Controversial Sarawak leader Taib Mahmud was sworn in yesterday as governor of the Malaysian state that he has been repeatedly accused of pillaging during his 33 years as its chief minister.
Malaysian media reported the 77-year-old received his instrument of appointment by Malaysia’s king on Friday and took his oath of office in Sarawak’s legislative assembly, which he has controlled since 1981.
An opposition lawmaker’s legal challenge was thrown out by a Malaysian court earlier this week, while an online petition by rights groups urging the king to reject Taib failed to gain traction, securing fewer than 3,000 signatures.
Taib resigned as Sarawak chief minister early last month following mounting claims of corruption and environmentally disastrous policies. However he still heads the Sarawak-based party that is part of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
While the role of governor is traditionally a ceremonial head of state, critics say it would allow him to retain control of Sarawak and possibly avoid potential prosecution.
Taib implemented ambitious plans to develop the region, which lags the rest of the country, but has been the target of allegations of massive corruption, rainforest destruction and ill-treatment of Sarawak’s indigenes.
On the eve of his appointment as governor, international whistle-blower group Global Witness leveled yet another claim of graft — a US$2 million kickback to Taib’s son in return for a state-wide waste deal inked in 1998.
Formerly the country’s longest-serving chief minister, Taib has long denied allegations of impropriety.
Yet Swiss-based rainforest-protection group the Bruno Manser Fund, citing financial papers, said in 2012 that Taib’s family controlled Sarawak’s biggest companies and hundreds of others.
It estimated Taib’s fortune at US$15 billion, which would make him the richest person in Malaysia.
The Bruno Manser Fund also says Sarawak has been stripped of 95 percent of its once-rich primary rainforests, calling Taib and his family the “chief culprits.”