Book reviews / Non fiction

Book review: The Sarawak Report

Man, this book equally shows me hope and despair for the world. The Sarawak Report is the book version of the blog, by Clare Rewcastle Brown. Starting it’s life out as a blog detailing the pillaging of the Borneo rainforest by a corrupt Malaysian politician, it turns into the investigation of its Prime Minister who was involved in the 1MDB scandal.

No, not the movie site, but rather an investment fund that for all intents and purposes, was set up to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars for a select few people. It was the star of the first FBI investigation into kleptocracy. It’s the tale of using the international finance system to systematically rob state (they plundered the civil service pension, a fund sent up to send people on the Hajj, a development for indigenous people who were kicked off their land, etc etc) assets to cover for the massive holes left by robbing the fund.

It also documents the blatant attempts by the Prime Minister to undermine the democratic rights and processes to remain in power (murder, gerrymandering, undermining investigations, bribery, framing the opposition, you name it). Especially as the net was closing in, with international banks also opening investigations and detailing how the fraud was perpetuated. He was finally deposed by the election in 2018 (despite gerrymandering to the point that they would only need under 20% of the country to vote for them).

What the author points out time and time again was the complicity of London lawyers and dodgy PR firms to try and silence the critical voices and investigations into the massive unfolding scandal. Oh, and government officials who still arranged visits to Malaysia or hosting the corrupt PM even when he was under investigation by the FBI. That was depressing.

The only thing I found annoying about the book is that it was an enormously complex story, involving so many shell companies and banks – and clearly the author knew about it very well – but I could have used some diagrams or simple explanations of what was going on. I think I have the general idea, but as the end came and the details of how the scam was pulled off, it was just a bit overwhelming. Basically, I think it needs a film adaptation like The Big Short.

Which reminds me, one of assets seized as part of the kleptocracy investigation was the film proceeds of The Wolf of Wall Street as it was funded by the stolen funds! Leo DiCaprio does not come across well in this book, waiting until the last possible moment before distancing himself from some of the key figures. As the book points out, kleptocracy affects everyone with the proceeds being invested into massive properties, money laundered through art works, and so on.

But the hope comes from the story ending on a happy note. The PM was taken down. Plucky journalists and whistleblowers somehow won over a man who ride roughshod over everything (at one point the PM tried to use Interpol to have the author arrested). Still, we will see what happens, his trial is still yet to happen and he clearly still has reach in Malaysia. The disgraced PM still thinks he can win and return to power. As the author also points out, the situation predicted the damage that a bad faith actor can have in a system that relies on people acting with established norms. It was all very Trumpian in many aspects, which also leaves me worried for the future.

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