Adelaide has had strong Malaysian ties from its early days – it was, after all, founded by William Light, an illegitimate son of Penang’s founder Francis Light. Some speculate that William’s mother was Siamese or Malay.
One South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, had a Malaysian wife, and oversaw the establishment of Adelaide and Georgetown as sister cities.
Malaysian-born politician Senator Penny Wong calls Adelaide home.
But there is one connection between Malaysia and the South Australian capital that has increasingly attracted criticism.
The Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Adelaide has organized a rally for this Thursday at the institution’s Taib Mahmud Court – a courtyard named after the man who has been Chief Minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak since 1981.
The SRC is hoping to persuade the University to put more distance between itself and Taib, an alumnus of the University and a recipient of an honorary doctorate from there. He is understood to have donated over half a million dollars to the University.
The SRC, on a Facebook page it has established to promote the campaign, refers to this money as “blood money.”
Taib has been accused by activists of overseeing the destruction of Sarawak’s remaining rainforests. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called this destruction “probably the biggest environmental crimes of our times.”
Indigenous people whose livelihoods depend on the local environment have especially suffered under Taib’s rule. In 2009, a Cabinet Task Force revealed that women and girls from the Penan tribe had been raped by loggers. It noted the particularly marginalized position of the Penan tribe, and recommended a number of reforms – including increased self-determination for the Penan people – be implemented.
Four years later, none of the rapists have been brought to justice, and little has changed in the way of the lot of the Penan people.
Meanwhile, Taib and his family have continued to amass a fortune overseas – with Adelaide being the so-called “hub” of Taib’s foreign property portfolio (Taib’s family owns the Adelaide Hilton through Sitehost Pty Ltd).
The SRC first passed a resolution calling for the renaming of Taib Mahmud Court in 2011. The next two years saw some behind-the-scenes negotiation on this front, but in 2013, the SRC decided it was time for a new approach, to help demonstrate to the University how unhappy students would be at learning of the University’s links with Taib.
“The SRC felt it had to increase awareness of this issue amongst students first,” said SRC Ethnocultural Officer Yasmin Martin.
“Taib Mahmud Court is a popular rendezvous point, but most people don’t know who Taib Mahmud is – and more importantly, what he’s done.”
A Facebook page was swiftly created, with the assistance of student Lizzie Taylor. Lizzie had a few months earlier travelled to Tasmania, and seen firsthand the destruction that Ta Ann – a company headed by a first cousin of Taib’s which has logged much of the rainforest in Sarawak – was doing there.
Yasmin authored a letter to Vice Chancellor Professor Warren Bebbington asking that Taib’s honorary doctorate be revoked and that the courtyard named for Taib be renamed.
She describes the letter she received in response as “disappointing.”
“The letter cited a ‘written agreement’ as a reason that the courtyard could not be renamed,” said Yasmin.
“It also explained that honorary doctorates were awarded to individuals who had done a service, and since Taib was Chief Minister of Sarawak, it was appropriate for him to be the recipient of one.
“The letter did not address any of our concerns regarding the allegations of corruption and human rights abuses that was listed in the letter I sent.
“The response was basically nothing can be done.
“But I’m not convinced that the University has explored all or any avenues with regards to our requests, and I’m not convinced they take the allegations against Taib seriously.”
Unperturbed, the SRC’s Ethnocultural Department has continued with its campaign in a variety of ways. It has begun collecting videos from students urging the University to dissociate itself from Taib, and posting these videos on its Facebook page.
It also recently organized an event where activist and Sarawak Report founder Claire Rewcastle, who is also the sister-in-law of Brown, Skyped in to talk about her firsthand experiences with Taib’s administration. The event also heard from South Australian state politician Mark Parnell, who has previously called for the University to cut its ties with Taib, as well as Tasmanian environmentalist Jenny Weber.
“The rally on Thursday will go a long way in raising awareness amongst students as to just who their University is honoring,” said Yasmin.
“However, the SRC’s position on the University’s relationship with Taib is clear. We do not feel at all comfortable with Taib using his relationship with the University of Adelaide to establish credibility on the international stage, and we will continue our campaign until that stops.”
Disclosure: Yasmin Martin is related to the author of this piece.
Dahlia Martin is currently doing her PhD on motherhood and Malay Muslim identity at Flinders University.