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MGG: The Mentris Besar And Forest Reserves
By M.G.G. Pillai

19/8/2001 10:16 pm Sun

The Mentris Besar And Forest Reserves

Where the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia now is was for half a century Malaysia's pristine forest reserve of several hundred acres. The Selangor mentri besar of the day, Dato' Harun Idris, and his executive council, allowed the forest reserve to be logged of mature virgin timber and offered the site for the university. When the public became aware of his ecological rape, the deed was done. Dato' Harun pleaded ignorance about its value as a forest reserve or indeed if it was one and blamed his executive council and civil servants for not telling him of its value. The forest department was not consulted: when money is there to be made in the bushels, no one, not even a chief minister, wants to be told he cannot.

Twenty one years later, a smaller ecological rape takes place, also in Selangor, under a different but equally politically ambitious mentri besar. Political correctness has seeped into Malaysian culture in the meanwhile without understanding what it meant. Forest reserves had become wildlife sanctuaries. One now beats the government for denying wild life a sanctuary, not for denuding forests. But both are a euphemism for corruption. The Zoo Negara will be moved from its site in Ulu Klang because the Selangor state government has found that land to be too valuable for a zoo; the area would create a few millionaires of those allowed to turn it into housing estates.

Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, as he calls himself now, is an UMNO vice president and was mentri besar of Selangor when in 1992 305 ha of a 575 ha forest reserve in Bukit Sungei Putih was declared not a forest reserve. Like all mentris besar, he is autocratic as they come. He brooks no opposition. To make sure he has all on board, the state executive councillors are allowed their own side deals. No state executive councillor, certainly not a mentri besar in a National Front administration, could ever be forced into penury. So, silence is the norm when state reserves are raped, as in Bangi and in Cheras.

Not only in Selangor. The mentri besar of Malaysia's smallest state, Perlis, rapes his forest reserves. The accusations Dato' Fauzi Abdul Rahman hurled at the former Pahang mentri besar, Tan Sri Khalil Yaakub, centred on alienating forest reserves. Tan Sri Muhiyuddin Yassin is a wealthy man today because as mentri besar of Johore, such opportunities as alienating forest reserves came his way. One mentri besar of Perak, the father of the present, became so wealthy that the sultan, as in Johore against Tan Sri Muhiyuddin, rebelled. He went on to become Malaysia's ambassador to the then United Arab Republic, now Egypt. As the former mentri besar of Trengganu, Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Ahmad, is now ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

It is worse in Sabah and Sarawak, where timber reserves are immense and corruption a way of life. One application for forest land to keep a company from closing down and throwing 2,000 workers in Sabah is a scandal: millions have been given in "donations" but the licence has not come through, and the file is now before the Prime Minister. The system of rotating chief ministers has the immediate effect of money collected with the decision left to his successor, which he would not because he had not been paid. In Sabah and Sarawak, it was the practice to give every state minister a substantial timber grant for every year in office, making them instant millionaires. I do not know if that is still so. But the chief minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, is widely believed to be one of the richest politicians in Malaysia. As his uncle and predecessor, and later, Yang Dipertuan Negara, Tun Abdul Rahman Yaakub was before him. When uncle and nephew are chief ministers for 30 years, it is a fair bet that it breeds corruption to an unmatched degree.

The Anti-Corruption Agency director-general, Dato' Zulkipli Mat Nor, when asked about the Cheras land, would not comment. "I don't wish to comment. No comments, no comments on this." Why? Because the people involved are those who belief they have a bright future in federal politics? Could the Anti-Corruption Agency refuse to comment months after it started investigations into the matter? The ACA, like Suhakam on human rights, is an embarassment to the government, set up to keep the public at bay. It was defanged in 1969 after it forced two mentris besar -- of Trengganu and Perak -- out of office for corruption. One irony of that is the ACA chief then is today deputy chairman of Suhakam -- Tan Sri Harun Hashim. The ACA now cannot, indeed do not have the power to, investigate corruption in the higher reaches of government and the National Front -- unless the person to be investigated has fallen foul of the leaders.

So, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim is investigated but not ..., oh well, never mind. Long years in office encourages corruption, especially if it is in the same ministry. The late Tun Sardon Jubir, an UMNO stalwart who after years in the cabinet went on to be Malaysian ambassador to the United Nations and United States and governor of Penang, once told me he retired when his UMNO division in Johore wanted him to resign because he was preventing others in his division from making money. It is the march of the times. Corruption is more insidious now than it ever was. But no one, not even the Prime Minister, would address it as he should. Politics is turned upside down that if a high ranking official is charged or investigated for corruption, it is a sign he is no longer in political odour with the UMNO president. His former deputy would give you chapter and worse on that.

When the government drifts, as now, and dissent, in the cabinet, in the party, in the country is viewed as treachery and anti-government, something must give. It is not enough to arrest and jail a few policemen for accepting a few hundred dollars in bribes -- if you offer anything less, you would find yourself charged with corruption instead -- but it should start at the top. Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib has still explain how he came to have RM2.4 million in foreign currencies in Darwin a few years ago, or how he could pay off a former wife, the daughter of his sultan, the equivalent of US$5 million. Or how she, with him, came to own a lucrative piece of real estate in Shah Alam when he was mentri besar. Or is it a requirement of the job that he should not know where forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries are? The breast-beating now is akin to shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.

M.G.G. Pillai