Pitfalls of absolute power too great to risk

By Ghui, The Online Citizen, Singapore, 19 January 2015

Transparency is of utmost importance in building a system whereby the ruled are not oppressed or browbeaten by their rulers. Transparency can be fostered in a number of ways – having robust opposition parties to question the incumbent to ensure accountability and a free press to keep the powers be in check.

Information is an essential commodity for answerability and he who controls information controls the crowd. That is how despots the world over have managed to maintain control over the populace, often times enriching themselves at the expense of the masses who have been kept ignorant through the machinations of a state controlled press.

This tight rein wielded over the media is beginning to loosen in our Internet age and the means of transmitting information is bringing about the winds of change both in the social and political arenas.

Closer to home in Sarawak, we witness how the alleged corruption and cronyism exercised by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud has attracted the interest of investigative journalists, bloggers and activists.

I was privileged to be able to attend the London launch of Lukas Straumann’s meticulously researched book “Money Logging, On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia”. Prior to the launch, publishers and distributors of the book were slapped with letters alleging defamation. However, the author stood by his facts and both publishers and distributors have not reacted to the letters and the publication and distribution has gone ahead.

Taib was even invited to defend his wealth by joining a panel discussion made up of author Lukas Straumann, editor of Sarawak Report Clare Rewcastle Brown, director of The Borneo Project Jettie Word, lawyer and state legislative assembly member See Chee How, and Finance and Trade Campaigner for FERN Mark Gregory. Taib did not attend and a chair was left empty in his honour.

The book read like a thriller with suspected murders, suicide, bribery, fraud, exploitation and disappearances. While engaging, one must be reminded that this is based on what has happened and what is continuing to happen in Sarawak. This is not a fictional John Le Carré novel.

The degree of sleaze and blatant disregard for the livelihood of masses of indigenous people highlighted in the book beggars belief. Evidence was provided by numerous whistle blowers and many years of sheer labour-intensive research, documenting the rape of Sarawak’s rainforests, the systematic destruction of a state’s natural resources to benefit only a few of those on top while riding rough shod over the heritage of the common people.

The ongoing debate in Sarawak is a stark reminder of how important having adequate checks and balances are. As Lord Action once said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

The book is as riveting as it is disturbing and is a living example of why those in power must always be accountable to the people who they rule. While it is about Sarawak, it has many parallels to many countries in the world where transparency is an issue.

Knowledge is power and the common people must never be denied knowledge of issues that affect them. The right to information is a crucial ingredient to democracy and is a right worth fighting for.

In the Sarawak example, it is believed that a lack of information through state sanctioned manipulation has led to the extreme destruction of its rainforests, which in turn enriched only a handful while rendering many others destitute. There is also the need to contend with the potential of many irreversible environmental repercussions that affect us globally.

Has all this happened because of a rampantly corrupt system lacking in transparency, which enabled one man’s greed to triumph over the common good?

A freer press and vigorous, effective opposition parties is the only way to safeguard against a misuse of power, which can have disastrous consequences. The possible pitfalls of absolute power are too great to risk.

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