Life and times of Taib Mahmud, from carpenter’s son to father of modern Sarawak

The former Sarawak leader leaves behind a legacy etched in the annals of the state’s history 


IN THE heart of Borneo, amid the verdant landscapes of Sarawak, a legend breathed his last, marking the end of an era that resonated across Malaysia and beyond. 

Tun Taib Mahmud, a towering figure in Malaysian politics, bid farewell to a life lived with purpose, leaving behind a legacy etched in the annals of Sarawak’s history. 

Early Childhood 

Born in Miri on May 21, 1936, as the eldest of 10 siblings, the future father of modern Sarawak came from a modest middle-class family whose father is a modest carpenter. 

He did well in school though and was bankrolled by his uncle, Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub, who was at that time a probationary native officer and fourth-class magistrate in the state. 

Abdul Rahman, whose footsteps Taib would follow, is also responsible for influencing the latter to study law instead of pursuing a career in medicine. 

“With law degrees, it was my view that both Taib and I would be better able to serve the people of Sarawak,” Abdul Rahman said in an interview with The Star in 2008, reflecting on the pivotal moment that shaped Taib’s destiny. 

Taib then went to Australia, as part of the Colombo Plan scholarship. While in Adelaide, he met his first wife, Toh Puan Laila Taib, of Polish Muslim origin. He was then appointed as an associate to Justice Sir Herbert Mayo of the Supreme Court of South Australia after finishing his studies in 1960. 

He returned to Sarawak two years later, working in the Crown Council, the administration of the British Colony of Sarawak. 

It was also Abdul Rahman who got Taib to join him at Barisan Ra’ayat Jati Sarawak (Barjasa) in 1963 as Sarawak entered the Malaysia Federation, becoming its VP and subsequently appointed as the state minister for communications and works in the first Sarawak Cabinet under Tan Sri Stephen Kalong Ningkan due to his position and superior education background despite not standing in the election. 

However, Taib and his party soon found to be in conflict with Ningkan, being sacked twice from his position before the latter’s removal in 1966 through the interference of the federal government. 

He then became the development and forestry minister in 1967 under the leadership of new Sarawak second Chief Minister (CM) Datuk Seri Tawi Sli before again falling out with his boss. 

Taib was then appointed as the assistant minister for commerce and industry from 1968 until 1970 before winning his first parliamentary election for Kota Samarahan in 1970. As he had a good relationship with subsequent prime ministers (PMs), he was appointed as deputy minister in the PM’s Department from 1970-1972 before being appointed as the natural resource minister from 1972 to 1974. 

It is interesting to see whether the Sarawak political landscape would again change following the passing of a great leader

Forming PBB 

In 1973, after another Sarawak leadership tussle, he followed Abdul Rahman to open a new party, Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), where he became the deputy president to his uncle. 

Abdul Rahman was Sarawak’s third CM, replacing Tawi in 1970 before he was replaced by Taib in 1981, hence ending his stint as the federal territory minister in the newly appointed Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad administration. His uncle then succeeded as the fourth Sarawak government in the same year. 

PBB whom Abdul Rahman adopted its constitution from Umno, has since become the lynchpin party of the state. 

Taib’s leadership was marked by a steadfast commitment to progress and development marked with progressive modernisation and mega projects. He envisioned a Sarawak that thrived economically, socially and environmentally, and he spared no effort in realising this vision. 

Under his stewardship, Sarawak underwent a remarkable transformation, with infrastructure projects, economic initiatives and social programmes reshaping the fabric of the state. 

His efforts to alleviate poverty and improve the lives of Sarawakians bore fruit, with poverty rates plummeting from 70% to  20% over six decades. However, his legacy is not without controversy. His critics accused him of corruption, cronyism and environmental degradation, particularly concerning the state’s lucrative timber industry which has 

been in the news until now. Politically his 33-year tenure as CM was not without its challenges. The Ming Court Affair in 1987 tested his mettle as a leader, pitting him against his uncle’s supporters in a battle for political supremacy. Much has been written about the matter which broke up both relationships which spanned for more than four decades at that time. 

