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AWSJ: Sarawak's 'Brown Rajah' Taib Clings to His Dwindling Power
By Leslie Lopez
4/9/2001 7:10 pm Tue
Sarawak's 'Brown Rajah' Taib Clings to His Dwindling Power
By LESLIE LOPEZ
To friends and foes alike, the dapper, silver-maned chief minister is
known as the "Brown Rajah," a cheeky play on the famous White Rajahs,
Britain's Brooke family, which ran Sarawak as a private fiefdom from
1841 until 1941.
These days, however, the Rajah's perch in the state capital of Kuching
appears a little shaky. Discontent within his own political party has
bubbled to the surface, triggered largely by Tan Sri Taib's own
reluctance to put a succession plan in place. Political opponents,
meanwhile, are complaining that the chief minister's family and their
business associates have benefited unfairly from government backing.
And the sensitive issue of land ownership is pitting Tan Sri Taib and
powerful timber groups against Sarawak's forest-dwelling indigenous
groups, who account for roughly 40% of Sarawak's two million people.
These challenges come at an awkward time for the 65-year-old chief
minister. The Sarawak government dissolved the state legislative
assembly Monday, paving the way for an election that must be held
within the next 60 days to choose a new state legislature. The vote
will test Tan Sri Taib's ability to maintain the status quo against
opponents bent on breaking his paternalistic governing style, which
critics say has muffled political debate and bred corruption and
"This election will be a watershed. We're dealing with younger voters
who have very different demands," said Justin Jinggut, the secretary
general of Sarawak National Party, a key member of Tan Sri Taib's
ruling coalition government.
Most local opposition figures concede that toppling Tan Sri Taib
himself will be impossible. "The state government's political
machinery and ability to dispense patronage can't be matched," said
Sim Kwang Yang, a former opposition leader. But he and other political
foes say Tan Sri Taib's government could be badly bruised in the
coming election, losing as many as 10 seats in the 62-member state
assembly to the opposition. The ruling coalition currently holds 58
Tan Sri Taib, however, said he isn't too concerned. The chief minister
expects the opposition to raise issues such as transparency and
"These are not big issues. Maybe in Kuching but most people in other
parts of Sarawak are still keen on development," he said in an
interview earlier this year.
Prime Minister Mathathir Mohamad's national government is counting on
the accuracy of Tan Sri Taib's assessment. Sarawak, the largest of
Malaysia's 13 states, has emerged as a crucial factor in the country's
political equation after the November 1999 national elections.
Tan Sri Taib's coalition, a component of Dr. Mahathir's National Front
government, captured all 28 of the state's parliamentary seats in the
1999 national election. That clean sweep -- representing 15% of
Malaysia's 193-member Parliament -- is a sharp contrast to the
performance of the National Front in Peninsular Malaysia, where Dr.
Mahathir's party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO,
suffered significant electoral setbacks. Much of this is due to the
fallout from the government's sacking of former deputy premier Anwar
Ibrahim more than two years ago on charges of corruption and sexual
Should this trend persist, political analysts say, the National
Front's two-thirds majority in Parliament could be in jeopardy in the
next election, which must be held before the end of 2004. In such a
scenario, Sarawak's role as a political crutch for Dr. Mahathir's
government will become even more important.
But first, Tan Sri Taib must obtain a strong mandate in the coming
state election. Failure to do so, say political analysts, would not
only embolden the opposition forces in Sarawak and Tan Sri Taib's
political foes within his own party, but also further fragment
Malaysia's political spectrum.
Sarawak is ethnically diverse, which makes politics here even more
complex than in Peninsular Malaysia. Sarawak's population is made up
of 30 indigenous ethnic groups scattered sparsely through the state's
interior. Melanaus, of which Tan Sri Taib is one, and ethnic Malays,
make up about 24%. The ethnic Chinese make up 20% of Sarawak's
population, while the Dayaks -- the blanket term for Sarawak's array
of native tribes -- account for nearly 40%.
Sarawak's economy is the most resilient among Malaysia's 13 states,
with its gross domestic product expanding at an average growth rate of
8.5% each year between 1988 and 1997. Sarawak even escaped the ravages
of Asia's 1997-98 financial crisis and managed 2% growth in 1998 when
Malaysia as a whole slipped into its worst recession ever. Tan Sri
Taib said that economic growth -- powered by high oil and gas prices
-- is expected to hit 8.5% this year, up from 7.4% in 2000.
But Sarawak's economic gains have become a double-edged sword for Tan
Sri Taib. Better living and educational standards have fanned
expectations of further improvements and prompted greater scrutiny of
the business affairs of his family.
Still, Tan Sri Taib said allegations of favoritism in the award of
contracts and timber concessions are baseless and meant to discredit
"We give contracts to people who can deliver," he said. "Just because
they are close to the state government shouldn't be made into an
Still, complaints of favoritism have increased because one of the main
beneficiaries in recent years has been Cahaya Mata Sarawak Bhd., or
CMS, a publicly traded investment holding concern that is
40%-controlled by members of Tan Sri Taib's family. Tan Sri Taib's
brother, Onn Mahmud, serves as chairman of the group, while the chief
minister's two sons, Sulaiman Abu Bakar Taib and Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib
are joint executive directors of CMS.
Tan Sri Taib said he isn't involved with contract awards to CMS. "I
always say treat them like any other company. I can't say don't give
them any jobs. This is a public company and I could be sued by the
Opposition leaders and private businessmen maintain that CMS's
transformation from a modest cement manufacturer to a conglomerate
with interests in banking, stockbroking, construction, road building,
property development and steel manufacturing, is largely due to its
"It's really tough. Many people believe it is a waste of time bidding
against CMS. You're are better off getting them as your partners if
you want to get anything," said a prominent Kuching-based ethnic
Chinese businessman who has done business with the CMS group and knows
the Taib family well.
This businessman and some local politicians said CMS's voracious
appetite is stirring resentment among the ethnic Chinese, who fret
that they are being cut out of the state's development programs.
"The Chinese don't say much," said Mr. Sim, Sarawak's former chief
opposition leader. "But there is resentment on the ground and this
will cost Taib votes."
George Chan, Sarawak's Finance Minister and Tan Sri Taib's most
trusted lieutenant, contends that the bulk of the ethnic Chinese in
the state will continue to support Tan Sri Taib's ruling coalition.
But he concedes that there is a perception problem over the first
family's business interests. "To be frank, there is some grumbling
about the chief minister's family being in business. But a lot of it
is exaggerated and it is really people dropping his name to try to
secure government contracts or to get approvals speeded up," said Tan
Sri Chan, whose daughter is married to Tan Sri Taib's son.
Dissent among the Chinese isn't the only political brushfire Tan Sri
Taib has to fight. Sarawak's Dayaks are also becoming restive.
Logging, which penetrates deep into Sarawak's interior, has deprived
indigenous groups of their so-called native customary rights over
their ancestral land and stoked resentment against big business.
Opposition politicians say that confrontation between native groups
and loggers are on the rise and that could push the Dayaks to vote
against the Taib government.
Despite the rising discontent Tan Sri Taib still feels that he is the
best man to lead Sarawak because he has yet to find an ideal
successor. "I've been grooming some people and I hope at least one can
make it," he said, adding that he plans to serve out the next
five-year term following these elections.