The day after Chief Minister Adenan Satem’s ‘Give Me a Chance’ speech in London this month, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman was raging over the phone at the High Commission.
How come the Sarawak Report Editor had managed to penetrate the building to listen to this ‘speech to NGOs’, which had been designed to improve Sarawak’s environmental image worldwide?
In fact, how come any active and outspoken NGOs had managed to get into the room at all?
After all this was a staged event. It had been designed to be reported back into Sarawak, as if a great crowd of knowledgeable and concerned NGO representatives had arrived and clapped to Satem’s presentation of a new leaf by BN.
The Foreign Minister would have been extremely sore on this point, of course.
Because Sarawak Report has detailed (with full bank account evidence) how he himself and his brother, the Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman, have personally exploited their political connections to make vast sums out of Malaysian timber corruption.
Nevertheless, after a decision was eventually made not to eject a number of uninvited observers, Sarawak Report and others did cover the event and the Chief Minister had made a gesture of positively welcoming their presence.
He made a good speech, as we have reported – apart from ranting against historical deeds by Spaniards against Aztecs, as if to suggest these removed the right of modern NGOs to express concern for human rights abuses against Dayaks.
Adenan adamantly claimed that he was planning to restore Sarawak’s forests, curb further oil palm plantation, end corruption and stop gratuitous dam building.
The fact that outfits like Sarawak Report were prepared to disseminate these promises and applaud his moves gave his speech a far bigger media boost that he could otherwise have hoped back home (a lesson in positive PR tactics).
He then duly watched the story play out in the local press; followed it up by freezing some timber company bank accounts (subsequently unfrozen within a matter of days) and then gave the go ahead to the massive Baram Dam.
Who did he think he was kidding?
Back in London many had thanked the uninvited guests for making Adenan’s London event more interesting.
But, this was not what had been organised.
The High Commission’s touted “NGO gathering” had originally consisted of somewhat bewildered British guests, with only tangental involvement in Sarawak forest issues – most invited at the very last minute.
One told Sarawak Report that he had just thrown on a tie and “dashed in” from his office, having been notified at ten that morning about the 11am event. He admitted his organisation has little direct interest and involvement in Sarawak.
Another, the Environmental Investigation Agency, does have a good track record on exposing environmental crime, but little involvement in Malaysia – they said they came because they were “curious”, not because they had much to say.
Another ‘NGO expert’ likewise admitted her outfit concentrated mainly on Banda Aceh, but hadn’t done much for several years. Her main interest was in spreading Islam and she asked questions along the lines of where Sarawak really was?
Uninvited, were Global Witness, FERN, Friends of the Earth, Bruno Manser Fund, Forest Monitor, International Rivers, Wetlands International or indeed any of the organisations, who are actively informed about logging in Sarawak.
At the top table, tellingly, sat a representative of the dam builders’ organisation, the International Hydropower Association – she had a question for the Chief Minister, which was could she congratulate him on Sarawak’s “clean and cheap” dam building programme?
Also in Adenan’s large delegation was JC Fong, the state legal counsel and invaluable side-kick for Taib Mahmud for many years; Henry Lau Managing Director of the notorious KTS timber giant and numerous top state officials left over from the Taib regime.
The impression therefore has to be that genuine engagement and real change was not the objective here, only a PR show for electors back home.
Sarawak Report focused on a crucial question at this ‘NGO engagement session’, because if there is to be real change in Sarawak then there has to be change in the way the state government goes about creating and implementing policies.
So, would there be moves to ensure a return to due process, transparency, the rule of law and proper public consultation after decades of autocratic rule by the ‘Emperor’ Taib Mahmud?
A case in point, we suggested, would be the initiation of a full review of Taib Mahmud’s pet plan, the Baram Dam, accompanied by a proper consultation process.
But this question elicited a surprising flash of anger from the till then controlled demeanor of Adenan Satem – it seemed to be a most sensitive issue.
“Let me make a start” he shouted out, indicating he either could not or would not commit to international standards of consultation on dams.
So no great surprise, when he announced this week that Baram is to go ahead, on no better grounds than those originally devised by his predecessor Taib Mahmud, who initiated the project primarily because it will flush billions of borrowed ringgit through his own family companies.
There have been immediate protests from the communities who will be affected – 20,000 native people will be displaced.
However, Adenan announced that because the state government has allegedly extracted the consent of certain headmen, full ‘democratic consent’ has been achieved and that the crowds of protestors are a mere “minority” of people.
