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Musa keeps Rosmah happy and Shafie out

Chief Minister Musa Aman's extensive reach in
Sabah makes him an almost invincible opponent
to allies and enemies alike.
LAHAD DATU: Musa Aman has ultimate control over the state’s economy, security and soil. He is Chief Minister, Finance Minister and Sabah Umno chairman.

It is a concentration of power, without oversight and unprecedented, in a state government. It was unheard of prior to the Umno-led Barisan Nasional’ s takeover of the state administration.

It also explains Musa’s controlling reach in the extraction and export of logs from Sabah’s forests. Timber was once Sabah’s goldmine.

According to timber industry insiders, there are no other “real” players anymore. There’s only Musa and his proxies.

According to these insiders, in the past there were timber producers like North Borneo Timber, Wallace Bay and Teck Heng Loong.

In 1966 Yayasan Sabah came along and became one of the players. But eventually under Musa’s guidance, Yayasan Sabah forced most of the major producers to fold up.

On the buyers’ end, among the big players were Sumitomo, Ataka, C. Itoh and Marubeni.

“But the good old days are long since over.

“The multiple companies and businessmen involved in the trade in the 70s and 80s are now all gone.

“There’s only one man controlling it all through proxies,” said an industry insider.

Lumberjack Musa

Speaking to FMT over dinner here recently, former chief minister Yong Teck Lee concurred with the views of the timber industry insiders.

“There is no other timber man in Sabah… only Musa.

“He knows the industry well… from top to bottom. From logging to export. He started off in the industry years ago and made his money from transporting logs to the ships.

“That was when Sabah’s economy depended on log exports. I still remember ‘Lumber Night’ when all the big shots in the timber industry from around the world turned up for a dinner at a hotel.

“It was hosted by the timber industry here. But now, no more,” said Yong, who himself knows the logging and timber industry very well.

He is also aware of the current state of the timber industry in Sabah and the dearth of logs. Over the past eight months, dozens of sawmills have been forced to shut down and hundreds of workers laid off.

But the exports of round logs continue and the extraction of the hard and soft wood found in Sabah’s jungle goes on unabated keeping Musa and Umno happy.

Not Sabah logs

It is widely known here that the best timber is feverishly being extracted from forest reserves including the famed Danum Valley and Maliau Basin where Sabah’s last remaining virgin forests stands.

Demand for logs from Sabah is booming and logging has seen an up-tick following the tsunami in Japan in March as well as China and South Korea.

The demand has been such that industry sources say the state authorities cannot justify the amount exported out of Sabah.

Export manifests often state that shipments are from Papua New Guinea. But in reality these logs are coming from Kalimantan in neighbouring Indonesia, said a timber industry source.

The Sabah government has said it expects annual revenue from timber production to be less than RM100 million a year over the next 20 years.

Extraction from natural forests is said to be about 200,000 cubic metres annually but timber industry sources are sceptical about these figures.

According to these insiders, the actual figures are double and the amount of earnings are undeclared.

In October last year, Musa told participants of an international business conference that over three decades of logging had “inevitably resulted in the reduction of productive capacity of forests”.

He admitted that “such dependence coupled with past practices that were not environment-friendly, illegal logging and forest fires, resulted in the degradation of our forests”.

Outflow of cash

While lauding his honesty and admission of the government’s poor management of its resources, industry insiders say illegal logging continues to be rampant in the state.

“It can be seen in many areas around the state.

“You can see it being openly done in mangrove areas and even in such places like Danum Valley, along the Kinabatangan (river) and even around Maliau Basin.

“There are even saw mills operating inside these protected areas. Don’t tell me the government does not know,” another timber source said.

He added that the flow of logs out from the state and their value did not correspond with the revenue that should be gained by the state.

“You’re talking about billions (of ringgit) here. The money certainly isn’t going into the state coffers or it would be reflected in the state budgets.

“Somewhere the money disappears. Maybe this is what people are talking about when they say hard cash is flowing out of Sabah to Kuala Lumpur every month,” he said.

Money laundering

Musa has already been officially linked to a money-laundering operation.

In fact, the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Anti Corruption (ICAC) is still investigating this money-laundering trail linked to him.

The investigation was exposed after a Sabah businessman was stopped at the Hong Kong International Airport with a bag of RM16 million in cash in late 2008.

The ICAC had been closely monitoring the account belonging to the businessman, who is alleged to be a proxy of Musa. Musa has, however, denied this.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) also launched its own investigation on the matter and hauled in several close associates of Musa, including a lawyer on the request of the ICAC.

Though little has been disclosed, it is learnt that the ICAC investigation is continuing.

The recent alleged purchases of jewellery worth millions of ringgit by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, have raised eyebrows and sparked speculation about the source of the money.

Some have pointed the finger at Sabah where Musa has been walking a tightrope to keep his position as chief minister in the face of a challenge from his arch-rival Shafie Apdal.

Shafie is a big gun in Najib’s circle. He is an Umno vice-president and Rural and Regional Development Minister.

Musa is said to be protected by Rosmah while Najib reportedly favours Shafie.

“Talk is that Musa knows how to handle the prime minister through his wife,” said Yong.

Yong was commenting on speculation over how Musa had managed to retain his chief minister’s post despite falling out of favour with Najib and others within the ruling coalition.

Even an open revolt and criticism of his leadership style by politicians within the ruling coalition have failed to dislodge him.

Political tussle

Shafie is said to have faced down Musa on several occasions when the chief minister had demanded that all federal funding for Sabah be placed at his disposal.

Shafie has taken his defiance a step further and opened an office in the state capital this year to oversee federal allocations to the state.

According to businessmen, the move came after allegations of cronyism were levelled at the state administration in the awarding of contracts for the Rural and Regional Development Ministry projects.

“Something is keeping him (Musa) there but at the same time he is definitely paying for it,” observers have commented.

Former Sabah chief minister Harris Salleh hinted recently at corrupt practices being rampant in the state when he said it was widely known that vast sums of cash were being withdrawn from Sabah banks every month and taken to Kuala Lumpur.

According to an accountant, attempts to hide money in overseas accounts without declaring where it is coming from is increasingly difficult and those who are smart use “hot money” to buy vast swaths of property locally which effectively launders the money.

“You take hot money and buy property… cash. It’s the easiest way to launder money,” he said.

One more term

According to an Umno observer in Kuala Lumpur, all Musa wants is one more term as chief minister.

“The prime minister has given him that assurance… ” said the observer.

That being the case, one term will be just enough time for anyone who is in power to mop up the remaining wealth of the state.

It also explains the sudden gush of support from various BN commentators on the Internet.

They have already begun campaigning and promoting Musa as the only person who can bring development to the state.

Musa certainly has the money and more of it is still buried in Sabah’s remaining forest.

These stand to keep Umno headquarters happy and Shafie, the Semporna MP, at bay.

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