BILLIONAIRE Malaysian politician Abdul Taib Mahmud’s family has been implicated in further allegations of major corruption, this time involving real estate investments in Canada worth more than CAD200 million (US$160 million).
A new report obtained by Asian Correspondent alleges Sakto Corporation, a major Canadian property conglomerate owned and run by Taib’s daughter Jamilah Taib Murray and her husband Sean Murray, “might be involved in money-laundering on behalf of the Taib family.”
The 86-page research report entitled Safe Haven Canada: How a corrupt Malaysian official’s family acquired $200 million in Ontario real estate provides thorough examination of the business dealings of the Taib family members and their Canadian associates.
The investigation, authored by Switzerland-based NGO Bruno Manser Fonds (BMF), looks at how Canadian properties in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec were acquired by the Taib family using proxies and “in trust” arrangements.
The report shows how these assets were moved between various offshore companies to deliberately hide beneficial ownership.
It follows a string of probes by the Swiss organisation, including a report from 2015, which alleged the Taib-owned Australian company Sitehost – owner of Adelaide’s AUD50million (US$38 million) Hilton Hotel – had been used to launder tens of millions of dollars.
Who is Taib Mahmud?
Taib ruled resource-rich Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo between 1981 and 2014, making him the second-longest serving parliamentarian in Malaysian history. Sarawakians call Taib Pak Uban or “white-haired uncle” or Pek Moh (white hair), and he has been referred to as the “last white rajah.”
During the period of his rule, Taib’s family became extremely wealthy and by 2011 had amassed assets in 14 Malaysian companies worth some US$1.4 billion. Today, it owns stakes in 400 companies in 25 countries and offshore jurisdictions.
For decades, the now-governor of Sarawak and his family have been accused of corruption. Watchdogs claim political figures and their cronies have systemically siphoned off timber revenue to enrich their own personal fortunes.
The bio of a mock Twitter account for Taib reads: “Thief Minister of Sarawak for past 30 years. Kleptomaniac, Grand Corrupter & Oppressor of the people, Greedy Exploiter of Sarawak’s natural resources.”
But Taib has always denied any wrongdoing and previously claimed he was inspired by the Prophet Muhammad to develop Sarawak.
Borneo is the largest island in Asia and is home to one of the richest ecosystems on earth. Under Taib’s rule, however, Sarawak lost more than 90 percent of its primeval tropical rainforests to logging and oil palm plantations.
A 2012 report by BMF entitled The Taib Timber Mafia claimed the logging industry in Sarawak boomed during the 1980s under Taib’s leadership to his own personal profit.
Today, less than five percent of Sarawak’s forests remain untouched by logging. BMF alleges as Sarawak’s forests became depleted, Taib shifted to selling off native lands for oil palm plantations.
According to the latest report by BMF, “the Taibs’ rapid ascent to become one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest families can only be explained by corruption and the abuse of public office by the former chief minister and current governor of Sarawak, Taib Mahmud.”
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) announced in June 2011 Taib was under investigation for corruption, but this inquiry has reportedly faced significant political resistance and never been officially concluded.
The Sakto Corporation
Taib’s family established a multimillion-dollar real estate business in the Canadian capital of Ottawa in 1983, and their investment portfolio had grown to be worth more than CAD200 million by 2016.
These assets are mostly held by the Taib-owned Sakto Group and its associated companies. Sakto’s portfolio of investment properties is dominated by Canadian office buildings.
Taib Mahmud’s daughter Jamilah is the founder and chairman of Sakto Corporation, and her husband Murray is its CEO and president. Jamilah’s website reads she is a “businesswoman, philanthropist, and mother focused on issues affecting women, children, and education around the world.”
The company’s website proclaims “Throughout its three decades of operation, Sakto Corporation has remained true to its core standard of excellence and integrity.”
It claims to be “one of the nation’s capital’s (sic) foremost property facilitators,” and states “Company President Sean Murray has enhanced Sakto Corporation’s portfolio and reputation.”
Jamilah is an active socialite in the Canadian capital who frequents charity events with an emphasis on women’s empowerment. At a recent fundraiser for Ottawa Food Bank, Jamilah told The Ottawa Business Journal: “For families who struggle in poverty, the simplest things are just out of reach.”
BMF’s 2017 report highlights “indisputable connections to major financial transactions and members of the Taib family.”
