Sunday 26 July 2015

Clare Rewcastle Brown : I’ve learned that if you piss off rich Malaysians in positions of political power, they are ruthless and unscrupulous in what they are prepared to do to get their own back

steadyaku47 comment : Good read. With thanks to Esquire Malaysia



Clare Rewcastle Brown

On pissing off rich Malaysians, getting things wrong and flower power.

Investigative journalist, founder of Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak, 56.

I have happy childhood memories of Sarawak. I didn’t return until I’d grown up and established myself in a completely different world [back in the UK], but I’d always followed what was happening in Borneo. By the time I came back in 2006—ironically because I’d been asked to take part in an environmental conference that [Tun Abdul] Taib [Mahmud] was holding at the time—I’d taken time out to have my two boys and it was my little window in life to say, “Well, what do I really care about doing something about?”

There was an attitude, you know: let’s tell the world about what’s happening in poor old Borneo. After a while, I started to think, what about the people in Borneo? If things are going to change in Borneo, it’s going to be the people in Borneo who are going to change them, so why am I talking to people back in the UK? Why not speak to those who are directly affected, instead of making urban dwellers in the west feel guilty about environmental issues that they feel a bit powerless about?

It’s funny how people think they have a right to a reputation just because they’ve made a lot of money.

I’ve learned that if you piss off rich Malaysians in positions of political power, they are ruthless and unscrupulous in what they are prepared to do to get their own back. I’ve had PR outfits, lawyers, computer hackers and radio-jamming professionals thrown at me, but they’ve shot themselves in the foot. They’ve made me into a character I wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t reacted so angrily and expensively. They created my Wikipedia site, for god’s sake.

It helps if you don’t have a nefarious agenda. They’re always trying to make one out about me, but actually, I’m just a dreadful old do-gooder who’s got a bit between my teeth.
I think [having former British prime minister Gordon Brown as a brother-in-law] has probably helped. One of the reasons I kept my identity secret for as long as I could was because I didn’t want to get him involved, particularly when he was still in office. But when he stepped down, I was bolder, and actually, he was really encouraging. When I started getting death threats, he said, “Look, you should just say who you are and what you’re doing because that’s the best way to deal with them.”

The key thing is to be honest. I think if you’ve seen something that’s a crime you shouldn’t just report it as if you have no opinion of it. Also, as an investigative journalist, you don’t publish something unless you’ve caught somebody out doing something naughty; and once you do, you’ve got a certain amount of licence to give him a hard time. That’s the job. I’m not trying to be objective, but I’m honest about what I say, and I’m critical where I think it’s deserved.

With the BBC, you’re going to get a more determined attempt at very objective journalism because they’re state-funded. They’re always being accused by either side of being biased, but I worked for the BBC World Service, and if you’ve got everyone accusing you of being biased, then you know you’re getting it right because you’re annoying everybody equally.
I get a lot of whistleblowing elements now that I’m more established, but secret cameras are a thing of the past for me. When I was a TV journalist, I had a secret camera from every lapel, and in my bag. I don’t bother with that anymore because now I’m just writing.
The corruption in Malaysia is blatant. You don’t have to do that much research to see it. They got lazy and weren’t bothering to cover it up. They’re trying harder now, but you know, there was 30 years of fairly blatant corruption that I just started covering, and I guess nobody else was.

I grew up during the ’60s and ’70s and have a bit of an old-fashioned, flower-power attitude, you know: don’t mess with me, I’ve got rights. I see that eroding in the younger generation, in the UK too, and it troubles me. We shouldn’t be too deferential. We should get up sometimes and wave our banners and go marching. When I was at university, there was a march every bloody weekend. Liberties have to be fought for and defended; otherwise, bullies will sneak in and nick ’em.

It would be interesting if I could get another interview with Mahathir. I’d say, Look, you ran Malaysia with an iron first. Looking back, do you accept that you probably over-concentrated power and that you gave a very dangerous piece of machinery to whoever might succeed? I think he’s having some second thoughts, I think he’s genuinely furious at what’s happened. The 1MDB debacle is not only a fairly blatant heist on public funds, but also not very well done—and, you know, I think Mahathir is probably annoyed on both fronts. [laughs]

I made a retraction on Sarawak Report. I cocked it up and put a wrong name to a report. That was about four years ago. They still refer to it sometimes when they’re trying to have a good, old round-up about my sins.

It’s what any investigative journalist lives in dread of: getting it wrong. You try to get it right on the big things, but you can often get it wrong on the little things. It’s also easier to make mistakes in an environment like Malaysia, where there’s so little transparency. You’re often dealing with little bits of information that you’re trying to piece together because you’re not getting the information you should. But touch wood, I don’t think I’ve made any clangers so far on the 1MDB story.

The greatest gift you can give your country is to be an honest and well-intentioned governor.

Interviewed by Emily Ding on June 6, 2015. Photography by Ronald Leong. This article originally appears in the July 2015 Meaning of Life Issue.

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