Over a hundred Malay, Bidayuh and Iban Native Customary Rights (NCR) land owners from five villages protested at the Kuching Court Complex on Friday against Polar Horizon, a company owned mainly by Abu Bekir, the son of Sarawak’s Chief Minister Taib Mahmud.
Polar Horizon had filed a suit last November against a well-known Sibu-based company, Rona Hijau, as well as the native landowners, seeking to prevent them from remaining in the oil palm smallholdings in Sampadi.
The landowners had begun developing their NCR land by planting these oil palms since 2005, and had applied successfully in 2009 to the National Resources and Environment Board (NREB) for approval for a joint venture with Rona Hijau.
It has been widely reported that the NCR landowners had accompanied their lawyer, See Chee How (left) of Baru Bian Advocates and Solicitors, in filing their defence and counterclaim against Polar Horizon, seeking to prevent the loss of their ancestral land, and the oil palm smallholdings.
But the news reports have left out various intriguing details regarding this land tussle.
PBB members’ land was not spared
The five villages, Kampung Sampadi, Kangka, Riam, Sungai Cina and Stoh, trace their histories back more than a century, according to the communities’ legal submission.
Kampung Sampadi was first occupied in 1902 by a group of Malay Kadayan. The name of the settlement at that time was Kampung Tanjung Gersik.
Kampung Sungai Cina, a traditional Malay village despite its name, was first established under the late Ibrahim bin Bujang, around 1920. The Malays enjoyed good relations with the few Chinese families in the area, but the Chinese had mostly moved away by the 1960s.
Kampung Stoh was established in the early 1920s by the ancestors of several local Malay families, while Kampung Setia Jaya (also known as Kampung Ulu Riam) was set up in the late 1940s by pioneering families led by the late father of Bujang bin Putit, currently the Ketua Kaum or village head.
Kampung Kangka is a longhouse situated at the foot of Gunung Shahbandar in Lundu. It was first occupied in 1928 by families led by Sambang anak Daik, after the White Rajah Brooke had given them the land.
Most of the landowners are members of the dominant BN party helmed by Taib, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera (PBB). The local MP, Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, who is also Dewan Rakyat deputy speaker, is from the PBB, as is the state assembly representative, Adenan Satem.
Adenan was once next in line to succeed Taib (right) as chief minister, before he fell out of favour, thanks in part to his cavalier attitude towards the Iban. He has since been brought back into the cabinet as Taib’s special advisor and publicity chief.
Local villagers say they appealed to their elected representatives to intercede with Taib’s ministry, but to no avail.
Loyal BN supporters at risk
Taib’s land deal has affected not only local PBB grassroots leaders, but also a politically well-connected and loyal supporter of Taib and the BN, in Rona Hijau. Polar Horizon sued this company as the first defendant, with the villagers as the second.
To Sarawakians in the know, Rona Hijau’s name is closely linked with a Sarawak giant – Rimbunan Hijau, owned by tycoon Tiong Hiew King.
Rona Hijau is a joint venture between Pertumbuhan Abadi Asia and three other companies representing the NCR landowners, to develop the land with palm oil. Pertumbuhan Abadi Asia is majority-owned by Tiong Hiew King (left), the patriarch behind Rimbunan Hijau, and one of the wealthiest men in Malaysia.
From its roots as a logging concern, Rimbunan Hijau has become a public listed company with assets in plantations, property, media and banking. Tiong owns the influential Sin Chew Daily News group.
The Sibu Mayor and SUPP Lanang MP, Tiong Thai King, is his younger brother. The powerful Tiong family are cosy associates with the SUPP, a BN component with a Chinese majority, but the SUPP’s leverage on power is obviously shrinking.
Beneficiaries of other people’s land
The Sarawak government has issued Polar Horizon, a company setup in September 2007, provisional leases over three plots of land totaling 1,500 hectares in Sampadi Land District, claimed by the five villages as NCR land.
The land leases indicate that the three plots of lands were alienated to the company as part ‘payment in kind’ for the construction of JKR Contract Number PWD/HO/B102/2000. This means Polar Horizon obtained the land without paying a single cent.
Polar Horizon shareholders are husband Michael Ting Kuok Ngie and wife Rose Yiu Choo Kiu. These are hardly household names, but Michael Ting is a wealthy business partner of Taib Mahmud’s son, Abu Bekir, in Titanium Management, and Polar Horizon is a subsidiary of Titanium.
Titanium’s ownership is shared between Abu Bekir (left in pic) (1,430,000 shares), Michael Ting (120,000 shares) and Chung Soon Nam (850,000). The Sarawak Report website hasidentified Titanium as the beneficiary of other vast tracts of NCR lands.
All in Taib’s family
It is ironic that premier Najib Abdul Razak recentlywarned businesses against backing the opposition, as the Sarawak and Parliamentary elections draw near.
In Sarawak, businesses outside the Taib family empire, even if they had previously profited from Taib’s three decades in control, have now been put on notice: their business interests are at risk where land development is concerned, if there is any conflict with Taib’s family.
Rona Hijau’s court documents stated RM17 million had already been spent on the joint venture with NCR landowners. The interests of the Tiong family, and PBB members in Lundu, are clearly of no concern to Taib, as he continues to dispense more and more land, under his ministerial powers, to family interests.
Crony businesses and BN party members must now be aware that none of them is safe, and support of Taib offers no guarantee of protection.
As Taib has said himself, blood is indeed thicker than water.
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Taken from Malaysiakini.