I am unimpressed with the antics of Sarawak Report, Bruno Manser Fund and Global Witness. This is not because I want to deflate the debate on the future of Sarawak, because this debate has huge implications for Malaysia, and the choices are not straightforward.
And it is hard to be confident in an administration led by one wily politician, who has dominated the politics of his state for thirty years. Are we seriously meant to have confidence in an administration that was so centred on one man? Without an effective, critical media, debate within the press only really happened when two branches of the same family were engaged in a private political war.
Clare Rewcastle herself, in a recent article on FMT, challenged me to a “simple exercise”, to look at her articles and check their facts. Well, I have done just that, and it was by checking the facts that I could see her whole story fall apart. Notwithstanding Clare Rewcastle’s claim that her organisation is just a small beacon of truth, its reach into Malaysian politics and its online and radio presence clearly show a dedicated and well funded group. I have looked at some of the key campaigns led by Rewcastle, Bruno Manser Fund and Global Witness. That these groups are interconnected is a given: Sarawak Report is advertising a Bruno Manser Fund book on its main page. So I ask again: are we looking at fraud and theft, or serious questions about strategy, policy and social justice?
Well, the foreign NGOs will get no critical help from the Malaysian media. The conventional media will censor themselves to near silence, and the opposition websites are just as slavish, in their attempt to follow and endorse anything that undermines BN. I therefore want to look at some of the key stories that have been put forward by the three foreign organisations. These are the stories that shock us (and draw more attention to these publications), but how much fact is there really behind them? How many mistakes have Rewcastle Brown Publishing, Bruno Manser Fund and Global Witness made?
So here is the first story, of which you have so far seen only scraps and pieces as they emerge in the media, drawn together into a single piece of analysis.
Let’s start with the really ugly stuff. In our papers we watch, every few weeks, a freeze-frame domestic car crash as Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib is sued by his ex-wife, Shahnaz Abdul Majid. He has a lot of money. Presumably she has quite a lot too, but wants a lot more. So we could reasonably expect her to drag in every bit of dirt that could stand up in court. It’s all part of the fun. And when she hires Anwar Ibrahim’s lawyer, well, one might hope for a bit of politics to seep through into the courtroom.
What one might not have expected was to hear testimony of over a hundred offshore bank accounts, hundreds and hundreds of millions of ringgit stashed offshore. She produced a report detailing all this, and swore to it. She should know, she tells us she was his wife.
This was devastating, and fitted exactly with the image of the Taib family that the activists have been selling to us since the early run-up to the last state elections. It wasn’t just credible: it was endorsed by the Sarawak Report, which said the information matched its separate investigations. And then it was repeated by the Bruno Manser Fund, which, because it conveniently named Swiss banks, was able to get a radical MP to move a motion in the Swiss Parliament to have it investigated. Fantastic. And that all fitted with the earlier claims, also transmitted by the Bruno Manser Fund and Sarawak Report, where they claimed to have got the Swiss President to set the government’s prosecutors to track the Taib millions, hidden in Swiss banks around the world.
With momentum like that, it was only a matter of time before the Swiss nailed the Taibs. There was just too much, too many sources for anyone to believe the Taibs when they said it wasn’t true. Sarawak Report, Bruno Manser Fund, two separate sets of Swiss allegations, Mahmud Abu Bekir’s wife, all saying the same thing.
No money in Swiss banks
But it has quietly emerged that the whole thing was wrong. Not inaccurate. Not misguided, not exaggerated. The Swiss government, which has unlimited access to the Swiss banks, rejected the whole lot. There is no money in the Swiss banks. There never was.
How could so many people be wrong at the same time?
The stunning answer is that they made it up. Far away, in the Caribbean, the FBI finally extradited a Canadian, Cullen Johnson, who with his wife had been on the run from the US and Canadian police and a lot of very angry people because he had claimed that he could hack bank accounts, when in fact he was forging them instead, and selling the forgeries. He has admitted it. And shortly after the US authorities arrested him and seized his computers, the correspondence between him and Clare Rewcastle-Brown was leaked on the web. She has ranted about it, and as usual blames dark forces in Malaysia. But in doing so she has demonstrated that the material is the real thing.
Her correspondence showed Cullen Johnson and Rewcastle-Brown confiding in each other, as they tried to get Shahnaz Abdul Majid to hire him. Shahnaz lied to the Syariah Court in her divorce, claiming she knew these things to be true, though she was ten years separated from her errant husband. But she hadn’t, it appeared, known enough, so she was persuaded by her lawyers to use Cullen Johnson. And as soon as his forged material was uttered in court, Clare Rewcastle pops up and endorses it. And then she and the Bruno Manser Fund sent it round the world.
It’s fantastic. God knows what money Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib has, or where he has it. But the breathless trickery to inject forged material in one end of a court case, pull it out the other, and put it on the web: what does that tell us about the integrity, intentions and grip on facts demonstrated by the people who would have us crucify Taib as a crook?
I struggle to sympathise with Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib. Many divorce cases have the benefit of reminding the couple why they are better apart. He appears to be wealthy enough to cope with her demands. And just because they faked the evidence of his offshore assets, it doesn’t automatically mean that he doesn’t have any, or that he was a good and faithful husband. But it is a stunning indictment of Sarawak Report. Because they didn’t have the evidence of offshore wealth, they parasitically took over a Malaysian courtroom, and then endorsed the forgeries. This wasn’t an error of judgement and enthusiasm. And it suggests to me that we should deeply distrust everything else this remarkably prolific and well funded campaigner writes.
Winifred Poh has lived in Sarawak for 50 years and is an FMT reader.