KUALA LUMPUR: Controversial Sarawak leader Taib Mahmud was sworn in Saturday as governor of the Malaysian state he has been repeatedly accused of pillaging during his 33 years as its chief minister.
Despite moves to block his ascent, Malaysian media reported the 77-year-old received his instrument of appointment by Malaysia’s King on Friday and took his oath of office in Sarawak’s legislative assembly, which he has controlled since 1981.
An opposition lawmaker’s legal challenge was thrown out by the court earlier this week, while an online petition by rights groups urging the King to reject Taib failed to gain traction after securing fewer than 3,000 signatures.
Taib resigned as chief minister of the state on Borneo island in early February following mounting claims of corruption and environmentally disastrous policies.
However, Taib still heads the Sarawak-based party that is part of the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
While the role of governor is traditionally as the ceremonial head of state, critics say it would allow him to retain control of Sarawak and possibly avoid potential prosecution.
Taib implemented ambitious plans to develop the region, which lags the rest of the country, but has been the target of allegations of massive corruption, rainforest destruction, and ill-treatment of Sarawak’s native tribes.
The most recent came on the eve of his appointment as governor, as international whistleblower group Global Witness levelled yet another claim of graft — a $2 million kickback to Taib’s son in return for a state-wide waste disposal deal inked in 1998.
Formerly the country’s longest-serving chief minister, Taib has long denied allegations of impropriety.
But Swiss-based rainforest-protection group Bruno Manser Fund, citing financial papers, said in 2012 that Taib’s family controlled Sarawak’s biggest companies and hundreds of others.
It estimated Taib’s fortune at $15 billion, which would make him the richest person in Malaysia.
The Bruno Manser Fund also says Sarawak has been stripped of 95 percent of its once-rich primary rainforests, calling Taib and his family the “chief culprits.”