Lessons from Sarawak – the role of the free press in public accountability

Lessons from Sarawak – the role of the free press in public accountability

Corruption Management SarawakBy Ghui

There are many reasons why many countries do not permit a political leader from sitting at the helm of power infinitely. Various mechanisms such as the fostering of a vigorous opposition, a free press and the limitation on the amount of time one can stay in power are usually put in place to prevent such an outcome.

For instance, the United States of America prescribe that the President can only serve a maximum of two terms (8 years). While having a strong leader stay in power indefinitely has the benefit of continuity, it had lead to a multitude of issues which can far outweigh any positive benefits of continuity – a lack of transparency or accountability and a leadership vacuum are some of the key problems that can arise with unrestricted periods in power.

The Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), a charitable association registered in Basel, Switzerland has today released “Corruption Management Sarawak”, a report that sets out the economic legacy of Abdul Taib Mahmud (Taib), the current governor of Sarawak who was also its former Chief Minister.

Sarawak is the largest state of Malaysia and one blessed with abundant natural resources ranging from timber to rare species of flora and fauna. The report noted that under his 33 years as Chief Minister of this resource rich state, Taib’s closest family members have managed:

(i) to take control and ownership of Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS), a formerly state owned company though which his family have obtained a series of lucrative monopolies; and

(ii) to ensure that financially rewarding state contracts are awarded, without public tender, solely to CMS to the tune of over USD1.4 billion.

Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib bin Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak, at an international media and environment summit in 2005. (Image - Wikimedia Commons)
Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib bin Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak, at an international media and environment summit in 2005. (Image – Wikimedia Commons)

These financial activities have made Taib and his family immeasurably wealthy despite the constitution of Sarawak stipulating that the Chief Minister and the Governor shall “not hold any office of profit and shall not engage in any commercial enterprise”.

While Taib has become one of the richest men in South East Asia, Sarawak remains one of the poorest states of Malaysia. Thousand of indigenous people have lost their homes and livelihood while Taib’s family accumulates wealth.

Through an alleged misuse and abuse of power, indigenous communities face the total eradication of their culture while Taib conflates the boundaries between state and private to engineer an outcome that benefits only him and his allies at the expense of the common people.

How can one of Malaysia’s most resource rich state wind up also being one of its poorest? How can one man and his family benefit in such excess, while the very people whose interests he was meant to further see little in gain?

The answer might lie a large part in Taib’s unrestricted tenure of unfettered power. While the man on the street in Singapore might know little about Sarawak’s case, the old saying “absolute power corrupts absolutely” can be applied universally.

The need for accountability and transparency are as alive today as they were when social and political revolutionaries first dismantled absolute monarchies as the mode of governance. While inherited rule is no longer the political system du jour, democracies can be equally unaccountable if the incumbent is able to manipulate the system so as to ensure unencumbered power.

From top down, there has to be political will to ensure that no one in a public office is able to benefit from cronyism and nepotism. This is especially so if a particular system does not have strong opposition challengers or a free press to question self serving policies. Rules must be put in place to prevent despots from holding on to power indeterminately and parcelling out benefits to family and friends to “buy” support”.

Money Logging cover 1With the advent of new means of mass communication, these means must be utilised to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances are in place. As members of the Internet community, we each have a responsibility to pass this message on to ensure that the spotlight of public pressure remains firmly on those who have flouted fair play for self gain while in a position of power.

For example, through continued lobbying by the BMF and other international groups, the University of Adelaide has distanced itself from Taib. This sends a powerful message that civil society does not accept his actions and this was only possible because of relentless efforts to keep information about him in the public domain.

This may be a Sarawakian example, but issues of nepotism, cronyism, corruption, a lack of accountability and transparency are issues that exist in every country albeit in varying degrees. Political sleaze and exploitation benefit only very few while wreaking havoc at the livelihood of the common people, destroying fair play and meritocracy.

The handing out of preferential treatment to retain and consolidate power eliminates an even playing field and prevents the best people from doing the best jobs. This in turn affects the state because people are put in jobs not because of their ability but because of who they know. The loyalty of these individuals will also not be to the public office in which they hold but to the person who put them there!

An open political system with adequate checks and balances are not just “a good to have” but an absolute necessity for the progressive development of any state, as can be seen from Sarawak’s political tragedy.  To ensure transparency and responsible governance is not a short-term fight – it is a relentless pursuit to consistently hold those in power accountable.

From a Singaporean perspective, it is a stark reminder that a free press, accountability and transparency are worth fighting for. We all have something to learn from the Sarawak’s political misfortune.

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