Hornbill Unleashed

October 12, 2010

Sarawak’s democracy logjam

By Pak Bui

Rotting wood clogged up 250km of the Rejang, the largest river in Malaysia, and the life-giving artery that flows from the heart of our state.

Corruption caused this ecological disaster. Corruption, in human society, means to offer or receive bribes. The Latin root is corruptus, meaning to spoil, break or destroy. The word also refers to the decomposition of plants or animals. This latest scandal reminds all Sarawakians that corruption inevitably means decay and putrefaction.

The dead or dying wood was deposited into the river by loggers, or by the would-be impounders of the Bakun Dam. The government has not been forthcoming with an explanation for the source of the driftwood.

As usual, the ministers in charge have offered vague generalisations. Taib Mahmud, minister for natural resources, told the NST “the rain was very heavy and (fell) in such a short time” and “the land is undulating”, implying rain could wash tonnes of wood into the Rejang. 

Wong Soon Koh, minister for the environment, mentioned heavy rain, “logging activities”, “land clearing” and some kind of “natural disaster”.

The officials hope that they can delay any detailed discussion of the causes of the disaster, until the public forgets or loses interest. They need a little time to produce half-baked excuses, with no supporting evidence: Sarawak Natural Resources and Environmental Board (NREB) controller Peter Sawal has duly promised a preliminary report will be “ready by next week”.

We can look forward to our government officials placing the blame on unnamed “irresponsible” timber companies, or on “illegal” logging. Perhaps the culprit will be heavy rain, causing erosion and mudslides and moving piles of logs, supposedly left on the riverbanks for decades, into the Baleh and then the Rejang.

We will not be offered answers on why the NREB has left the massive stacks of wasted wood on the riverbanks, or why the state forestry department has allowed loggers to strip our forests of ‘bystander’ trees, and then leave these less valuable logs to decay by our rivers.

That there is soil erosion is undeniable. Sarawak’s logging has led to deforestation, destruction of root support to hold soil in place, and loss of canopy cover for exposed earth. The resulting erosion has turned our previously clear rivers into brown sludge, over the past three decades.

Standard operating procedure

But the standard operating procedure for any environmental scandal still applies. Each time we are choked by the haze from bushfires, for example, chief minister Taib’s officials, and his federal government supporters, blame dry weather and Sarawakian shifting cultivators for their ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture. The chief minister himself usually makes no comment, and has been known to leave for cooler climates during the haze.

In fact, satellite pictures clearly show most hotspots are in areas of oil palm estates in Kalimantan. Plantation companies (including Malaysian subsidiaries operating in Indonesia) clear land by indiscriminate burning.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that plantation and logging companies count themselves among the most loyal supporters of Taib’s fabulously wealthy family. The toothless NREB and forestry departments give these companies free rein.

In any functioning democracy, Taib and Wong Soon Koh would resign in shame. But in Sarawak, they continue mouthing platitudes.

Masing calls loggers ‘unscrupulous’

The logjam is a recurring disaster, like the haze. The MP for Baleh and minister for land development, James Masing, declared this logjam was “the third time in three years – the first was in 2008 at Sungai Gat and the second in Sungai Tunoh last year – that such an incident had happened.”

Masing remarked that this “clearly showed that the rules for logging were not being followed”. According to the Star, Masing then said, “I have gone around the world telling people that we are doing logging correctly. Now this happens. What will people think of us? We must take action against these unscrupulous timber companies.”

Perhaps Masing might consider renaming his portfolio ‘the ministry for lame excuses’. Since, to his knowledge, this pollution by logging debris had happened every year since 2008, why has he still been traveling the globe, boasting of our logging practices?

Masing appears to have been allowed to make general criticisms against the logging industry, because large numbers of Sarawakian Ibans are incensed. Political observers see Masing’s outburst as another Taib-sanctioned sandiwara, or political sideshow, to try to defuse this anger.

Sarawak Forestry’s inertia

At all other times, Masing is a staunch defender of our loggers’ virtue. And he is not alone. Sarawak Forestry director Len Talif Salleh recently spoke up for the logging practices of one of the largest – and most heavily criticised – polluters, Samling, the Miri-based logging giant.

When Norway’s pension fund investment boycotted Samling Global’s shares, citing Samling’s “unethical” business pratices, and withdrew of an stake of some US$16 million (RM50 million) in Samling, Len Talif stepped forward to defend Samling stridently.

“(Norway’s pension fund) claiming that the company (Samling) is involved in illegal logging and has caused severe environmental damage to justify the withdrawal of their investment is unethical (sic) because our credibility is being questioned,” the state forestry director argued.

Len Talif made no distinction between Samling’s credibility and his own, and has been humiliated as a result. Perhaps he ought to have stood on the banks of the Rejang in Sibu or Kapit and thumped his chest, arguing for his credibility, as tonnes of wood debris filled the surface of the river as far as the eye could see.

Both Len Talif and Masing have also spoken out vociferously to condemn the reports of rapes of Penan schoolgirls and women by loggers. It is clear that, despite being public officials, their allegiances lie with Taib and the logging companies, rather than with the people of Sarawak.

Our public institutions have been defiled by greed. The public offices have been spoiled, broken, destroyed – and have grown rotten and putrid.

