The Federal Court in Putrajaya yesterday dismissed an appeal by Keruntum Sdn Bhd (Keruntum) for damages of RM135 million from the Sarawak Government and director of forests for alleged wrongful revocation of its timber licence No. T/0279 covering an area of 188,926 hectares in Ulu Baram.
The 25-year licence expiring in 2008, was revoked on March 10, 1987, the day before the eruption of a political crisis known as the Ming Court Affair when 28 assemblymen from Sarawak gathered at Ming Court Hotel in Kuala Lumpur to call for the removal of the then chief minister of Sarawak. The licence was revoked together with 25 other timber licences on the same day.
Keruntum alleged that the revocation was to serve a collateral political purpose as the chief minister was concerned that the timber licencees were using ‘timber money’ for a political agenda that was, to topple the state government.
Keruntum asserted that the chief minister who approved the revocation carried out by the director of forests, was acting maliciously with intent to cause irreparable harm to Keruntum. Keruntum claimed its licence was granted by the then director of forests Datuk Nor Tahir, to carry out a general plan conceived by the then head of state Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub to benefit charitable and religious bodies in the state.
The state government denied the allegations and explained that Licence T/0279 and the other licences were revoked as they were illegal transfer of the shares in the companies issued with those licences.
Those share transfers were carried out without compliance with Section 2(2) of the Forests Ordinance. The government maintained that action had to be taken against these licences because there were at the time, rampant transfer of shares in timber companies despite a warning against such unauthorised transfers issued by permanent secretary of the Ministry of Resource Planning in April, 1985.
The Federal Court agreed with the concurrent findings of the facts by the High Court and the Court of Appeal that the revocation of Keruntum’s licence was because its licence was tainted with illegality due to non compliance with the statutory prohibition against unauthorised transfer and allotment of its shares after the licence was issued.
The Federal Court unanimously held that the chief minister was unaware of the gathering of the assemblymen in Ming Court Hotel when he made the decision to revoke the licence.
The Federal Court pointed to the evidence of one of the assemblymen, Salleh Jaffaruddin, that the gathering was a ‘secret meeting’ held without the knowledge of the chief minister.
The reports published in The Borneo Post, People’s Mirror and Sarawak Tribune purported to show the chief minister could have known of the impending Ming Court gathering, were inadmissible as evidence because the reporters who wrote those reports, were not called to testify on the accuracy of what was written by them.
The Federal Court also ruled that Keruntum had failed to prove that there was any ‘general plan’ by Abdul Rahman to assist the charitable bodies and the Orang Ulu through the issuance of the licence.
On the complaint by Keruntum that the then chief minister Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, did not personally appear in court as a witness, to refute the allegations against him and thus, what was alleged by Keruntum must be presumed to be true, the Federal Court decided that since the plaintiff’s evidence against the chief minister failed to prove that he ordered the revocation of the licence for a ‘collateral purpose’ or was acting with malice against Keruntum, there was no case for him to answer. Hence, no adverse inference must be drawn against the chief minister.
The Federal Court, comprising the retiring Chief Justice Tun Ariffin Zakaria and Federal Court judges Tan Sri Hasan Lah, Tan Sri Zainun Ali, Tan Sri Abu Samah Nordin and Datuk Aziah Ali, unanimously dismissed Keruntum’s appeal and ordered Keruntum to pay RM50,000 legal costs to the director of forests and the government.
Keruntum was represented by retired Federal Court judge Datuk Gopal Sri Ram and Colin Lau. State legal counsel Datuk JC Fong and Lonie Pinda appeared for the director and the state government.
When contacted yesterday, Fong expressed relief that this marathon case, which started in 1987, was finally over. Keruntum’s quest for compensation from the state government had also ended.
Fong said with the conclusion of this case, none of the 25 companies whose licences were revoked in March 1987 had succeeded in their claims for compensation against the state government.
In one of the cases, the licencee, Sarawak Building Supplies Sdn Bhd, was awarded RM115 million by the High Court in Kuching. But, on appeal by the state government, the Court of Appeal quashed the award.
Source : @ Borneo Post Online