Changing the head hornbill in Sarawak

By Sim Kwang Yang

Should Abdul Taib Mahmud – the chief minister of Sarawak – step down, after 28 years at the helm,with near-absolute power, in the resource rich state?

Does PBB – his party that holds half the number of seats in the Sarawak State Assembly – bully the other component parties of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional?

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes!

But this kind of questions is only relevant to members and supporters of the Sarawak BN. Other Sarawakians know very well that Taib will not step down on his own accord.

He has to cling on to the throne in Sarawak, to protect the future of his gargantuan family conglomerate CMS (an acronym that could designate the company Cahaya Mata Sarawak, or the title Chief Minister of Sarawak – an interesting coincidence).
Whenever conversations meander off onto the topic of the Sarawak CM in private circles, it is hard for people not to mention CMS in the same breath. Its dominant presence in the Sarawak’s economy – especially in the public sector in the state – is well known.

Actually, the acronym for CMS has its origins in a precursor to the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC): Cement Manufacturers Sarawak.

The report in The Edge

The repressed press of Malaysian media have seldom told the story of CMS. On the other hand, there have been a few reports by international media on Taib’s family business. The following report by Michael Backman, entitled ‘In Sarawak, politics and cash are all in the family’, was published in The Edge on March 15 2001 in Melbourne, Australia:

taib mahmud�s family in cahya mata sarawak shares 100907“CMS Group was originally a joint venture between the state government’s Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) and the neighbouring state of Sabah.

The group started as a monopoly cement producer to feed the building boom in both states. In 1989, the Sabah government sold its stake and the Sarawak government decided the company should be listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange. At the same time, the chief minister’s brother, Onn bin Mahmud, and his two sons, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib and Sulaiman Abdul Rahman Taib, were brought in.

The Taib family owns about half the company and the SEDC’s equity has been diluted to about eight percent. Effectively, the chief minister had decided to privatise CMS – and it was his family that bought it.

CMS has since expanded to more than 40 subsidiaries that operate in infrastructure development, water supply, steel making, transport, manufacturing, property development, financial services and stock broking.

But CMS is not the Taib family’s only business concern. Timber is the main source of Sarawak’s wealth. Logging concessions, which the Sarawak government hands out, are are a license to print money. The chief minister’s family happens to possess significant logging concessions.

Indeed, claims have been published that companies associated with Taib and his supporters hold about 1.6 million hectares in timber concessions with a combined logged value of up to US$12 billion.

Taib’s time in politics has coincided with the apparent accumulation of enormous family wealth. He is known for his expensive tastes – he is rumoured to have paid almost US$2 million for the grand piano that belonged to the late American showman Liberace.”

There it is. The above report, published in 2001, is still relevant today. The question of whether Taib’s discharge of his official duty as CM amidst the meteoric rise of CMS constitutes a conflict of interest, or outright corruption, is a purely academic one.

As long as he can deliver all or nearly all 31 parliamentary seats in Sarawak to keep the Umno prime minister in power, as has been proven during the March 8 general election, the PM and all the federal agencies under his jurisdiction will not touch the Sarawak CM with a ten-foot pole.