Once again it would seem that the Sultan of Johor has utilised an election period to drive through a massive construction project for his own benefit. This time it is the extraordinary Muar off-shore oil and gas reclamation scheme, encompassing artificial islands and deep sea harbours, that he has pushed through after the barest of public consultation together with his usual business partners.
Oh so coincidentally, the project appears to have been signed off by the caretaker administration just a day after the state assembly was dissolved and to have thereby escaped with the least possible level of oversight, due process and due diligence. Such tactics have yet to have been legally challenged it would appear.
Conveniently, the consultation period for the required Environmental Impact Assessment was during the ensuing fraught campaign, thereby ensuring nobody was on top of the proposals. Indeed, two local assemblymen for the affected area have confirmed to Malaysiakini (which conducted an excellent expose) that they have not once been consulted on the multi-billion ringgit plan that will of course destroy already depleted mangrove forests and local fishing grounds.
It has been the same story with state mining concessions (which Sarawak Report demonstrated were also thrust through on behalf of the Sultan against the rights of local tenants on state land during the previous election). Likewise, the vast Forest City project, a greedy development plan at the expense of local forests and indigenous folk, was bulldozed through under equally controversial circumstances. The development was designed to bring in a million Chinese buyers to largely enrich the Sultan, being that he of course was a major shareholder.
To rubber stamp and then facilitate such projects the royal bullies in Johor ultimately need a compliant UMNO state government back in office. UMNO know their place and understand the deal, which is to give the sultan what he wants in return for pickings for themselves. It has become a symbiotic exploitation entrenched over decades at the expense of the rest of the population.
Hence, the heavy support given by the royal household to UMNO during this latest untimely ‘buy’ election, one of several contrived to return state governments to the party following their mass ejection from power in 2018. That support was emblematically symbolised by the ‘crown prince’ who jaw-droppingly posed with the convicted grand kleptocrat Najib flaunting a “Bossku” shirt at the height of the campaign.
Birds of a feather unfortunately do flock together and if the royal family of Johor had no shame in such a posture they have self-advertised what they are. Everyone in Malaysia knows it, although most fear to say it.
UMNO and the Sultan of Johor mobilised their full joint forces to drive through this staged and untimely election. Despite the weight of planning and onslaught of wealth and establishment clout, it is notable they nonetheless only obtained 43% of a 55% turnout. However it made for domination in terms of seats – for now.
And the Sultan wasted no time in showing who is boss in the UMNO mafia structure. Just as his brother in law has abused his duty of appointment not once but twice in selecting prime ministers who do not represent the decision of the electorate, the local state ruler simply dumped the leadership candidate who had led the election campaign for UMNO and put in his own man as Menteri Besar.
That individual, Onn Hafiz Ghazi, happens to be a longstanding Najib flunky (the Razak family have always taken care to bend to and feed their royal patrons after all) and establishment creature (also descended from an ex-prime minister). It is acknowledged that Onn received RM240,000 of stolen 1MDB money from Najib to launch a propaganda portal – he will do as told.
Which is all very convenient for the Sultan’s plan to get on with ripping up the shoreline and the creation of artificial islands to build oil refineries and deep sea ports that will be substantially owned by himself, thanks to the easy permission to be gained for the so-called Maharani Energy Gateway project from the compliant state government now bulldozed into place.
Malaysian’s know that they can forget any proper due diligence into the benefits of this project for anyone besides Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar. Forget spreading the profit; forget asserting the rights of the state to supervise and properly tax the project; forget any genuine assessment of the damage to the environment and knock on costs; forget compensation for those who lose out. Certainly, forget tendering it to a possibly better contractor.
It is plain and obvious that the Sultan of Johor has not yet recovered from the fury he doubtless felt when thwarted by the surprise victory of the opposition parties in 2018, after which he was forced to return a valuable tranche of land purloined from the state where he had hoped to make a fortune out of the crossing to Singapore.
It was a humiliating exposure of corruption of the type that UMNO has for years routinely waved through for sultans such as Johor to keep them sweet and onside and rolling in wealth that constitutionally belongs to the people not them or their greedy families. The Sultan of Johor has plotted his revenge and now he plans to have it.
The Maur project is designed to make him billions. Meanwhile, the lands and licences grabbed without compensation to leaseholders for mining gold are now guaranteed to see a renewal of activity that was also plainly frozen by the adverse result of 2018. Iskandar reckons he is back in business, thanks to the bare quarter of the state electorate who agreed last week to trade their votes for the usual payments and a false narrative of innocence by Najib and his party of kleptocrats.
It places Malaysia’s vestiges of rule of law on a dangerous slide. The Sultan of Johor and family would have everyone accept they personally own the state and they have been getting away with it too long.
Theirs is a feudal outlook (that of robber barons who seize kingship) by which the trappings of modern government established at independence is a mere decorative cloak to rubber stamp their apparent insatiable drive to grab every opportunity to make money from ‘their lands’ – whether it is by stripping protected forests, seizing smallholdings from paid up tenants for mining rights, cornering development rights or by this latest ploy of ranging destructively off-shore to grab wealth from the seas as well.
Their role models are the autocratic newly enriched leaders of the Middle East who have funnelled oil wealth into their own pockets, wasting money in ever more ostentatious and destructive ways. Modern leaders of democratic countries do not indulge in flashing childish toys – golden cars, planes, palaces, jewellery and watches – or in preening videos showing off their wealth to those whom they purloined it from. They do not grab the natural resources of the state, treating elected representatives as their flunkeys.
Unfortunately, this is exactly how the Sultan’s family behaves and they plainly care not a jot for the vulnerable people whose lives they affect by such behaviour nor for the irreparable damage their greedy plunder has wreaked on the lovely lands they were entrusted to protect.
Inevitably, these royals are not the business brains they aspire to be. Like Najib they are merely insatiable for wealth. Forest City has already sunk into a disastrous failure as it struggles to attract its projected foreign buyers and the Muar project likewise bears all the hallmarks of hasty over-ambition and impending failure.
Malaysians will have to decide whether they will unite to curb and control their childish royal families or let them carry on acting like mini-Putins, feeling free to imprison those who criticise them (whilst the authorities turn a blind eye) and grabbing concessions like children in a sweet shop without their parents.
Unchecked, greedy autocrats only ever become more arrogant, lawless and destructive. The situation will only get worse unless they are reined in, preferably by a proper turnout and a resounding judgement at GE15.