Foreign activists with an agenda against Sarawak
In the last few years, the Sarawak government of Abdul Taib Mahmud has been defined by two issues – the ambitious plans for industrial and agricultural development, with the rather ugly name SCORE, and the powerful, almost manic voices of the opposition. Taib has been the target of an extraordinary, focused attack, notable for being led by foreign opposition activists.
This is an opposition that cheerfully jumbles up the defence of virgin rainforest with the rights of man to live in it, that makes loose exaggerated claims about the proportions of rainforest lost, and has driven a foreign press campaign that is striking in its ignorance. They throw around dark claims suggesting a sinister police state in Sarawak, murder in California, and the absolute corruption of the state. Their agenda – the destruction of Taib and his party – is so politicised, they have given up suggesting any form of balance.
These claims are so extreme that it would be irresponsible not to consider them because, particularly in Sarawak, decisions are being made which are irreversible, at least for a generation. Valleys are being stripped and filled with water, populations moved, factory cities built, and a whole generation of Sarawakians are being sold an industrial future that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. And all the time we see huge areas of forest cut for palm oil, and yet more palm oil. We need to analyse those decisions, and we need first to work out whether this is theft on an incredible scale or a policy issue.
So what is it about East Malaysia that has made foreigners feel that for close to 40 years, they have been required to run the opposition to mainstream government policy? Are we living in a dictatorship, authoritarian state or totalitarian regime? Or are we so corrupted, so obsequious to our rulers that our democratic choices have somehow been ruled invalid by an outside global body? Is Borneo a place of such global importance that it outweighs our right to run it our way? Alternatively, are we so ill-served by our own media that foreigners are more believable than Malaysians?
The foreign “opposition” can be divided into three groups.
The first group is the academics who worry on our behalf about how Malaysia is and should develop. They agonise about such issues across the globe, which makes them more objective, but not necessarily right.
The issue lies in their hypocrisy:
- Should we all be using zero carbon hydro-power? The answer seems to be a resounding yes, though oddly they often tell us that we should not be doing it in Malaysia.
- Should we all be using bio-substitutes for fossil fuels? Oh, yes, but too often we are told that we in Malaysia shouldn’t be growing oil palm to supply those substitutes.
- Should we be desperately working to improve the health, wealth and education of our people? Yes we should, but not if our people live on the edge of the forest, where we are told that our priority is to preserve their way of life.
Overall, these experts would like to see hydropower, bio-fuels, education and development, but they clearly see Sarawak and the rest of Malaysia as the wrong place to do it. Fair enough, but rather disappointing for Malaysians.
We may seem a little simplistic and sarcastic, but the point is that you can find an academic to represent most opinions. What is the saying? “Put 10 different economists in a room and you’ll get 11 different opinions.”
Malaysia is picturesque, peaceful, and spectacular. “Visit Malaysia” campaigns are about people, and foreigners love that. We are a human world heritage collection. Secondly, we managed – through an accident of history – to preserve much of our rainforest, at least in East Malaysia. So the foreigners love that too.
But ethnic diversity and rainforests do not really make money. So if one lives in a longhouse, facing an opportunity to move to a town and move on from generations of – let’s face it – what Americans would call “hardscrabble” living, it could well prove irresistible. But this is bad for those foreigners who we will call “spectators”.
Many of us might see a house and job and better access to education and opportunity as a gain. However, to spectators who don’t come to Malaysia to see hundreds of hectares of housing blocks or factories or palm oil plantations, we have just “lost” something precious.
They have a point. Spectators should be allowed their opinions and they should be listened to. But the spectators don’t live here.
One of the comments one hears from the too-smug, over-confident development enthusiasts is that there are only a few hundred – or maybe more realistically a few thousand – protesters when the Sarawak government starts to build a dam. What is that when measured against the hundreds of thousands who will benefit? It is a fair point. But a democracy also has to protect minorities from the will of the majority at times. No democracy gets it right all the time and it is the process of trying to do it fairly and decently that is the test for us all.
But where the statistical argument really comes into its own is when one looks at the “foreigners” who run an aggressive and well-funded integrated media campaign.
Is there a tidal wave of world opinion? Considering their size and interconnections, the answer is clearly no. We have an amazingly well-funded Clare Rewcastle Brown in London, an extremely well-funded Global Witness in London, and a surprisingly well-funded Bruno Manser Fund in Switzerland. Their power in turn is amplified by our own informal local media, which simply suck up their comments and faithfully reproduce them without question, debate or editorial oversight. Free speech and an open media should always be encouraged, but perhaps not at the risk of bad and fantastical journalism.
So what is it that these three forces (Rewcastle Brown Publishing Group, Bruno Manser Fund and Global Witness) have in common? All claim to represent the oppressed minorities of Malaysia, which is curious. A simple analysis of each of their websites reveals them to have a shared underlying premise: everything done by the Penan is good and noble, and everything done by the government of Sarawak is evil, hostile to the Penan, and corrupt.
They all also claim spectacular levels of corruption and fraud. Every argument about policy, about what we need for our country, gets soaked in the petrol of financial allegations and set alight. Their fixation is on the Taib family, and their allegations are spectacular and exhausting. The problem is that they expect us to accept their analysis and believe their secret sources.
It is often said that the larger the figure of stolen money claimed, the less detailed evidence required to support it. All of which makes the following question absolutely critical for all Malaysians: can we trust these people?
Winifred Poh has lived in Sarawak for 50 years and is an FMT reader. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely her own.