It shows Sakto Development Corporation registered two mortgages in 1986 for CAD20 million each at the company’s inception.
One was registered to Jamilah in her personal capacity and one to Jamilah “in trust”, indicating she was acting on behalf of a group of family investors and several Taib family-related offshore companies.
Jamilah’s personal website claims “With a little luck, coupled with a great team, and a “can-do” attitude, Sakto Corporation was born.”
For the first time, Taib’s wife Leila appeared as a Sakto Group lender together with their two sons and Taib’s brother, Onn Mahmud.
“It remains totally unclear where Leila Taib, who had no independent income could have legally earned her share of the CAD20 million dollars that were lent to Sakto,” says the report.
It also details how Onn’s Hong Kong-based company Richfold Investment Limited, which was subsequently deregistered in 2007 after a kickback scandal involving its sister company Regent Star, invested in Sakto during its early stages.
International accusations of corruption
Investigation into Sakto Corporation and accusations of corruption are just the latest in a long string of allegations lodged against the Taib family from Malaysian and international watchdogs, media outlets and even foreign governments.
In 2007, Taib was accused by Japanese media of being implicated in a JP¥1.1 billion (US$9.9 million) timber export kickback scheme involving a cartel of nine Japanese timber shipping companies through the Hong Kong-based firm Regent Star, which is linked to his family.
“Taib and his relatives are widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts – including those for logging – awarded in the state,” read a cable from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2009, as exposed by Wikileaks.
“Chief Minister Taib Mahmud… doles out timber-cutting permits while patrolling the underdeveloped state using 14 helicopters, and his family’s companies control much of the economy.”
In 2012, international NGO Global Witness released a report called In the Future, There Will Be No Forests Left. In a film entitled Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, representatives posed as investors to uncover the dirty reality of resource extraction in remote eastern Malaysia.
Global Witness accused multinational bank HSBC of knowingly providing financial services to companies controlled or owned by members of Taib’s family known for corruption and rights abuses.
Respected anti-graft NGO Transparency International then called for Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak to urge Taib to stand down from the chief ministership in March 2013.
More than a year later and after more than three decades in power, Taib did resign as chief minister in February 2014 but was immediately made the state’s governor.
In March 2016, leaders of indigenous groups in Borneo demanded two gifts from the ex-chief minister to the University of Adelaide, Taib’s alma mater, which they claimed to be bought with finances generated from the destruction of Borneo’s rainforests.
By July, Adelaide University had renamed a campus plaza from “Taib Mahmud Court” to the “Colombo Plan Alumni Court”, bowing to protests by conservation groups.
That same year, Taib’s wife bought him a RM1.5 million (US$340,000) Bentley car for his birthday.
BMF director Lukas Straumann said if the recently-deceased former chief minister Adenan Satem, Taib’s brother in-law, was “serious in fighting corruption, he can no longer close his eyes to the enormous amounts of money misappropriated and sent overseas by the Taib family.”
Malaysia still a hotbed for corruption
The latest Taib Mahmud revelations come on the back of ongoing international corruption investigations into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund by Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and Switzerland.
This is as well as a civil lawsuit filed by the US Justice Department, which claims fund officials have diverted more than US$3.5 billion through a network of shell companies and bank accounts abroad.
Along with much of Southeast Asia, Malaysia has struggled to eradicate corruption by its public officials and law enforcement.
According to law firm Hogan Lovells, Malaysia is perceived on the world stage to be “engulfed in corruption at the highest political level.” It is ranked 55 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, below Rwanda, Slovakia and Brunei.
Urging a corruption crackdown in Canada
BMF’s 2017 report recommends the Taib family’s assets in Canada to be immediately frozen.
The NGO says money laundering by Malaysians contained within the report should be investigated by Canadian authorities and that the Ontario provincial government stop renting premises from the Taib family’s Sakto Group in Ottawa.
“As a signatory to the UN Convention against Corruption, Canada has an international obligation to fight corruption and money-laundering by foreign corrupt officials and to assist in recovering stolen assets,” says the report.
“The Bruno Manser Fund thus is calling on the Canadian authorities to use all available legal and political means to resolve the question of stolen Taib family assets in Canada.”
The report was released Thursday at the Canadian Parliament.
Asian Correspondent has contacted Sakto Corporation for comments.