but a lot of people are angry on the intrusion. I find it weird that a politician from the Peninsular could describe the whole incident as a drama. Nobody in Malaysia had ever created a drama by killing other people. It has never happened before.
Among the Bumiputeras in Sarawak, they are quite angry with what had happened as Sabah is known for its peace. Sabah has shown a great hospitality by accepting refugees from the southern Philippines. Sabah doesn’t deserve to be treated that way after all the kindness it had offered to them (refugees).
Q: What happened in Lahad Datu has brought upon a realisation on the importance of peace and stability which has been taken for granted all these while. How do you see it?
A: Sarawakians had experienced a lot of issues that threatened our security before. But today Sarawak has gained its independence, with growing developments for the people. We’ve had our fair share of communist threats before but we have successfully eliminated it through our progress and it made them (communist) realise they were duped by their own propaganda.
Q: How do Sarawakians feel on the death of policeman ASP Michael Padel who was killed by the Kiram terrorists in Semporna?
A: We have had similar security threat before. We feel whenever there is an element of threat to our security, we should fight it as hard as we can. Thus we support all security efforts to clean up Lahad Datu and any nearby areas from any element of intrusion.
Q: There is a court injunction by some people in Ba’kelalan against the construction of a road from Bakalalan to Bario. The Armed Forces was building the road.
A: Well people who put the court injunction, do they represent the whole community? I don’t think so.
People are very happy to have the road. They have no means of transportations in that area. In the old days it took them two weeks to reach Lawas from Ba’kelalan by foot.
I can’t allow my people to do that at present.
The Prime Minister is very concerned about them. He emphasised that they must be able to upgrade their standard of living that’s why he approced the road. It is not a perfect road but there are barely 15,000 people there. We have to develop by stages. The first thing is to have a road that would enable 4WD vehicles. This will open up the country side. Not only for the people in Ba’kelalan, even the people in the other side of the border (Kalimantan) have been taking advantage of this new road.
If it’s not a good development, I’m sure outsiders will not try to take advantage of it. People who are taking this injunction are trying to create an issue. If international people want to take a look, come and ask the people not the politician, to see whether they appreciate the existence of the road.
Q: This 75km is not built by the JKR (Public Works Department), contractors, it’s built by the armed forces. How do the people in the area see that the army comes to their area and build the road?
A: Well that is the spirit of what we call “Jiwa Murni” (noble intention). We cannot mobilise JKR to do it having JKR’s standard of road. If they (community) want it, they may have to wait for another 20 years due to the small size of the population. The idea is to open up the country so that the agriculture and other produce from Ba’kelalan could find good market and good price outside. This will improve their standard of living. They have a practical road, that’s how we started in Sarawak before. We do not have everything straight away. Until the economics of developments have justified us to spend more money, we develop phase by phase. I’m sure people in Bakalalan are happier to have a road and not like their old days.
In the last instalment of a candid interview with Sarawak Chief Minister Pehin Seri Abdul Taib Mahmud, he spoke about the political reality in the state and its direction in the future.
“Sarawak is undergoing a very aggressive economic policy. We need a Federal Government that understands our process of development,” Taib said. He also expressed his doubts whether any opposition leaders will have the expertise in bringing the development in Sarawak especially in regards to its economic and social development.
Q: How many parliamentary seats do you think Barisan Nasional can manage to win in the next election?
A: I think the lowest would be 23 and the highest would be 27. We are estimating this based on the political reality today. Maybe in the urban areas it looks like as if the opposition is getting some support but it (support) is not for PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat). PKR is not welcome here. DAP is quite aggressive and they are also trying to make inroads into the Iban community. (Editor’s Note: Sarawak has a total of 31 parliamentary seats)
Q: In the Peninsular, the issue of word “Allah” is a hot issue among Muslims. The impact is quite heavy on Pas. However there are people in the Peninsular who think that this issue will bring negative impact to BN as DAP is trying to make this a religious issue in Sarawak. Is it really happening here?
A: DAP will be wasting their time. There will be no support on this. The Sarawakians have accepted this issue for the past 50 years. There are a lot of Christians in Sarawak who bought bibles from Indonesia and they have used the translation of the word “God” to “Allah” as part of their faith. Muslims in Sarawak do not feel affected by it. I don’t see why anyone would want to create an issue out of this.
