Phnom Penh Post newspapers are seen on a desk in a picture taken on May 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters/ Samrang Pring
In Cambodia and elsewhere, the choice can be between negative reporting and PR. Photo: Reuters / Samrang Pring

The Phnom Penh Post newspaper has been sold to a Malaysian buyer who goes by various names. After some days of confusion, he announced he was Sivakumar S Ganapathy, despite the fact that a press release on the sale of the Post by former Australian owner Bill Clough named him as Sivakumar G (Siva).

Anxieties about Sivakumar S Ganapathy have so far largely focused on the fact that he is managing director of Asia PR, an alleged public relations firm that claims to specialize in something called “covert public relations” – are there any other kind of public relations? The PR firm sports a website that appears to have been thrown together overnight by interns.

This is now all well documented. Less discussed is the fact that in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, Sivakumar S Ganapathy is better known as Siva Kumar G, the author of two “visionary” titles about Sarawak’s former Head of State and Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, 82.

Sarawak is a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world and the source of 50% of global timber acquisitions. A 2013 report found that “80% of the [Malaysian Borneo] tropical landscape had been degraded by logging, largely due to timber or oil palm production.”

In Sarawak, such illegal logging appears to have taken place with the blessing of Taib Mahmud, who, according to the Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss activist group that campaigns for the protection of rainforests, has an estimated net worth of US$15 billion.

Sarawak’s logging mafia don

Writing under the name “Siva Kumar G”, Sivakumar S Ganapathy has made something of a PR career from the life and times of Sarawak’s logging mafia don. Taib – The Visionary, was published in May 2014 and runs to nearly 800 pages. A previous ode to Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, Taib – Vision for Sarawak, was published in 1992.

In 1995, Asiaweek, reporting on nine Asian “political warlords” wrote of Taib Mahmud: “He has no private army, but he runs the closest thing to a Malaysian political fiefdom. Kuala Lumpur leaves the Sarawak chief minister alone in return for keeping the state sweet at election time.” 

As the new owner of a once fiercely independent English-language newspaper in a country dominated by strongman politics, it is cause for concern that Siva Kumar G, or Sivakumar S Ganapathy, or whatever other names he may go by, has devoted reams of pages to a politician who has presided over what former British prime minister Gordon Brown has described as “probably the biggest environmental crime of our times … Malaysia’s once vast pristine jungle has been stripped bare and enormous areas have been planted with oil palm in an environmental nightmare that shows no sign of slowing.”

According to an extensive report, “The Taib Timber Mafia,” published by the Bruno Manser Fund, “Total deforestation in Sarawak is 3.5 times as much as that for entire Asia, while deforestation of peat swamp forest is 11.7 times as much.”

The Bruno Manser Fund report says that at the height of his power the “visionary Taib” that Siva Kumar G has written two tomes on held “the offices of Chief Minister, Finance Minister, as well as that of State Planning and Resources Minister, which [gave] him enormous political and economic power.” It says: “Sarawak’s largest private company, large-scale logging and plantation interests and the control of log exports are concentrated in the hands of the Taib family.”

A media report on Sivakumar S Ganapathy, in which he is referred to as Siva Kumar G, described him as a media professional with “33 years of experience in the communications industry.” The report added, “Siva has worked in local and foreign print media organizations and provided media strategies to the [Sarawak] state government since 1985.

Asia PR, of which Sivakumar S Ganapathy is group managing director, opened a Phnom Penh office in 2014, but its connections to the Hun Sen government dates back to the 1990s when it was the publisher of the now-defunct Cambodia Times. Among its many clients, it lists Talam Plantation Holdings, a logging operation that Global Witness has described as an “untouchable,” which refers to businesses that exploit natural resources such as rainforest with impunity. 

Asia PR also provides public relations exercises that include karaoke, clubbing and letters to editors, according to its website. 

Given the reputation of Sarawak’s state government, it is likely that in some quarters he will be considered a welcome addition to the corridors of power in Cambodia, and if his background in PR is anything to go by, a free press in Cambodia is unlikely to be high on his list of priorities.

Chris Taylor has been reporting and commenting on Asian affairs from Taiwan, China and Thailand for more than 20 years, contributing to The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and the South China Morning Post, among other publications.

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