A powerful chief minister bows out—or does he?
FEW of Asia’s elected leaders have enjoyed the power of Abdul Taib Mahmud, the chief minister of Sarawak. For 33 years he lorded it over this Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, once densely forested and still rich in oil. Mr Taib was an appropriate successor to generations of the British Brooke family, who ran the territory as their own monarchy for a century from 1841. They were known as the White Rajahs. Their 77-year-old, white-haired modern equivalent, Mr Taib, will officially retire on February 28th, passing the job to a hand-picked successor, Adenan Saten. Mr Taib, though, will probably get another comfortable job himself, retaining much influence.
Few have contributed more, for better and for worse, to the course of modern Malaysian history. Mr Taib has played a crucial role in keeping the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in power—it has ruled ever since Malaysia won independence from Britain in 1957. The two former British possessions on Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak, joined the new federation of Malaysia in 1963 (together with Singapore, which dropped out two years later). Ever since, east Malaysia has supplied the oil and votes that the BN needs.
Oil revenues have fuelled the country’s breakneck development, while the votes have kept the coalition’s stranglehold on federal power even as its share of the vote has dropped steeply over time in peninsular Malaysia. Gerrymandering by the BN means that Sabah and Sarawak, largely rural and sparsely inhabited, fill almost a quarter of the federal parliament’s seats, out of all proportion to their populations. Mr Taib has secured the vote every time. The 25 seats out of a possible 31 that his own political machine, allied to the BN, won in the general election last year was, with the seats that the BN’s allies won in Sabah, the difference between the coalition holding on to power and electoral humiliation.
His electoral muscle has given Mr Taib disproportionate political clout. He has run Sarawak single-handedly, with little accounting to anyone. His supporters credit him with presiding over an era of unparalleled development, transforming a disease-ridden backwater into a relatively modern state and well-known tourist destination. He has also used his clout with the central government to insist upon an impressive degree of local autonomy for Sarawak, thus preserving its special ethnic and religious make-up in the federation.
In Sarawak Malays are only the third-largest ethnic group. About 40 ethnic groups make up the largest proportion of the population, of which the indigenous Iban is the biggest. The second-biggest group are ethnic Chinese. Mr Taib himself comes from the Melanau, accounting for about 6% of the population. Sarawak also boasts a variety of religions, and there are more Christians than Muslims. While preserving this diversity, Mr Taib has also mastered and exploited ethnic divisions to build his political base, a process greased by cash at election time to persuade people to vote the right way.
But for all the chief minister’s insistence on Sarawak’s exceptionalism, legions of critics argue that it was a smokescreen for his administration and its friends to exploit the country. Mr Taib, who drives around in a Rolls-Royce and flies by private jet, has for several years been under investigation by the country’s anti-graft agency. Environmentalists say that under him Sarawak has lost nine-tenths of its virgin rainforest, most of it converted into lucrative palm-oil concessions. This has resulted in a huge loss in biodiversity.
Widespread deforestation has resulted in numerous battles over indigenous land rights. Local Iban have suffered from the bulldozing and development of their lands by state-backed logging companies and have sought redress in the courts. A Malaysian expert on indigenous land rights, Colin Nicholas, says at least 200 such cases are now working their way through the courts in Sarawak. Non-governmental organisations say that, in this regard, the chief minister has been more foe than friend to the Iban and other ethnic groups.
Some argue that, with Mr Taib stepping down, the BN might try to exert more direct control over politics in Sarawak, as they have in Sabah. But Mr Taib will probably become the state governor. This is a largely ceremonial role, like that of a royal sultan in peninsular Malay states. But from this position he will retain plenty of influence over Sarawak; it is unlikely that anything very much will change. What is more, in his new role Mr Taib could well enjoy immunity from prosecution, although the exact legal position is unclear. Either way, Tian Chua, of the opposition Democratic Action Party, says that Mr Taib has become the “Vladimir Putin of Sarawak”. The Economist