Australian universities have been confronted with a new cautionary tale about the perils of accepting donations from potentially corrupt foreign officials.
Adelaide University named its forecourt in honour of alumnus Taib Mahmud — the controversial Governor of the Malaysian state of Sarawak in 2008. It has now stripped him of that honour — but declined to return $400,000 he donated.
Taib served as Sarawak’s chief minister for over 30 years until 2014 when he became the Governor of the state, located on the island of Borneo. Taib’s extended family is widely known to be involved in massively corrupt logging activities across the state and the forced dislocation of indigenous communities.
Documents from 2006 sent from the United States embassy in Malaysia to the US State Department — published by Wikileaks in 2011 — state:
“Sarawak state government remains highly corrupt and firmly in the hands of its chief minister … Taib and his relatives are widely thought to extract a percentage from most major commercial contracts — including those for logging — awarded in the state.”
In 2013, an investigator from Global Witness, a non-government organisation against environmental exploitation, posed as a businessman wanting to buy land in Sarawak. He secretly filmed members of Taib’s family promising they could get Taib, then-chief minister, to expedite government logging approvals for him in return for bribes.
Taib graduated from Adelaide University with a law degree in 1961. He was a student under the Colombo Plan, a Cold-War era scholarship program for students from Asia to study in Australia.
According to documents obtained through a freedom of information request by Greens South Australian state MLC Mark Parnell, Taib made four donations of $100,000 each to Adelaide University between 1987 and 2006.
The Bob Brown Foundation, which has been campaigning for the return of donations, also alleges in 2002 the then-chancellor Robert Champion de Crespigny planned to raise between $1 million and $4 million from Taib. Documents relating to the fundraising effort were not released by the university after an FOI from Parnell, with Adelaide University citing confidentiality reasons.
In 2008, the university named its forecourt outside the Adelaide Law School building “The Taib Mahmud Court”. It prompted outrage from Malaysian environmental groups and protests from local student bodies.
“Adelaide University should not have its good name dragged down by its association with a suspect foreign politician willing to throw around large wads of ill-gotten cash,” Parnell told the first student protest at the university against the naming in 2011.
Earlier this month, the signage with Taib’s name on it was removed and an Adelaide University spokesperson said the court is being re-named the “Colombo Plan Alumni Court”. But the spokesperson was sheepish when asked by Crikey if the renaming was an acknowledgement of a mistake in its original naming:
“The University wished to honour its many outstanding Colombo Plan graduates, who include two Presidents of Singapore and many other prominent Asian government and business leaders.”
The spokesperson said the university had an “obligation” as trustee administrators to not return the $400,000 in donations they had received:
“His [Taib’s] donations established scholarships for students from Sarawak to study at the University of Adelaide. Like all perpetual scholarships, the University has an obligation as trustee to administer these scholarships permanently according to trust law, and as such, the funds are used for scholarships exclusively for Sarawak students.
“The gifts were made many years ago, and the University has had no contact with Governor Mahmud for more than a decade.”
The university did not respond directly to questions regarding what anti-money-laundering protocols they had for screening donations. They provided a link to their “Fraud and Corruption Control Policy” page.
Adelaide University is not the only SA institution to be given lavish gifts from Taib. In 2013, Sitehost Pty Ltd — a company owned by Taib’s family and who own the Adelaide Hilton Hotel — donated a painting from Australian artist and Archibald Prize winner John Olsen to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Taib’s family is believed to have invested roughly $30 million into the Adelaide Hilton.
The painting “Meandering Murray and wattles” is believed to be worth tens of thousands of dollars. In a letter sent in response to questions from international environmental NGO Bruno Manser Fonds, gallery director Nick Mitzevich said the acquisition of the work “followed our policy for due diligence”.
Taib’s extended family have shares in dozens of companies in Australia, including controversial Tasmanian logging company Ta Ann, which has been at the centre of protests from environmental activists. Tasmanian company Hydro Tasmania has also been involved in the building of controversial dams, which have threatened to displace thousands of indigenous people in the state of Sarawak.