Ex-Sarawak chief minister Taib Mahmud dies at 87

Ex-Sarawak chief minister Taib Mahmud dies at 87

SIBU - Former Sarawak chief minister Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud, the politician and tycoon who became known for enabling the destruction of rainforests in Malaysia’s biggest state in pursuit of economic development, has died due to illness. He was 87.

He died in a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur at 4.28am on Feb 21 after a prolonged illness, his daughter Hanifah Hajar Taib said in a Facebook post. Mr Taib had retired from public life in January 2024, ending his 10-year tenure as Sarawak’s governor.

During his 33 years as chief minister of Sarawak, the resource-rich state on Borneo’s north coast, Mr Taib drew global attention like few of his peers in Malaysia.

With a tight grip on power, he ushered in far-reaching infrastructure projects that created thousands of jobs and turned the sleepy state into an economic engine powered by fossil fuels, timber and palm oil.

These developments came on the back of what some critics called an environmental atrocity.

Under Mr Taib’s purview, millions of acres of Sarawak’s rainforest were felled, eradicating entire ecosystems and displacing thousands of people from native forest communities. The logging, which coincided with the ascent of the conservation movement, thrust Sarawak and Mr Taib into the international spotlight.

Malaysian leaders dismissed the criticism as neocolonial bullying. Mr Taib and his supporters contended that he was attempting to lift Sarawak into a new economic age.

In the process, he amassed a vast personal fortune.

Government contracts

Court documents filed in the early 2010s revealed his family owned assets worth more than US$1 billion (S$1.34 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, including interests in dozens of companies, oil palm land, and hotels and office buildings.

Mr Taib faced allegations, both at home and abroad, of corruption linked to logging concessions and construction projects. Though he denied all accusations of wrongdoing and never was charged with a crime, his political influence began to fade. He resigned as chief minister in 2014 and assumed the largely ceremonial role of Sarawak’s governor.

Reported to be in poor health, Mr Taib stepped down as governor in January, capping an almost unbroken six-decade stretch of holding various political offices.

Mr Taib was born on May 21, 1936, near Miri, then a nascent oil town in Sarawak, the eldest of 10 children. His father was a carpenter for Royal Dutch Shell, which operated wells on the town’s outskirts.

Scholarships carried him through secondary school and law studies at University of Adelaide.

Sovereign country

He returned to Sarawak in 1962 as Malaysia was transitioning from a British colony to a sovereign country – a time of big change and big opportunities.

With help from his uncle Abdul Rahman Ya’kub, a prominent politician who would serve 11 years as chief minister, Mr Taib joined Sarawak’s state cabinet aged 27 and later cycled through different government roles both there and in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1981, he succeeded his uncle as Sarawak’s chief minister, the state’s top political executive. The name of the position was changed to premier in 2022.

He and his first wife Laila had four children: Jamilah Taib Murray, Mahmud Abu Bekir Taib, Sulaiman Abdul Rahman Taib and Hanifah. After Laila’s death in 2009, he married Toh Puan Raghad Kurdi Taib.

In 2023, his two sons and Ms Ragad began a legal fight over control of some of the family’s fortune. BLOOMBERG