If DAP wants to create an issue about it here, I feel DAP is a group of people who simply want to incite hatred among Sarawakians to fight among themselves. To me, this is verging on racial politics. I look upon this kind of politics very, very severely.
Q: In the Sibu by-election there were problems to address the issue of NCR (Native Customary Land) land? What is the update on the NCR land?
A: It is indeed a hot topic before the state election. However it is not a popular issue anymore. This is because we asked for proof of any NCR lands which had been taken away by the government. When we took some of the lands, it was gazzetted for the purpose of building schools, roads and other government projects.
What actually happened was several NGOs had given inaccurate information to the people. This is done to support certain parties who wanted to claim bigger lands than theirs. To me, I can’t make my own decision. It needed to be settled in courts. Most of them today are quite angry when the court decided that their claims were baseless.
Q: In one of (opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) Anwar’s promises if he wins in the next general election, he said 15 per cent oil royalty will be given to the people of Sarawak. What is your take on that?
A: When he was a Cabinet minister in the government, he was singing a different tune.
Anwar’s record with Sarawak is very clear. It tells us on how much regards he had on us. We were given funds by the Federal Government, under his purview (as Finance Minister), to build a university, Unimas. We had to set up a temporary building for more than 10 years because Anwar took the funds and chanelled it elsewhere. To me, I don’t trust a person like this.
Secondly there were a lot of projects which he promised to the people in Kuching but none of it has materialised.
Thirdly, outside Sarawak…on the international scene, he said he disagreed with having oil palm plantations along our coastal swampy areas. If the Malays in Sarawak were to find out that Anwar objected to this, they will be upset with him. This is due to the fact that the coastal populace enjoyed better living due to the existence of oil palm plantations in their area.
If Pakatan wins, together with their promises, this state will be bankrupt. The oil royalty promise is just a sweet promise that doesn’t come from the heart.
Q: Anwar is selling himself as the saviour of the country. Does he have the qualities to provide the leadership?
A: The greatest test for Anwar was during the 1997 financial crisis. We look at his reaction in following standard developing countries’ reaction when we had economic crisis. He called the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF will straight away say: “You pay your debts or the money go to New York or wherever.” If we were to do that, as some of the countries in the region did, we would have lost a lot of employments and our economy would have gone bust.
But as we know, we passed through 1997 without being hurt too much as opposed to some other countries. You ask why? The reason is very simple, the then Prime Minister said, “I don’t want Anwar’s solution. I don’t want IMF to come. I have a Malaysian solution.”
We didn’t want to impoverish our country. What we need to do was to manage our supply of money and our capital flow and that’s what Tun Dr Mahathir did. I think this approach is even endorsed by developed countries. Even in the European crisis today some of them think Tun Dr Mahathir was right.
Anwar never thought what would happen to Malaysia. He’s got good relationships with his friends outside (IMF, World Bank and the rest). His focus was to please them first and not what he can do for the country.
To me a person like this is not immersed in fighting for his own people.
When asked how do we remember Anwar in Sarawak for his tenure as Federal Minister, as Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister? We would reply, “do not ask anything on what he has left for us, I think what we have now will be gone too.” Just use the case of funds meant for Unimas as an example. As far as Sarawak is concerned, Anwar did not look after Sarawak. I hope he does not become the Prime Minister.
Q: What is the progress of Score (Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy) now, after almost five years?
A: Score started its operations only about two years. Almost 30 big companies have applied to build factories in Samalaju. Five factories have been built and the rest are at different stages including planning and so on.
Based on these applications, it is beyond my expectation. We thought of having only 1000ha of land for these purposes but it is not enough. I have to allocate 6000ha in Samalaju for this. Currently a port has been built and there is one operating factory in the area.
We will see a lot of positive developments and responses for the upcoming years. I was quite worried at first with the global financial crisis but so far everything moving well.
Q: Recently Malaysian Airlines bought a substantial number of aircrafts for Mas Wings service. It shows that demand for rural domestic flight is growing. Having said that, in 2015, Asean open-sky policy will come in. How will Sarawak government react or respond to this policy and new airlines like Malindo Air in the region?