Given these headmen are appointed by and paid for by his state government, it is hard to see how they ‘represent the people’ as opposed to Adenan himself.
This is especially so since several headmen have been recently sacked as a lesson against defiance on government policies.
As everyone in Sarawak knows, there are a few dozen headmen, yet thousands have been involved in protests and a petition of over 11,000 people was sent in to the government to protest the dam.
Meanwhile, the native blockade against the dam site has lasted almost two years.
So, again, whom does Adenan think he is kidding when he says only a minority oppose the dam and that a majority support it?
As the NGOs who failed to gain invitation to Satem’s ‘Give Me a Chance’ speech have been pointing out, Sarawak’s consultation process on this projected dam has to date been outrageously inadequate and the so-called “statement of need” has not begun to pass muster.
In London, Satem said he wanted to preserve what is left of Sarawak’s forests. Yet the past two years has seen an orgy of destruction in the Baram region by Sarawak’s logging giants, prompted by the very expectation of the dam.
The flooding of the Baram will permanently destroy 400 square kilometers of forested regions in the state and kill off a second major river system within a decade of the disaster of Bakun.
And for whose economic advantage is all this?
Bakun Dam remains under-utilised. It is unlikely it will ever make back billions in public funding, even under the best of circumstances.
As for foreign investment in the grand industrial park planned down river?
It is indicative that the major prospective investor so far has been none other than the ill-fated, mega-loss making, publicly funded, scandalous ‘development fund’ 1MDB, which was supposed to provide the main money behind the Malaysia’s next Press Metal aluminium plant.
But, even that has now spectacularly fallen through.
So, once again, it is borrowed Malaysian public money that is being channeled by BN’s clique of self-interested ‘politician entrepreneurs’ into projects owned by themselves, not foreign investment that defines such projects.
Because, of course, the main beneficiary of all the SCORE projects in Sarawak is the already stupendously wealthy family of Taib Mahmud, a man who clearly cannot contemplate his grave with a single mine in Sarawak left untapped, tree left standing or river left un-channeled into his own off-shore bank accounts.
Just last month Adenan, who cannot escape his legacy as Taib’s own appointed protégé, even announced the behind closed doors ‘privatisation’ of Sarawak’s telecommunications company SACOFA into Taib’s family company CMS.
And the building of yet another dam will secure the purchase of billions of ringgit of cement from the CMS monopoly in the state, while the company Sarawak Cable (owned by Taib’s son) will secure the transmission lines out.
Every factory, road, industrial and housing project related to this dam will likewise pour money into Taib’s grasping companies, through the back door negotiated contracts, which are the signature of the state’s way of doing things – a state of affairs that Adenan pointedly refused to promise to reform when asked in London by Sarawak Report.
Financing this bonanza for Taib and his selected cronies are the billions of borrowed ringgit raised from the state, secured on half the entire state budget, which has been set aside for years as warranty, instead of being spent on education, housing, rural electrification and roads – or indeed on giving the proper compensation that was due to the victims of Bakun, the 10,000 people forcibly moved over 15 years ago to make way for this earlier loss-making ‘clean energy’ project.
The people of Baram have needed only to look at the outcomes for the people of Bakun, or indeed the earlier Batang Ai dams to know that the promises being made this time by the same state government would not be worth the paper they were written on….. except, in the absence of due process in such matters in Sarawak, such promises are not even written down.
For the native people, such BN government promises are habitually given in the form of vague words in meetings and press statements in the Borneo Post rather documents signed and stamped – mere hot air dreams and statements, which have never been honored, ever.
Baram, like the SACOFA sale, must stand as the test case for Adenan’s ‘new look’ way of doing things, if he seriously wishes to convince electors in Sarawak that he is going to reform the shocking corruption and abuses, which he himself fully acknowledges.
Unless he goes back to the drawing board and considers the genuine benefits (or otherwise) of this project in a fair, inclusive and objective manner, using the procedures laid down by international standards (NGOs can indeed advise him) Adenan’s eco-bluff will have duly been called.
Why should tens of thousands of people now and generations of future Sarawakians pay the price of yet another expensive and destructive mega-dam, just so that money borrowed on international markets (at inflated cost) can be washed through companies belonging to Taib and all the BN crony hangers on in the name of this “progressive” project?
Was the London ‘Give Me a Chance’ event merely PR strategy, in order to disguise the Sarawak leadership’s latest money spinning agenda – Taib’s Billion Dollar Baby – the Baram Dam?