The company records for Quality Concrete, the timber licence holder at the centre of a land dispute that has led to mass protests, shows how ‘the politics of development’ work in Sarawak.
Quality Concrete Sdn Bhd, a company with interests in logging, construction, pipes, cement and plastic bags, has RM57.96 million in paid-up shares, according to information made public by the Companies Commission of Malaysia. A third of the shares are assigned to nominee companies, likely to be proxies.
Raziah @ Rodiah Mahmud (left), younger sister to the Chief Minister Taib Mahmud, is a shareholder in the company. Together with a Mr Tiang Ming Sing, 59, she has been a director since January 2000. These two have been company directors longer than any of the other members of the board.
Another shareholder is Abdul Hamed Sepawi, Taib’s cousin. Hamed became chairman and a prominent shareholder in Sarawak Energy, after the state energy monopoly was sold off by the state government in 2005. He spearheads the drive to build 12 new hydro-electric dams in Sarawak, although the state already has a large surplus in electricity supply.
Hamed is also chairman of Naim Cendera, a conglomerate with interests, among others, in building dams, and Ta Ann, a gigantic logging company. Forbes has placed him as 39th among ‘Malaysia’s Richest’.
Two contrasting sets of community leaders
Tuai Rumah Numpang Suntai was one of seven Iban community leaders from upper Sebangan remanded on Oct 22, following an allegation by the logging contractor Loyal Billion, implicating them in arson at the company’s timber camp. The seven leaders were released on police bail on Oct 25 and have not been charged with any crime.
On Nov 1, Numpang Suntai (right) was also the leader among 14 plaintiffs, accompanied by a huge delegation sent by 15 Sebangan longhouses to the Kuching High Court to file a suit against Quality Concrete and Loyal Billion, and also against the state government and two local community leaders, Penghulu Merum Baru, 55, and Tua Kampung Agu Kaleng, 56.
The two government-appointed figureheads had signed, together with five other villagers from the area, a dubious ‘contract’ with Loyal Billion, purportedly on behalf of all the local villages.
The ‘contract’ was for “the purpose of hiring land and buying timber belonging to the villagers.” According to the ‘contract’, the company promised a ‘one-off compensation’ payment of RM800 to each Tua Kampung and RM250 to each pintu or family. These were miniscule sums compared to the loggers’ RM230 million windfall projected from the 3,305 hectares apportioned in the timber licence.
The plaintiffs rejected the ‘contract’ and ‘compensation’. Villagers speculate the company might have offered a much larger pay-out to the Penghulu and Tua Kampung, now named as co-defendants for the intrusion on the natives’ communal land.
As lead plaintiff, Numpang Suntai spoke up for the villagers at the High Court. “These are all the people whose land has been raped, whose land has been encroached, whose fruit trees have been destroyed,” he said, gesturing to 100 Iban villagers who had travelled from Sebuyau to Kuching to show support for the lawsuit.
“This injustice has to stop, and that’s why we are here… how about the lives of these people? It’s not only from the point of view of not being able to cultivate (crops). They cannot do any more hunting, they cannot do any more fishing. I don’t know how they are going to survive.
“Within this NCR land, there is timber which has been intentionally left by our forefathers for our future use…this has been cut (down),” he said.
Lawsuit the ‘tip of the iceberg’
NCR land is protected by law, and supported by legal precedents in the Federal Court. However, Taib’s government disregards these customary safeguards (adat) and past court decisions. Taib, wearing his hat as minister for resource planning, continues to issue logging licences, and establish oil palm estates, on land claimed under NCR by Iban and other native communities, throughout the state.
There are more than 200 lawsuits against the state government in the courts, filed by different ethnic groups, including Malays, Ibans, Penans and Bidayuhs. Half of these cases, including the Sebangan lawsuit, have been taken on, against considerable odds, by a single law firm, Baru Bian & Co.
“This is a very important case for us and for the people that we represent,” Baru Bian (left), state PKR chairman, told the press at the courthouse, with the Sebangan supporters standing behind him.
“We found out in our investigations, that these so-called timber licensees were going or encroaching into native customary land, trying to get to the licensed area given to them. In the process of going into the area, they built logging roads, and at the same time they were felling and extracting timber along the road – but these are not licensed areas, so they are trespassing, encroaching, on native customary land.
“This is not the first case, I want to emphasise that. This is just the tip of the iceberg in Sarawak, and in our experience dealing with native customary rights (NCR) cases, these have been ongoing, from Lundu to Lawas,” he stressed.
Baru Bian pointed out the villagers had made numerous reports to the local authorities including the Resident, the police, and even to Suhakam. But their appeals were ignored. They concluded that no-one was listening, and began a blockade across the timber road last month.
“It boils down to the policies of the present government. And the people in authority are not bothered with the rights of the (ordinary) people,” he added. “We are talking about native rights, the indigenous rights of Sarawak, which are supposed to be protected by the government of the day, with a special provision in the laws of Malaysia.”
Taib has not commented on his links with the loggers or the police action against the Iban villagers. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for Taib to argue for his ‘politics of development’, when the most obvious ‘development’ seems to be directed at a small coterie of family and friends.
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.