Part Two tomorrow: Sarawak’s ‘demokorupsi’


  1. After four or five years after timber have been extracted the root of these timber were rotten and this loosen the soil and just waiting for the heavy rain to wash the mountain down the river.This was what actually happen.It was not raining heavily at that time, but the time was ripe. Do not look further for the reason or try witch-hunting for the causes.It is there in front of us.Many a time in the past when it rained heavily days and nite and nothing happen. So do not blame the rain or god.This is a man-made disaster. So blame the MAN who made it happen

    Comment by olop — October 25, 2010 @ 9:28 AM | Reply

  2. The timber industry accounts for much of Sarawak GDP. It is also an unofficial oral political history that timber tycoons would help prop the political party that that serve their interest.

    So with this backdrop, it would only serve as a fleeting political mileage to pile polemics and spin on the utterance of yesterday’s politicians like Masing, Taib, Georgie and Wong SK, and the tin man bureaucrats like Len .

    (Some naive political commentators would even go to the extent of suggesting how Pakatan Rakyat candidates would be a friend of the environment, if only Sarawakian would “vote for change”. That would be too presumptuous about human nature.)

    The issue at hand is how to look beyond the current crop of leaders to initiate substantive reform in Sarawak such that the timber companies would lose political influence permanently, regardless of which political party would govern Sarawak.

    The other obvious strategy is to diversified the economy to be less reliant on timber, but without Federal political concession to grant 20% oil royalty to Sarawak, the timber industry will continue to wreck havoc in the jungles unchallenged and in the politics of the state.

    This post does not intend to divert people attention to the ineptitude exhibited by the powers-that-be, when confronted with their incompetence or deliberate handy work. There is value in parsing the propaganda and expose the fork tongues.

    I only suggest for bloggers to deep dive into the conversation to rid politic of the stranglehold of the timber tycoons.It remains unclear if the godfather is in the service of the tycoons,or if the relationship is more symbiotic. At any rate, if the “change” thought leaders remains trapped in wanting to win the election alone, real reforms can be short-lived.

    The timber companies would just as easily replace Masing, Taib, Len, or anyone else, probably with any of the Pakatan winners of the next state election.

    How will Sarawak grow her democracy out of the pure, unbridled- unethical capitalism of the timber industry ? That’s the crux of the issue, in the midst of all those floating logs and debris. And thats the issue that will remain, even as the logs and debris would float out to the sea.

    Comment by MERAMAT TAJAK — October 12, 2010 @ 11:09 PM | Reply

  3. “I have gone around the world telling people that we are doing logging correctly. Now this happens.” It goes to show that politicians like him have been lying through his teeth to protect their timber cronies. Wasn’t he the one who said that the Penans are great story tellers? So look who is the biggest bullshitter of them all. His speech is just a ruse to divert the blame on himself. The first thing any decent government should do is to put an immediate stop to all timber extraction in the affected immediately and set up a royal commission to find out the truth. The thing that pisses one off is that the billions of profit made from the timber industry is laundered overseas and the tax paid to the government is just a pittance of what they reaped. So why should they be allowed to keep extracting and depleting our timber resources at the expanse of the natives and our biodiversity? There is little benefit we Sarawakians get in return.

    Comment by apaijabu — October 12, 2010 @ 12:55 PM | Reply

  4. Who will come to the aid of apologists?

    Let us try for them, “We have the best logging practices around, but only 3 major disasters so far, the latest being the most spectacular. We are well poised to tackle the next disaster which will be a great curiousity with which we can promote eco-tourism. We are so popular in Gelombang Kedua of Politics of Development, and as a result the Chief will again be well poised to lead the team to a big win in the next state elections. With the Chief around, much needed by everyone for as long as he lives, we are safe to face any disaster. The Chief is well deserving of the title Father of Sarawak Development which we bestowed on him out of our deep gratitude.” You carry on from here !

    Not difficult to beat Animal Farm in Sarawak, but unfortunately we are also beating Animal Farm in human suffering here and now.

    Comment by francis ngu — October 12, 2010 @ 11:43 AM | Reply


      I still highly recommend every reader who has access to read Animal Farm and ponder carefully on the message there…It applies before and after independence.

      The “animated” (!) film is great. You will shed a few tears like I did when I saw it as a kid….You will know which side you want to be…

      I would think the TM should be called “Father of Backward Development”

      Comment by Abang — October 12, 2010 @ 4:29 PM | Reply

  5. This is certainly evidence of Taib Mahmud and his cronies’ corruption, mismanagement and total exploitation of Sarawak’s natural resources and it has been exposed to the whole world by heavy rain.

    Comment by Sarawak Headhunter — October 12, 2010 @ 9:46 AM | Reply

  6. BN should declare Corruption also caused by ‘natural disaster’ and ‘an act of God’. Except that BN’s god is called ‘Satan’.

    Comment by Lido Sport Pinoy — October 12, 2010 @ 8:51 AM | Reply

  7. […] Bui, writing on the Hornbill Unleashed blog has low expectations: We can look forward to our government officials placing the blame on […]

    Pingback by Malaysia’s million dollar question — where did the logs come from? | Under The Banyan — October 12, 2010 @ 6:47 AM | Reply

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