'Paper was Stephens' main weapon'
Published on: Sunday, September 04, 2011
By: Mary Chin and James Sarda
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DR Bob Reece, 70, is Emeritus Professor in History at Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia, and has a long connection with Borneo. He first came to Sabah as a young journalist for the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 1968.

His later articles on the political situation in Sabah did not endear him to the late Tun Mustapha and his supporters. He subsequently wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Australian National University on the 1946 cession of Sarawak to Britain by Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke and went on to publish extensively on Sarawak's history under the White Rajahs.

Today he is one of the foremost authorities on the history of what used to be known as "British Borneo".

He is based in Perth and on a recent trip to Sabah, talked to Daily Express Special Writer Mary Chin and Chief Editor James Sarda about his observations and experiences in Sabah and Sarawak.

DE: One of the newspapers you said you were familiar with when you visited Sabah at that time was the Sabah Times.

Was it during the time when it belonged to (Tun) Mustapha?

Reece: I thought it was (Tun) Stephens' paper.

DE: It was at one point Stephens' paper but not later onÉ

Reece: In the run-up to Malaysia, it was Stephens' paper.

DE: As a foreign journalist, what were your impressions about the local newspapers then?

Reece: I am a bit rusty. My impression was that (Donald, later Tun Fuad) Stephens was using the paper, among other things, to foster this idea of Kadazan ethnic identity. This was his main weapon (paper), the device to do this. But I don't know much beyond that.

DE: In a sense what you said corroborates what his Deputy Editor then, Datuk Mohd Fauzi Patel, revealed, i.e. soon after the gathering of natives at the Community Centre where Stephens pushed for Kadazan to be adopted as the community's calling, instead of Dusun. He then ordered the Sabah Times journalists to ban use of the word "Dusun".

There being only one newspaper then, he had a rare, unique and powerful opportunity to single-handedly downplay the Dusun identity in favour of the one which he wished to lead (Kadazans) but with sad consequences because the Dusuns never accepted it or him as their leader.

But at the same time, they had no medium or means to counter him.

So while he achieved success in emphasising Kadazan, the Dusuns refused to succumb to his wishes and you find many today proudly identifying themselves as Dusuns.

It is also a fact that Stephens owes his first job (as Chief Editor of the first locally-run English newspaper, the Sabah Times) to the late Tan Sri Yeh Pao Tzu, who before that had the Overseas Chinese Daily News.

Somebody suggested to Yeh that since he's already publishing OCDN and had the machines, why not start an English paper. Stephens name was then mentioned as he was at that time eking out a living as a petition writer as there were not many lawyers while stringing for another paper that was run by a New Zealander.

Reece: Borneo Bulletin?

DE: No, the North Borneo News. While on the subject of the media, there has been debate to what extent Stephens did or did not contribute to the way Sabah has turned out today both in terms of politics and the community's own struggle because his initial platform was fighting for non-Muslim natives' rights with those pertaining to Muslim natives being the responsibility of Mustapha.

Some feel a lot of the things that happened in Sabah since, vis-ˆ-vis what happened to the native non-Muslim community, etc, has a link to Stephens.

Because of his doing or undoing.

That question has nothing to do about the formation of Malaysia because even Tunku floated that idea only as a last resort when the British were pressuring him to accept Chinese-majority Singapore.

He (Stephens) had no say in it (formation) but to agree as it was a British aspiration which they (British) saw could be achieved through him while presenting a case that a third of the people wanted it, while the rest against or unsure.

Reece: We'll the British said to him if you go by yourselves we won't protect you from Indonesia.

That was the last card. The big card the British had and it worked. Donald was more keen on the Borneo Federation which the British had pushed very hard through Malcolm McDonald for about 10 years and suddenly the Colonial Office said 'no', we want to go one step further. What they did not count on was that there was so much support for the Borneo Federation. People like Ong Kee Hui (Sarawak), Stephens and in Zaini Hj Ahmad (Brunei).

