Sarawak chief Taib Mahmud to step down amid graft claims

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 February, 2014, 8:52am

The chief minister of Malaysia's Sarawak is expected to step down at the weekend after 33 years in charge of the resource-rich state that has been key to keeping the national coalition in power but marred by corruption allegations and deforestation.

Taib Mahmud, 77, said he would inform Sarawak's governor on Saturday of his plans to retire, the Bernama state news agency reported.

"There is no hurry. I look forward to doing something useful for the country at a leisurely pace," Bernama quoted Taib as saying of his retirement.

Taib's influence over the sprawling Borneo island state is likely to remain strong as he is expected to take on the job of state governor, a more ceremonial role than his current post.

His departure will raise doubts over whether a successor will be able to maintain Taib's political balance between defending the interests of native Sarawak residents and supporting the National Front coalition. The state is majority Christian in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Sarawak, the country's largest state, has been crucial to the long-ruling National Front coalition as its support wanes in peninsula Malaysia. Without the 25 seats that Taib's party and his allies won in last May's election, the national coalition would have lost its majority in the 222-seat parliament, likely ending its 57-year rule.

Taib, who travels by Rolls-Royce and private jet, has been under pressure to step down amid a growing focus on alleged timber corruption in the state.

Environmental groups say that under his rule, Sarawak, which accounts for a quarter of the world's tropical log exports, has lost 95 per cent of its virgin forest. Sarawak officials say 84 per cent of the state is forested, although this includes massive oil palm estates planted in place of forests.

Taib has been under investigation by Malaysia's anti-graft agency since 2011 and is regularly accused by activist groups of enriching his family through his control over the awarding of infrastructure contracts.

Clare Rewcastle-Brown, a long-time critic of Taib who runs the Sarawak Report website, said Taib was merely "moving upstairs" into the new role and would maintain his overall influence on state affairs.

"He will never willingly give up power as it would be too dangerous for him and threaten the business empire he has built up across Sarawak," she said.