Dennis Ignatius: An outpouring of hypocrisy

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Officialdom never questioned the source of his immense wealth.

The demise of former Sarawak Chief Minister and Governor Abdul Taib Mahmud saw an outpouring more of hypocrisy than grief. Malaysian politicians lavished what Terrence Netto aptly called “worthless clichés” upon a man whose long career – over 40 years first as chief minister and then as governor – was dogged by controversy.

Taib was praised as a respected statesman, a visionary and legendary leader, a mentor, a unifying force, a man who dedicated his whole life to public service. He was even – rather bizarrely – praised for his fiscal prudence and foresight! Thankfully the outpouring was brief.

Many, however, will remember him differently, as Malaysiakini columnist Martin Vengadesan noted.

Taib ruled the state with an iron fist. His wealth was as legendary as it was unexplained. Allegations of corruption and abuse of power abounded. Under his watch, almost 85% of Sarawak’s rainforests were impacted by logging. The Taib family and their hangers-on became fabulously wealthy while many Sarawakians still remain mired in poverty.  Indeed, it may be argued that Sarawak emerged as a true kleptocratic state during his time in office.

Officialdom never questioned the source of his immense wealth. Even now, it remains glaring that while the likes of Daim Zainuddin and the sons of Mahathir Mohamad are being hounded by the MACC to declare their assets (as they should), no such demands were ever made on the Taib family. It makes a mockery of the current government’s commitment to uncompromisingly root out corruption.

But politics trumps everything else. Taib struck a Faustian bargain with successive federal governments – for so long as Putrajaya did not interfere in how he ran the state, he would give them his full support. It was a deal that served him well personally but not so much the natives of Sarawak.

The Bard wrote in Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” It may be true elsewhere but not in Malaysia. – Dennis Ignatius