DE: That was how Stephens came into the picture. For nine years (from around 1954 when the Sabah Times was started till independence through the formation of Malaysia in 1963), he had the opportunity as Editor of the Sabah Times to project and cultivate an image for himself and also (from 1960 to 1963) his party (Unko).

Reece: So it was the Sabah Times and not the Kinabalu Times.

DE: The Sabah Times, which was started by Yeh and involved Stephens and two others (Chong Pak Nam and GS Kler). What happened after that was along came an Indonesian called Tan Siew Tee.

Tan said he could buy machinery for Stephens to start his own paper. So when Yeh heard that, he decided to start the Fauzi Patel, who was Stephens' Deupty.

Stephens entrusted him to run the paper whenever he had to be away engaging himself more in politics.

Reece: Which was frequent.

DE: Yes. Patel said, one fine day, Stephens said to him, 'From now on, you guys are not going to use 'Dusun anymore, it's banned.'

Reece: To get to use Kadazandusun or just use Kadazan.

DE: Just use Kadazan. Because Stephens was perhaps actually projecting himself as a person with the local standi to sit in a negotiating table to discuss about Malaysia representing the non-Muslim natives.

Reece: Sure, he had to be seen to be the head of an ethnic group to have an ethnic constituency.

About the book "White Headhunter of Borneo", what was it about?

DE: It is the memoirs of Stephen Holley.

Reece: And what was Holley's background?

DE: He came here during the war and fought the Japanese in Sarawak before taking up important positions in this State such as Resident of Interior, etc.

Reece: He was British?

DE: Yes and it was he who also identified the first batch of leaders like Stephens and Mustapha for post-independence roles, was a signatory to the Malaysia Agreement and Secretary of the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) that discussed the terms on which it might be possible to bring Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah together. He was also the Under-Secretary to the Governor before British North Borneo became Sabah in 1963. An interesting fact that many do not know even today was that he was the first State Secretary of Sabah (from September 1963 till mid 1964) when differences started to develop between Stephens (who was CM) and Mustapha (who was Governor) and Tunku told Stephens his white State Secretary had to go.

Reece: So Tunku saw Holley as having a big influence on Stephens.

DE: He had a big influence but when Stephens appointed his friend John Dusing, an Indo-Kadazan, to replace Holley as the first local State Seceratary, it caused an even bigger crisis because Mustapha became angry at not having been consulted by Stephens (on Holley's successor).

Which lends credence to the argument that Stephens actions had

implications on the future direction of the state's politics.

Reece: I suppose there were people who had a big influence on Ningkan in Kuching.

DE: You had spent some time in Sabah.

Reece: Yes, but off and on as a visiting journalist.

Coming in to collect information and going out when I was based in KL.

I first came in 1968 more or less as a travel writer for the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER).

They sent me in July 1968 on a deal where I got a free air ticket to the Philippines and Sabah and I had to write some travel articles. But in the process, I met a few local people and then in the following year, I was appointed Malaysia-Singapore Correspondent for FEER and that meant I was based in KL.

But I came across to Singapore and then trips over here. In 1969-1970, I came across here, two or three times and picked up the local gossip and news and I met people like Syed Kechik and Mojuntin and Peter Lo. I met a whole lot of people really but I forget most of them now and I wrote a few political articles about what Tun Mustapha was up to. What he was doing. So I guess there was a certain notoriety for a short time about what I was exposing about Mustapha because most people didn't know what he was up to. I wrote two or three long feature, political analysis of Mustapha's Sabah. But then in May 1970, I got a job on the Singapore Herald, so I became a full-time journalist in Singapore.

DE: Wasn't the Singapore Herald also Stephens' paper?

Reece: Yes, he was a part owner and then he sold out to Sally Aw.

She was the heiress of the Aw Tiger Balm, the Tiger Balm areas.

She had a paper in Hong Kong, so she bought a big share of the Singapore Herald, maybe from Stephens.

I know he had a share in it.

A major share for some time, maybe the original but whether he was one of the original owners or not, you could easily find out.