A: Probably the open-sky policy will be a challenge. But liberalising airline policy has its good and bad, but in the end the airlines know how to survive.
In the case of Sarawak, we are looking for more entry from outsiders to Sarawak and it will give greater accessibility to the state. I don’t know what the new policy is…whether we will handle it or Mas will take over, it doesn’t matter to me. What is more important is we take advantage of getting linked with the outside world.
Q: When are you expected to finalise the list of candidates?
A: All of these things are in the PM’s hands. As far as PBB (Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu) is concerned, it’s okay… we have decided since last year. In SDPD (Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party) there’s a lot of movement so PM has got to decide. PRS (Parti Rakyat Sarawak), I think there’s only one problem. SUPP (Sarawak United People’s Party), the list of their candidates is about to be finalised.
Q: Any specific message to the people in Sarawak for the upcoming election?
A: The Opposition tries to sell the idea that there should be change. That they (Opposition) are able to take over the government. It’s a normal line. But the people of Sarawak have got to be convinced whether the change is for the better or not. As far as I’m concerned we cannot afford to have a Federal Government that is led by people who have less than proven ability.
To us, Datuk Pattinggi Najib (Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak) is the best candidate for PM at the moment. I don’t think we should look beyond that.
If we think he’s the best person to become the Prime Minister, as far as Sarawak is concerned, we’ve got to go give all the best votes for him. He has proved to be much more sympathetic to the problems of Sarawak.
In fact by giving Sarawak and Sabah RM 5 billion to catch up with the demand for rural roads, electricity and water supply, we have more or less covered all the areas in rural Sarawak.
Because of that I think the PM will get a great deal of support among the rural people of Sarawak. He’s very sympathetic to Baram which was an area that suffered some difficulties because of its infrastructure which led to migration of a lot of educated people to Miri.
I think it’s quite natural while we are taking steps to have long-term big development in Baram area, we have to do something within the next 20 years.
By having to develop Baram as one of the areas to produce electricity for Score, we have a big project that can allow us to plan for much bolder steps to change the character of development in Baram.
Today Baram is still dependent on timber and lately palm oil but there’s sufficient development in Baram area to support good employment opportunities. We have identified the area where the first dam will be sited and around the dam I see there’s enough development to support about 3,000 to 4,000 employment opportunities.
If we can build the township (in Baram), instead of tackling Baram’s resettlement problem we build a township like what we did for Bakun. It will be a healthy development.
While we can’t stop the migration of well-educated people completely from Baram like most rural areas, it will create opportunities for the educated people to come back. That to me is very important and that can only be done by having a development that is focused on the creation of the new town.
That’s why in Sarawak, the state government has decided to build a town near the dam. It’s an approach that’s been regarded as exciting by community leaders in Baram itself and they are welcoming it very much. I think this will be a good way to show that BN is always ahead to see what can be done to enhance the development potential of Sarawak itself. With the support of the Federal Government, this will bring about restructuring of basic problems in Sarawak, namely the distribution of the population.
I think the same approach is welcomed in Kapit because we also feel that border areas cannot afford to lose the population too much as we need a secure border for the future.
When we face this election we are going to see more forward thinking in the context of Sarawak because we have a good Prime Minister who can understand this kind of thing. I doubt whether someone in Pakatan Pembangkang will be able to produce that level of vision, expertise in economic and social development.
We know most of the leaders in Opposition, we cannot see anybody from them who can see this level of development for Sarawak even if we can get along with them. That’s the outlook that we have from the Sarawak perspective.
Q: What is your message to the people of Sarawak and the people of Malaysia in general? What are your plans for the state?
A: To the people of Sarawak, Sarawak is undergoing very aggressive economic policy. Score will require a lot of infrastructures. We need quite a lot of development that it will be heavier for Sarawak to shoulder alone. We need a Federal Government that understands our process of development.
I would say let’s elect experienced leaders. At least they have been brought up in the surrounding of development planning and execution as it has been imbued in our system.
It has been adopted by our various leaders and refined from time to time by our Prime Ministers. The best people are the people in Barisan Nasional to do this. I don’t think anybody from the Opposition has that kind of long-term views and practical experience.
This concludes of interview with Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Chief Minister of Sarawak.