GREENS MOTION: Adelaide University renames Taib Mahmud Court
July 27th, 2016
On the 27th of July 2016, Mark moved motions to note the recent decision by the University of Adelaide to rename 'Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak Court' to the 'Columbo Plan Alumni Court', and to call on the University to fully disclose all donations recieved from Taib Mahmud or his family.
The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I move:
That this council—
1. Notes the recent decision of the University of Adelaide to rename part of its North Terrace campus from the 'Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak Court' to the 'Colombo Plan Alumni Court'; and
2. Calls on the University of Adelaide to fully disclose all donations received from Taib Mahmud or his family.
This is the second motion on this topic that I have put on the Notice Paper in the last 12 months. My purpose in raising it again today is to put on the record some important recent developments in the ongoing campaign for environmental and social justice for the people of Sarawak in Malaysia. For a detailed background of this issue, I refer members to my lengthy contribution on 9 September last year. In that speech I drew a number of the connections between Taib Mahmud, his family and the University of Adelaide, the Art Gallery of South Australia and also the Hilton Hotel on Victoria Square.
Probably the best quick summary of Taib Mahmud and who he is, I will take from the Adelaide University's own publication, The Adelaidean, back in February 2008, under the heading 'New Court Honours Chief Minister', the university said:
"The University of Adelaide has named a plaza on North Terrace in honour of one of its distinguished graduates and long-time benefactor, the Chief Minister of Sarawak, the Right Honourable Pehin Sri Dr Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud AO. The 'Taib Mahmud, Chief Minister of Sarawak Court' is a newly landscaped social space adjacent to the Ligertwood Building.
Chief Minister Taib came to the University of Adelaide as one of the Malaysian Colombo Plan scholars in the late 1950s. He graduated with a law degree in 1961 and spent a year in Adelaide as an associate to Justice Mayo, a Judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia, before returning to Malaysia. He entered politics within Malaysia at a very early age in 1963, holding various Ministerial and other positions before becoming Chief Minister of Sarawak in 1981.
Vice-Chancellor and President Professor James McWha said the University named the court in honour of the Chief Minister to acknowledge and show its appreciation of his significant support, and tireless work in helping to promote and strengthen the links between Australia and Malaysia.
'The Chief Minister's personal generosity has continued in numerous ways over the years,' said Professor McWha. But perhaps even more importantly has been the continuing support the Chief Minister has provided to help us build links with Malaysia, which are now considerable.
'The Chief Minister has been a powerful force for developing strong and continuing good relations between our two countries,' said Professor McWha. In his role as Chairman of the Malaysia-Australia Foundation and in other ways he has continuously promoted mutual understanding and goodwill among both peoples."
That story by Robyn Mills in the February 2008 edition of The Adelaidean is the official version. Since then there has been an ongoing campaign by local, national and even international student, human rights and environmental groups to expose the true nature of Taib Mahmud's reign as chief minister of Sarawak and the origins of his massive wealth, estimated to be $30 billion. Allegations of official corruption against Taib Mahmud are not new.
I put many of these on the record last year, but now there are more. In fact, thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know that allegations of corruption were generally regarded as true, even by nations friendly to Malaysia. I refer in particular to one of the many thousands of WikiLeaks documents that were published online in recent times that deals with this. It is a confidential cable from the US Embassy in Malaysia to the Secretary of State and other recipients. It is dated 13 October 2006, and it includes the following material. It is actually a cable that consists of commentary from US Embassy staff, but it also quotes Dr Mohammad Herman Ritom Abdullah, who is the human rights commissioner for the state of Sarawak. When the quotations refer to 'Abdullah', they are referring to that human rights commissioner. To quote from the cable:
Indigenous persons account for over half of Sarawak's population, but they lack political power.
Abdullah explained, 'There are plenty of indigenous leaders in the state government, but they can't do anything without the consent of the Chief Minister.' He said Taib appoints 'compliant local leaders' from various tribes into 'financially rewarding' government positions as a means to stifle potential opposition. Taib belongs to the Melanau indigenous tribe and has been in power for the past 25 years. Embassy sources outside the government uniformly characterize him as highly corrupt. Abdullah said Taib has done little to assist the state's indigenous peoples as they attempt to establish legal ownership of their ancestral lands and defend themselves against encroachment by logging companies. Taib and his relatives are widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts—including those for logging—awarded in the state.
That is a leaked cable from the US Embassy back to their headquarters in Washington. It shows, I think, that even friendly nations were prepared to accept that Taib Mahmud was corrupt.
The university's reaction to this campaign has been interesting. I think it has been characterised by a lack of information willingly given. However, I am delighted to report today that the university has finally taken some action. They did this without fanfare last week, and perhaps they hoped that nobody would notice.
I received a text message a week or two ago from someone who works in the nearby law school to tell me that Taib Mahmud's name had been removed from the signage on the plaza. I took myself down there and I found that the name had in fact been removed. Suspecting that it might not have been an official action, I did seek confirmation from the university. I received an email from Lachlan Parker, whom members may remember from his previous role as media manager with the Attorney-General's department, and also media adviser to former premier Mike Rann and before he became Premier, minister Jay Weatherill. Lachlan Parker is now the deputy director of media and corporate relations at the University of Adelaide. He emailed me in response to my request, saying:
Dear Mr Parnell,
Thank you for your inquiry. The University of Adelaide Council some months ago decided to rename the court to the east of Bonython Hall the 'Columbo Plan Alumni Court'. Signage is currently being amended to reflect the decision.
