Capitalism in Sarawak, in its current form, is only tailored to meet the needs and interests of BN elites clustered around Abdul Taib Mahmud, writes Abang Benet.
A spectre is haunting Sarawak – the spectre of klepto-capitalism! All the powers of the Barisan Nasional government, federal and state, ministers and civil servants, mainstream media and corporate cronies have entered into an unholy alliance to perpetuate this spectre at the expense of the people.
Who in Sarawak has not decried the avaricious greed of its all-powerful Chief Minister and his family?
The fundamental right to property
A new nation, Malaysia, was formed in 1963 in which the interests and fundamental liberties of all its peoples were to be protected. A key fundamental liberty of this nation was and continues to be the right to hold property as enshrined in Article 13 of the Constitution.
A right protected by law, this fundamental right also lies at the heart of our nation’s economic system, i.e. capitalism, in which the right to legally accumulate and hold private property is sacred. Indeed, without this feature, capitalism would not be what it is. Without wealth accumulation, capitalism cannot exist.
And yet, over the last 30 years, ever since Abdul Taib Mahmud became Chief Minister of Sarawak in March 1981, he has – according to web portal Sarawak Report – been using his position to enrich himself and his family.
DAP Sarawak (as the political voice of the Chinese business community) has consistently criticised CM Abdul Taib Mahmud for being inordinately rich and for monopolising most business opportunities in the state – to no avail. PKR Sarawak (as the political voice of native Bumiputera landowners) has consistently criticised CM Abdul Taib Mahmud for being inordinately rich and for grabbing native customary rights (NCR) lands of Dayaks and Malays – to no avail.
According to Sarawak Report (www.sarawakreport.org), Taib and his family members today not only own property in Malaysia but also in the United States, UK, Australia, and Canada worth in excess of hundreds of millions of US dollars. The website also alleges that they have accumulated this wealth systematically and illegally via corporate kickbacks, crony gifts, highly questionable disbursements of infrastructure contracts and outright land grabs of native customary lands. In other words, Abdul Taib Mahmud, his family and his political cronies have apparently accumulated wealth by abusing the state bureaucracy and government powers to methodically plunder Sarawak’s resource wealth and cream off public monies.
And yet, thus far, despite his protests of innocence, Abdul Taib Mahmud has been reluctant to initiate any legal action for libel in the UK against Clare Rewcastle Brown, the sister-in-law of former British premier Grodon Brown and owner of the Sarawak Report web portal, which has meticulously documented his inordinate wealth around the world. This only suggests that there is a lot of truth to what the website is publishing.
After all, pray tell, how does someone who earns an average of about RM50,000/month over 30 years (cumulative total: RM18 million) amass so much wealth without resort to less than legal means? Indeed, some political pundits even suggest that Abdul Taib Mahmud is likely the richest politician in Southeast Asia today.
Capitalism: Dynamic or moribund?
Which thus raises some questions. Is Abdul Taib Mahmud overseeing a state government that is committed to preserving the capitalist character of the economy; one that that is governed by the rule of law and overseen by a rational bureaucracy that implements the policies of a government that appreciates free trade and competition even as it protects the welfare interests of the poor and the disadvantaged? Or is Abdul Taib Mahmud overseeing a state government and an economy for the general purpose of enriching a nepotistic kleptocrat (i.e. himself) who cherishes monopolistic trade, personalised rule, self-aggrandisement, cronyism and bald plunder?
Put differently, is capitalism in Sarawak free and dynamic or is it shackled and moribund, held captive by a feudal Rajah? And where does the federal government stand? Does it support dynamic or klepto-capitalism in Sarawak?
Ironically, Abdul Taib Mahmud has often quoted globalisation’s heady promises of unprecedented prosperity and happiness as being within the reach of all Sarawakians if only they embraced the world’s ‘new reality’: mastery of competitiveness, new technologies and hard work.
And yet, despite their best efforts, Sarawak’s economy remains moribund. Industrial growth is stunted; poverty and inequality deep. Thousands of young Sarawakians are unable to find gainful employment and are forced to live and work in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore even as rich BN elites linked to Abdul Taib Mahmud squirrel away their wealth overseas in Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Europe. While huge dams, dirty industries and oil palm plantations are raised in the state, the natural land, forests and water resources of native communities are decimated beyond repair.
Excluding native landowners from capitalism
Perhaps Abdul Taib Mahmud, in his desire and vision to ‘transform’ Sarawak has forgotten that even poor people desire to get rich and to prosper just like he, his family and his cronies have. The only resources that many poor native Sarawakians have are their own native customary rights (NCR) lands. But how are they to prosper if capitalism and the rule of law as presently perpetuated in the state do not benefit them and instead undermine their right to property?
Instead of enriching the poor, capitalism in Sarawak misrepresents them and locks them out of the very system that they look to to help them earn a living and make some money. Sarawak’s capitalist economy – in its current state – does not benefit its poor.
The natives of Sarawak own lots of land and forest resources but the state consistently refuses to recognise their property rights over NCR lands. Instead, Abdul Taib Mahmud has presided over a regime that has issued numerous legally-questionable timber licences and provisional leases for agricultural land to logging and oil plantation companies respectively which have led to numerous land conflicts.
Of late, the Federal Court has consistently recognised the rights of native Sarawakians over their NCR lands but the state government led by Abdul Taib Mahmud continues to ignore these legal precedents and continues issuing provisional leases. Pressured and financed by the federal government, the Land and Survey Department has only recently started undertaking perimeter surveys of the houses and villages of native communities but not necessarily their NCR lands and forests. But it is too little, too late.
In other words, the natives of Sarawak, despite having NCR land as property are stymied by rules fashioned by Abdul Taib Mahmud’s kleptocratic regime that are designed to explicitly exclude them from participating in the capitalist system. And why? So that Abdul Taib Mahmud and his BN cronies can continue to grab the NCR lands of poor villagers? Natives who are made landless are then ‘conveniently’ forced into working as plantation labour on their own native lands. Those who refuse to work as plantation labour are forced to migrate to big cities and often end up living in marginalised housing and working as industrial or commercial labour.
Without property rights over their NCR lands, the natives of Sarawak are stopped from properly developing private legal enterprise. Without property rights and proper legal title over their NCR lands, they cannot get a loan, mortgage or credit and end up being excluded from the capitalist system. The global market and its effervescent promises simply passes them by. They are not bankable.
Hence, capitalism in Sarawak, in its current form, is only tailored to meet the needs and interests of BN elites clustered around Abdul Taib Mahmud. It is not designed to meet the needs or the interests of the poor natives who are land-rich. Nor does capitalism in Sarawak today meet even the needs of the educated middle-class children of these land-rich but economically marginalised natives. Hence, the bulk of the native peoples remain mired in a quagmire of low growth and low incomes.
Does Sarawak need a peaceful social revolution to remake capitalism into a form more dynamic, more egalitarian and more responsive to the wealth and welfare needs of all its peoples instead of that of its kleptocratic Chief Minister and his small coterie of cronies?
You bet it does!
Abang Benet is an expert on Sarawak politics and continues to be a regular Aliran correspondent.