The Cost of Free Speech in Sarawak


When popular radio presenter Peter John Jaban decided to return home to the Malaysian state of Sarawak, he was aware of the risks that he was taking. Jaban had previously received death threats, though had maintained that “no matter what they do, I will continue my work.” Speaking to the 7.30 Report on April 14, 2011, Jaban described his urge to return to Sarawak. “It’s my land, my people, my family. I miss my home so much, and of course I want to go back.” Jaban did return to Sarawak on May 31st, 2012, immediately going underground as a pre-emptive measure to evade the Malaysian Special Branch. As his closest colleagues did not know of his whereabouts, fears emerged that Jaban may have been abducted, sparking a frantic 48 hours. He has since revealed that he is safe and well, though is fearful for his safety.

Peter John Jaban is a broadcaster with the independent radio station Radio Free Sarawak, which operates from a small flat in Covent Garden. The station is openly opposed to the government of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, which is led by Chief Minister Taib Mahmud. Chief Minister Taib has held power since 1981, amassing enormous wealth in this time. Broadcasting in Indigenous languages, Radio Free Sarawak highlights issues occurring in native communities across Sarawak. As mentioned on the Radio Free Sarawak website, “if you have a problem in your village or if someone is taking your land, logging, planting or polluting your area… tell the world about it through Radio Free Sarawak.”

Initial fears that Jaban had been abducted by the Special Branch were not unfounded.

Co-founder of Radio Free Sarawak and author of the influential Sarawak Report, Rewcastle-Brown refers to the constant intimidation of political activists in Malaysia. Rewcastle-Brown highlights the plight of Nicholas Muja, who leads a Dayak land rights association and has been arrested on seven occasions. As well as the harassment from police, Rewcastle-Brown contends that groups who oppose the work of logging companies “risk being beaten up” by groups of thugs, as police studiously ignore such incidents.

Throughout their short existence, Radio Free Sarawak and Sarawak Report have been under continued attack from the Sarawak Government. During the lead-in to the 2011 Sarawak state election, Sarawak Report was subjected to intense cyber attacks. However, Rewcastle-Brown claims that this campaign backfired, with the website receiving 100,000 hits a day as a result. Furthermore, Rewcastle-Brown says Radio Free Sarawak was subjected to similar attacks during the same period, “but we managed to find the perpetrators in the Ukraine.”

The dislike for Radio Free Sarawak and Sarawak Report among the Sarawak Government is underlined by the fact that Chief Minister Taib employed a public relations company based in the United Kingdom, called FBC Media, for the specific purpose of discrediting both Radio Free Sarawak and Sarawak Report. Rewcastle-Brown claims that the company was paid $5 million per year to perform this task.

In February 2011, Rewcastle-Brown told the Evening Standard, “Before Christmas, Taib’s disaffected US aide Ross Boyert was found dead in a Los Angeles hotel room with a plastic bag around his head.” As Boyert had been the chief whistleblower assisting Radio Free Sarawak and Sarawak Report, Rewcastle-Brown stated that “there was a sense that Peter and I could be in some danger.”

Radio Free Sarawak exists to provide a voice to Indigenous communities, whom Rewcastle-Brown asserts, “have been wholly exploited.” According to Rewcastle Brown, the effect of this exploitation has been immense. “The interior communities have lost the jungle and rivers that once provided a primitive but abundant supply of food, water and material, but have not received more than the minimum in return.  Rivers have been choked with mud and polluted by deforestation and plantations using pesticides and fertilizers.” The construction of numerous large dam projects in Sarawak is now having a major impact on Indigenous communities, who are being evicted from their land and moved into resettlement communities. Rewcastle-Brown contends that the resettlements “have been a disaster,” with the communities recently finding out that they would be forced to pay for their new homes. “It puts them in hock to the government, since they could never find the money,” says Rewcastle-Brown.

Furthermore, Rewcastle-Brown elaborates on the disenfranchisement of Indigenous populations within Sarawak, stating that many Indigenous people are denied identification cards and birth certificates, “thereby denying them basic health and education.” As a result, Rewcastle-Brown reports that “an effective ethnic cleansing of these groups” is occurring. According to Rewcastle-Brown, “the young are fleeing to live on the outskirts of the bigger towns and to find some sort of existence there.  The old are dying out… Without a voice these people have no protection.”

At the same time, serious concerns have been raised by the Swiss non-government organization Bruno Manser Fund, which reported in 2011 that the Sarawak state election of that year was heavily skewed in favor of Taib’s BN party. According to the Bruno Manser Fund, “Hundreds of thousands of natives (were) deprived of voting rights,” leading to 480,000 people being unregistered at the time of the 2011 Sarawak state election. Rewcastle-Brown estimates that just 20 per cent of Indigenous people have voting rights. Representative of the PKR party, Baru Bian, stated that the election “was filled with vote buying, dirty tricks and undue interference by government officials, who intimidated voters, particularly in rural areas.”

Such concerns were raised by an international observer group, invited by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to study the Malaysian electoral system ahead of the forthcoming general election. Australian senator Nick Xenophon was part of this mission, which the senator claims raised “very serious concerns about the authoritarian nature of this regime.”

In the lead-in to the Bersih 3.0 rallies which took place in April 2012, all Malaysian students receiving study grants in the United States were contacted by Malaysia’s Washington-based Education Department, who warned students that participation in these rallies would result in their grants being cut. These threats were contained in an email, leaked to the Sarawak Report, and called upon students to “Refrain yourself from joining, conspiring or contributing in whatever ways to any activities that may be considered detrimental to the stakes of the government and nation.” The email refers students to clause 5.4 of the Federal Scholarship Agreement, which states that students can not “take part in any solicitation or demonstration at any place by any organization, bodies, or groups, i.e. the sedition or demonstration in the Government’s opinion.”

Clearly, political dissent is not being tolerated in Malaysia. “It is a desperate situation and the only solution could be said to be a change of regime,” says Rewcastle-Brown.

Image: new Sarawak parliament building via Shutterstock

1 thought on “The Cost of Free Speech in Sarawak”

  1. Something to think about Peter Jaban…despite of the information that he feared coming back to Sarawak he has been in and out of Sarawak throughout last year and was last seen partying in Kuching in December. As for the recent event in Kota Kinabalu airport, he was queried bcos his passport was blacklisted meaning he cannot get out of the country probably for the following reasons; he did not pay his education loans ( ptpn,Mara), he has been declared bankrupt, or he did not pay his income tax.

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