Both apparently reconciled later in the 2000s after Abdul Rahman retired from politics. 

Taib went on to be Sarawak’s seventh Governor on March 1, 2014, for a month short of a decade before being replaced by Tun Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar due to ill health in January 2024. 

In the aftermath of his passing, Sarawak finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with the legacy of a titan who shaped its destiny for over six decades. Yet, amid the uncertainty, there is a sense of continuity and optimism. Taib’s successor, Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg, stands poised to carry forward the torch of progress and development, ensuring that Sarawak’s journey continues unabated. 

As Sarawakians bid farewell to their beloved leader, they do so with a sense of gratitude and reverence for the man who dedicated his life to their welfare. 

With Taib’s passing, Abang Johari (picture) stands poised to carry forward the torch of progress and development

Impactful Leader 

For Sarawakian analyst Datuk Dr Jeniri Amir, Taib’s reign saw a very significant contribution in every sense of the word politics, economy, finance, social development, infrastructure and industry. 

He said Taib is a very impactful leader who manages to stabilise the often rocky and messy politics in the state. 

“Of course, you can see it first in terms of political development, he managed to stabilise politics because we can say that he is a strong man and politician. 

“And with that political stability, he managed to focus on physical development, and his policy for politics and development focuses on investment, economic growth and social development. 

“And I think when he was no longer the CM, he left behind a billion results. So, you can see he is a very impactful leader,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR). 

As a Sarawakian native, Jeniri said the stability brought by Taib’s leadership has already paved the way for effective leaders of today. 

“Sarawak is going to make it in a sense that with the leadership under the current premier Abang Johari, there is going to be continuity. I think continuity and stability are very important in Sarawak’s political stability and he can focus on economic growth and development. 

“But you need to reckon the fact that Taib has contributed significantly to the development as the CM for 33 years. I can say he is a visionary, pragmatic and effective leader. He managed to reduce poverty from 70 % to 20 % for six decades,” he said. 

On Feb 21, some companies linked to Taib also saw their share prices slide such as CMS, Dayang Enterprise, Ta Ann, Sarawak Plantation, Sarawak Cable and WTK Holdings (pic: TMR)

Business Controversies 

Being a leader for six decades, Taib’s influential leadership also brought in significant wealth. Critics accused him of developing systems of patronage that allegedly enriched him and his inner circle.

One of the focal points of criticism was Taib’s alleged ties to various companies, including those linked to his family. Among these companies were Cahya Mata Sarawak Bhd (CMS), a conglomerate with interests in construction, cement manufacturing and property development. Despite his familial connections to CMS, Taib claimed to have distanced himself from the company to avoid conflicts of interest during his tenure as CM. 

Additionally, other businesses associated with Taib and his family also came under scrutiny. These included prominent entities such as Dayang Enterprise Holdings Bhd, which operated in the oil and gas services sector, Naim Holdings Bhd, a property developer, KKB Engineering Bhd, specialising in steel fabrication, and Ta Ann Holdings Bhd, involved in plantation activities. 

While these companies were separate entities from Taib’s governmental responsibilities, their association with him raised questions about potential favouritism and impropriety. 

For Jeniri, he said the family should settle the matter behind closed doors. He admitted the open dispute between Taib’s eldest son Datuk Seri Sulaiman Abdul Rahman and his second wife Syrian Raghad Kurdi Taib whom he married in 2010 was not a good thing. 

“They are very rich, they have a lot of assets, so it’s very important for them. I think the family members settled this, I mean not openly but behind closed doors. Not to be brought in openly because of what happened to Sulaiman and Raghad. 

“I think his business will be managed by his two sons. 

“So, I think the focus on the two sons will be very much involved in carrying out whatever business that is passed down today,” Jeniri said. 

