Clare Rewcastle-Brown could be doing a lot of other things with her retirement. She could be spending her days watching TV, tending her investments, or socializing. But instead she's operating a private shortwave radio service from a cramped office in downtown London. Her listeners are on the other side of the world, 6,500 miles away, in a place called Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.
"At least they can hear people being defiant," she says. "At least they can hear someone else saying what they've always thought."
Sarawak (pop. 2.5 million) is home to what were once some of the world's richest rain forests -- forests that are under threat, Rewcastle-Brown says, from the political and business interests that dominate the state. The head of the Sarawak state government, 76-year-old Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, has been in office since 1981. According to Bloomberg, at least four of the major companies that have received contracts or concessions from the government (thus allowing them to reap profits from the area's vast natural resources) are linked to his family. The Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss-based charity devoted to the memory of an environmental activist who disappeared in Sarawak in 2000 while investigating illegal logging, asserts that Taib presides over a fortune of some $21 billion, which would make him the richest man in Asia. (He is, however, notably absent from the Forbes list of global billionaires.) A 2006 U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks contains this sentence about Taib: "Embassy sources outside the government uniformly characterize him as highly corrupt."
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Taib disputes such claims, of course. He says that the rain forest is doing fine, and denies exploiting his office for purposes of personal enrichment. Pictures from Google Earth tell a different story, suggesting that as little as 10 percent of the forest remains intact. Most of the damage is done by companies harvesting hardwood timber or clearing jungle to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations.
This is not a story that you will hear much about from the media in Sarawak itself -- or anywhere else in Malaysia, for that matter. That's because Taib is closely allied with the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled Malaysia since it achieved independence 55 years ago. Critics of the chief minister say that, three decades ago, he made a deal with the country's leaders to guarantee him a relatively free hand in Sarawak as long as he ensured them a generous share of the state's lucrative oil reserves and reliable political support.
That bargain has a direct bearing on the general election that Malaysia is preparing to conduct at some point within the next few weeks. During that time, Barisan Nasional (and its predecessor) presided over a remarkable economic success story -- but also a dark history of rigged votes and dirty tricks aimed at anyone that dared to oppose them. Perhaps most infamously, the government sent opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to jail from 1999 to 2004 on dubious charges of corruption and sodomy, then tried to prosecute him for sodomy again in 2008 (an effort that ended in an acquittal two years later). Now, after making steady inroads in the last few election cycles, Anwar's movement is making its strongest bid yet to break the government's hold on power.