DE: And what is the objective of the Singapore Herald?

Is it true that it was supposed to undermine Singapore?

Reece: No, I mean, the people who were the driving force, Ambrose Khaw and Francis, he used to be on the Straits Times in KL. Ambrose Khaw and Francis Wong who been a reporter on the Straits Times in Singapore, I think. So these two fellows got together. Ambrose more on the practical production side, I suppose, and advertising, and Francis more on the editorial side. They were keen on the idea of a paper.

I suppose the history of this hasn't been told yet on this Francis that's put into print.

I don't think he has but they were given a green light by Rajaratnam who was then Singapore's Foreign Minister. He and a few other PAP people thought the time had come in Singapore when there was a need for a newspaper which was critical at the edges.

I don't mean slap-bang, down the centre critical but nibbling at the edges saying, you know, making points about things that were a bit silly.

Not fundamentally criticising the PAP but criticising aspectsÉnot such important aspects.

In other words, a paper which would appear to be critical, appear to be different, appear to be sort of independent but would be fundamentally loyal to the PAP's principles in SingaporeÉ citizenship and security and committed to all the big things but able to be dissenting on the small things, maybe on cultural policy. So they were given the go-ahead to put out the newspaper along these lines.

DE: And what happened?

Reece: It very quickly became obvious that even a little bit of nibbling was not going to be permitted.

I think (then PM) Lee Kuan Yew made a decision that it will have to go and so he started cancelling the work permits of the foreign expatriates.

DE: How long were you there?

Reece: I had a year's work pass. I was the Foreign Editor.

I went to get my work pass renewed and he (Kuan Yew) said, 'I can't do it.

You've got 24 hours to go.'

DE: How did your family take it?

Reece: My wife and I, she had the same experience. She was Chinese from Malaysia.

We had 24 hours to pack up and get ourselves out.

And we could only go to KL because that was the only place we could move to. We had some friends on the Nanyang Siang Pau.

They were also being given a hard time by Lee Kuan Yew for different reasons.

DE: Why so?

Reece: I suppose because they were independent-minded.

The Nanyang Siang Pau truck took our barang up to KL.

We settled in KL for the next 12 or 18 months and then I got a scholarship to go back to university to run a PhD. Myself and then my wife went to Canberra when I was writing a PhD on the 1946 cession of Sarawak to the Crown.

DE: Why choose that topic when you were already familiar with Sabah?

Reece: Well, I have been to Sarawak, too. I went there in 1969 after the suspension of the elections.

After May 13, they suspended the state elections in Sarawak. I went up to see how people felt about that.

Of course, they were mad as hell and they were very talkative.

DE: What did you find out?

Reece: I had a week in Sarawak talking to politiciansÉStephen Yong and Ningkan and, oh, they are all dead now, the whole generation of politicians who were very fed-up about the cancellation of the elections because it was thought the Opposition might get in. But SNAP was in a very strong position and Ningkan was very unhappy. There was a prospect of a new Opposition Alliance against the Alliance, what we call now the Barisan.

There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and a lot of late night drinking at the market. And I was amazed because people were so talkative, so frank, so honest, so expressive, much different from KL.

And the other thing about it was when I was in Kuching, I felt, you see, I have been living in KL and Singapore and even though there was not much of a colonial hang-up in Malaysia, nevertheless people do very often make you feel, you know, sort of, not exactly colonial exploited but indifferent.

The Chinese say fung mau (red hair)Éthe Malays say JohnÉ

It wasn't exactly unpleasant but at times, there was a little bit of an edge as if to say, we are only just tolerating. We kicked you people out and what are you doing here, and there was a little bit of that.

So, when I came to Sarawak, people were very accepting and they didn't seem to be the barriers between the races. They seemed to be, maybe it was just the politicians I was meeting with but politics wasn't just based on race, not on ethnicity. Because the political history of Sarawak had been different, the Malays had been split, unlike in Malaya where Umno was the dominant and still is the dominant force.

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