The University wished to honour its many outstanding Columbo Plan graduates, who include two Presidents of Singapore and many other prominent Asian government and business leaders.
The email goes on:
By the way, you have stated in Parliament that the University received 'up to $7 million' from Sarawak Governor Taib Mahmud. That was grossly inaccurate, and I understand that you are in possession of documents obtained under Freedom of Information provisions that set out the true position. We would hope you will correct that error in Parliament.
Deputy Director—Media and Corporate Relations
The University of Adelaide
In relation to the question of donations, I would be happy to correct the record if the university would commit to disclosing all of its correspondence and financial dealings with Taib Mahmud. We did not get everything we asked for under the Freedom of Information Act. I guess it also raises the question of why a member of parliament should have to use the Freedom of Information Act to get this sort of information in the first place. However, if the university is now serious about severing its ties with Taib Mahmud, then it should come clean and voluntarily disclose all of its financial dealings with Taib Mahmud.
We certainly know about $400,000 in donations, but if there is more, the university needs to disclose it. If there is not any more, then the university needs to confirm in writing that it is only $400,000. If they do that, then I will happily clarify the record when I sum up the debate on this motion at some time in the future.
Whilst I still maintain that we do not know the precise amount of the donations, the story of the university distancing itself from Taib Mahmud is a welcome one, and it has been welcomed around the world. Of course, it is not a complete distancing because Taib Mahmud is also a Colombo Plan alumnus, so his name might have been removed but he is not completely disowned, even if he now shares the honour with other Colombo Plan alumni.
I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of investigative reporter Mr Hendrik Gout of Channel 7 in bringing this story to light. His excellent report from a couple of weeks ago has been circulated widely and is still available on the Today Tonight Adelaide website. His earlier story from last year is also available if members need to refresh their memories in relation to the tangled web of wealth and corruption that exists within Taib Mahmud's empire including, as I have said, his family's ownership of the Hilton Hotel in Victoria Square.
The reaction to this story across the world has been one of gratitude that the university has taken this step. I refer to a media release that was put out jointly between the Bruno Manser Fund based in Switzerland and the Bob Brown Foundation based in Tasmania. Under the heading 'Victory for civil society as Adelaide University stops honouring Sarawak Governor Taib Mahmud', their media release of 13 July says:
"Adelaide University has surreptitiously decided to rename a plaza on its premises which had been named after Sarawak Governor Abdul Taib Mahmud, one of the University's best donors. The move follows a two-year campaign by the Bruno Manser Fund and the Bob Brown Foundation which had pressured the University to stop honouring the Malaysian politician who has been accused of having benefited from illegal logging in tropical rainforest in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo.
The University [had] come under fire from civil society and the Australian Greens over its relationship with Taib Mahmud, from whom it had raised at least 400,000 Australian dollars in personal donations, an amount exceeding by far the Malaysian politician's official income. In 2008, the University named a plaza after the politician 'to show its appreciation of his significant support' and 'personal generosity'.
The Bruno Manser Fund and the Bob Brown Foundation call on Adelaide University to pay back the…400,000 received from Taib Mahmud. In November 2015, indigenous Penan community leaders from Sarawak sent a letter to Vice Chancellor Warren Bebbington asking the University to pay back all the funds received from Taib Mahmud as the money was urgently needed for the development of Sarawak's rural communities and for rainforest conservation. The University never replied to the letter."
It is always a difficult call to ask a university to repay money, but I think it is worth putting on the record some of the facts that surround the situation in Sarawak and why I think there is a case for the people of that state perhaps needing the money for education more than we do. If I go back to the same communication that I referred to before, the WikiLeaks embassy reports again refer to the Human Rights Commissioner for Sarawak. The report states:
"He described a recent visit to villages of the Penan tribe near Brunei. Abdullah stated that approximately 15,000 Penan tribe members there lack electricity, water treatment and schools. He criticized the federal and state governments for not fulfilling their promises to provide access to primary education for all citizens. For many Penan children, Abdullah said the nearest school is more than two hours away by foot or boat.
To provide basic services on a centralised, more efficient basis for the Penan and other indigenous peoples, the government has established several 'service centres' that attempt to draw rural indigenous families from remote villages. Abdullah criticised these efforts as ineffective, saying the service centres 'are not vibrant and self-supporting.' He said, 'All the young people end up leaving, as there are no jobs, and only elderly residents remain.'
I think there is a case for the university to repay that money or to in some other way provide reparations for the people of Sarawak. So where to next? I look forward to the university coming clean on the total amount of money that it has received from Taib Mahmud or any of his related companies or other entities.
I also look forward to hearing how the university will make retribution to the Penan people, whose plight is indeed dire and who deserve to be recognised as some of the most severely impacted victims of Taib Mahmud's corrupt reign in the state of Sarawak over three decades.
One last thing, as a teenager growing up in the 1970s, one of my favourite television shows was the US police drama Columbo. Lieutenant Columbo, played by the late Peter Falk, was a bumbling and dishevelled police officer who appeared incompetent but who ultimately always got his man. Lieutenant Columbo's name was spelt C-O-L-U-M-B-O, which is close but not the same as the city in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), after which the Colombo Plan was named. So my final suggestion is that the university check the spelling on its new sign because spelling mistakes on public signs and institutions of higher learning are always a bad look.
I commend the motion to the council.
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