Sulaiman and his brother Datuk Seri Mahmud Abdul Bekir Taib are currently suing Raghad over falsified signatures on some documents involving the transfer of shares from a company from their late mother, Laila. 

On Feb 21, some companies linked to Taib also saw their share prices slide, although a few managed to buck the trend. 

Taib and his associates owned significant portions of several entities on Bursa Malaysia and analysts believe his demise has brought about an “understandable knee-jerk reaction” from investors, albeit a short-term one. 

Some more notable names that experienced a share price pullback include CMS, dipping one sen to close at RM1.02, while Dayang Enterprise shaved off seven sen to settle at RM2.23, although the latter has seen its stock post a 39% increase year-to-date. 

Other Taib-linked counters that lost on the day include Ta Ann, which dropped six sen to close at RM3.79, Sarawak Plantation Bhd lost one sen to touch RM2.25, as well as Sarawak Cable Bhd and WTK Holdings Bhd. 

Bucking the trend, however, are integrated property developer Naim Holdings, which saw its share price rise 3.5 sen to close at 90 sen on Feb 21, and financial institution Kenanga Investment Bank Bhd also added one sen to settle at RM1.17 at 5pm on Feb 21. 

CMS is the flagship of Taib-linked business with the family controlling just over 22% of the group, which has exposure in all segments of the economic pie in Sarawak. Meanwhile, the family owns 18.93% interest in Kenanga Investment. 

An analyst with a local research house opined that the dips observed in several counters related to the seventh Sarawak governor are not unexpected, pointing out that the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI also fell by 3.19 points, or 0.2%, on Feb 21 to close at 1,552.4. 

The controversy surrounding Taib and his alleged links to illegal logging in Sarawak caused his alma mater, Adelaide University, to remove his name from a plaza near the university’s law faculty that was named after him. 

Despite persistent allegations of corruption, however, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) could not find the evidence needed to prosecute Taib and ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing. 

Taib’s daughter, Jamilah Taib Murray, is also currently in a legal battle with Swiss human rights and environment NGO Bruno Manser Funds (BMF) in the Civil Court of Basel-Stadt, Switzerland. 

Jamilah, her husband, Sean Murray, and her Canada-based real estate corporation Sakto Group are suing BMF and its director Lukas Straumann for defamation. 

This was based on statements allegedly linking her and her real estate investments to corruption in the Sarawak logging industry. 

BMF was founded in memory of Bruno Manser, a Swiss environmentalist who stayed with the Penan communities in Sarawak while fighting the timber concessionaires. He disappeared in the state in May 2000 and was presumed dead. 

Taib’s legacy is not without controversy particularly those concerning the state’s lucrative timber industry which has been in the news until now

Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimated that Taib and his family-owned assets are worth more than US$1 billion (RM4.78 billion), but other sources have approximated that he was likely worth significantly more. 

Meanwhile, analyst Dr Oh Ei Sun commented that with Taib no longer in the picture, it is interesting to see whether the Sarawak political landscape would again change. 

He said Taib has taken PBB and its Melayu-Melanau domination over Iban-Dayak and other communities who were a majority before PBB. 

“Taib built up the dominance of PBB over Sarawak which persisted into the present and likely for quite some time to come. It would be interesting to see if there would be an Iban-Dayak political resurgence, which so far is being subsumed under the pretext of Sarawak nationalism. 

“Sarawak maintains its de facto alliance and subtle deference to UMNO’s political choices beyond Taib’s chief ministership,” he said. 

Taib was laid to rest at the family cemetery of his Demak Jaya residence at Jalan Bako in Kuching on Feb 22. 

Sarawak’s longest-serving CM was buried next to the grave of his first wife Laila. 

Among the dignitaries present were Sultan of Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Head of State Wan Junaidi and Abang Johari. 

Sarawak declared two days of mourning, and the state flag was flown at half-mast. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition