Clare Rewcastle Brown’s Unfinished Business

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In the epilogue to her latest book, The Wolf Catcher, Clare Rewcastle Brown (of the Sarawak Report fame) made some rather interesting observations.

The Sarawak-born British lady who many credited with single-handedly bringing the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) saga into the international spotlight all but promised to now return to “unfinished business” in Sarawak.

The Sarawak Report was originally conceived to highlight the allegedly corrupt nexus between Sarawak politics and the way business is done in the state, particularly the timber trade, which has made some favoured local tycoons wealthy.

At the centre of this nexus is Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, who is Sarawak Yang di-Pertua Negeri and before that chief minister for 33 years.

Wrote Brown: “After all these years, the people of Sarawak also deserved to get rid of their marauding kleptocrats.

“To see their right to justice once again pushed aside to suit the government of the day soon sparked angry talk of independence. Ironically, that played right into the hands of Taib and his political allies who immediately postured as the ‘pro-autonomy’ defenders of the state against interference from KL.”

With her reputation and credibility given a massive boost post-1MDB, what Brown now promises to do should not be taken lightly.

Her laser-like, near-missionary zeal in exposing scandals in high places can no longer be dismissed as the handiwork of armchair self-righteous foreign critics.

Still, there are things which must be put in proper contexts.

Brown writes as if Taib remains today a pivotal political force in Sarawak.

Other savvy watchers of the Sarawak scene may dispute that premise.

In fact, there are those who will argue that Taib increasingly cuts an isolated persona, ensconce in the Astana in Kuching or, more likely, in his sprawling private residence.

That may be partly Taib’s own doing.

Those in the know say he has been scrupulous in not wanting to be seen interfering directly or indirectly in state affairs since handing over the political office to the late Tan Sri Adenan Satem, even (or especially) if the business interests of the family-controlled Cahya Mata Sarawak Bhd (CMSB) are affected by certain state policy decisions.

The fact that the state government under Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Abang Openg recently saw fit to cut back on state-funded road maintenance contracts to CMSB seems to further confirm that Taib has lost political leverage.

Which is, of course, not in any way suggesting that when or if push comes to shove in Sarawak’s potentially volatile politics, Taib’s residual political influence – particularly with some individuals still in key political positions currently – will not come in handy.

Further, while the current “pro-autonomy” fire in the state is raging, it may only be partially true that some personalities or unseen forces are fanning the flames for whatever may be their political or other purposes.

This political firestorm, if anything, has genuine popular backing, and its original spark was lit long ago.

Serious political parties and personalities in the state need to tread ever so gingerly around it, lest they be consumed by the flames.

But it is safe to assume that the dynamics of this particular storm have more to do with vociferous and spontaneous anti-federal sentiments (and therefore are particularly troubling) than any antipathies towards Taib or the current state administration.

The Parti Gabungan Sarawak-led (GPS) state government may well prove to be making a highly combustible pact with the devil if the calculations made are that it can marshal the anti-federal sentiments and actually control them, to the ultimate benefit of the current powers-that-be.

What Taib and his predecessor and uncle, the late Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub, had together built quite deliberately over 40 years is a delicate political framework that they had hoped will sustain Malay-Melanau political pre-eminence in Sarawak.

What is unfortunate for Putrajaya but fortunate for the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu-dominated Sarawak government is that popular sentiments – fairly or not – are directed against the former, not the latter.

Whether those sentiments and the flames ignited will eventually consume both are naturally open to conjecture.

This is a high-stakes and high-risk game which everyone seems to have a hand in.

The opacity of political goings-on in Sarawak relative to those in the peninsula also means that the “success” that Brown chalked up over the ashes of the 1MDB drama may yet continue to elude her in Sarawak.

That a New Sarawak inevitably follows New Malaysia is by no means a sure thing. – NST

The writer John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.