With crowning irony, the fantastically lavish, no expense spared, celebrations to mark Sarawak’s 60th Anniversary of Independence were held overseas this weekend at the MITEC exhibition centre in KL.
The luminaries of the state government and troops of performers and diners had all been transported by the planeload in their several hundreds, if not thousands, away from the supposed place of celebration to participate in a propaganda ritual and a centrepiece “Children of Sarawak Dinner’ for privileged invitees.
Such scenes inevitably brought to mind the multitude of impoverished native children who live with so little in the wealthy state, in communities which still lack basic amenities. Those children were not featured at the triumphant gathering which included long speeches from top dogs like Abang Jo and Fadillah Yusof (lengthy titles have been dropped to save space).
These performances in turn highlighted the advancing years of the present hierarchy in the state, most of whom have remained in power for decades or have inherited their positions at a none too youthful age themselves.
In terms of longevity, Sarawak’s leadership ranks up there with the politburos of Russia and China in their heyday and this typically drawn out, boring event was to burnish the egos of ageing potentates rather than celebrate youth, as advertised.
The subject of age remained the elephant in the room right till the very closing moments of this ‘Children’s Dinner’.
The meal ended with the presentation and cutting of a grand birthday cake to signify the combination of this 60 Anniversary Celebration (actual independence date, 23rd July) with the Official 87th Birthday Celebration of the failing former dictator and present Governor of the state, Abdul Taib Mahmud (actual birth date, 12th May).
Seemingly, if the presentation were to be believed, the achievement of independence was somehow rolled into the lengthy career of this potentate. He in fact inherited the job of chief minister from his uncle who in turn was put in place (well after independence) by the KL government who wanted a Malay centric minority in charge.
As the lights went down, disturbing footage of the erstwhile hard-man rolled across giant screens from days gone by, dressed up like a tinpot dictator in military garb with dark glasses.
The flickering images showed him waving from a military jeep as if fresh from a non-existent battle (actual preferred transport, the back seat of a Rolls Royce in lush suits and bejewelled).
After that a cake being cut is all that can be seen from the official footage released from this final stages of the event before the rolling credits go to black.
Yet unofficial videos, now in circulation, show more. The 87 year old birthday boy, who has been absent from his post for months and is finally admitted to be recovering from hospitalisation and surgery, had indeed been transported to the occasion and was sat at a high table.
Given the head of state has officially now resumed his duties, the scenes are troubling.
Taib looked plainly confused, exhausted, unhappy and bewildered as a troupe of laughing and congratulating state ministers surrounded and cheered him, led by Abang Jo.
Like a child, his hand was guided to the knife to perform the ceremonial cut. He looked in pain.
Fawning and caressing him, in what has become a much practised diva performance, his second wife, Ragad (aged 43 and done up to the nines), stroked his face, stared into his eyes and acted as if infatuated by her spouse’s every twitch.
In earlier years, Ragad was reported to show frustration, even to kick her smaller older husband. Nothing like that has been seen in public for several months, at least.
Yet, while she enthused and adored, strangely absent was a single member of Taib Mahmud’s own family. Nowhere in the circle of those cheering and surrounding him, long after a sensible bedtime for an unwell elderly person, was there any sight of his siblings, children or close family.
For the casual onlooker the scene provides a useful indicator of how battle lines are drawn over what has now become a very ugly public family row over the distribution of Taib’s loot from his years in office.
His two sons, who inherited control of the family conglomerate CMSB together with a son in law (since ejected) have sued Ragad over the signing over of the lions share of the family’s remaining shares in the company into her possession last June, just before Taib collapsed and was hospitalised.
Those shares had rested for over a decade in the estate of their mother Laila of which Taib was the administrator. Her will designated her four children and Taib as her beneficiaries – not the as yet unidentified second Syrian wife.
The sons’ suit initially claimed therefore that the transfer to Ragad was unlawful, a claim her lawyers have denied.
There has been no comment from the sickening elder Taib, believed to have narrowly escaped a fatal outcome to a bowel constriction brought on by earlier colon cancer.
However, upon his return to Sarawak and with various delaying measures in play by the defence, the sons just two weeks ago added a stunning further charge to their complaint which is that the signature on the documents that authorised the transfer of those 50 million CMSB shares was forged.
In short, they claim it was not their father who signed the documents in his role as administrator of the fund, but somebody else. They are suing Ragad for this alleged forgery and deception and also RHB bank which processed the transfer.
At which point, the whole of Sarawak has been asking why the now re-installed Head of State has not stepped forward to clarify this matter and bring such scandal to an end?
If he is fit to sign off on all Sarawak’s key official business then surely he is fit to confirm whether or not he or someone else signed away his children’s inheritance over to his second wife?
The unsuccessfully hidden scenes from yesterday’s celebrations may well provide the answer as to why this matter remains unresolved. More will emerge from the courts which have already ruled the assets should be frozen (whether they have remained so is less clear).
Meanwhile, the Children of Sarawak deserve effective and transparent governance, not an endless charade to suit selfish old men.