How Lo rose to be Sabah’s second CM
Published on: Sunday, January 05, 2020
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Lo with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Mustapha (left) and Stephens.
TAN Sri Datuk Peter Lo Su Yin who served as second Sabah Chief Minister from Jan 1 1965 till May 1967, was born on May 19, 1923, at Sandakan.

He started his early education at St. Mary’s School in Sandakan, until reaching Junior Cambridge, the highest level in Sabah at that time. In early 1951 his father sent him to Singapore to further his studies to become a medical doctor. 

However, his schooling was interrupted at the end of the year when the Second World War erupted in the Far East after Japan joined the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. 

He was sitting for his Senior Cambridge examination when Singapore was bombed from the air and later invaded by the Japanese. Singapore soon surrendered to the Japanese occupation was difficult. 

Luckily he had an auntie who took care of him. During his enforced stay there he worked for most of the time as a clerk in the General Post Office. He managed to return to North Borneo after the War, only to find his family was facing greater hardship in Sandakan. 

His father was arrested by the Japanese and was sent for execution. Luckily his captors changed their minds and spared his father’s life. The escape from certain death was to the family a miracle.

After the war he tried his hands on several businesses but without success. Times were bad. He was frustrated and wanted to study but had no money. His mother was sick and bed-ridden. Meanwhile, David Marshall a popular lawyer in Singapore, often came to Sabah to defend criminal cases in Sandakan courts.

Lo was very much fascinated by the skills of Marshall and he never failed to attend court proceedings whenever David Marshall was the lawyer. He was inspired to become a lawyer. Marshall himself encouraged him to do so.

He was lucky, because in 1952 the Colombo Plan offered scholarships to Sabahans to pursue higher education overseas. He grabbed this opportunity to take up law at the University of Wellington in New Zealand. He was the first Sabah student to enjoy the facility and the first Sabahans to graduate in law, and to become a lawyer.

After earning his law degree he was admitted a Solicitor in 1955 and to the bar 1956. In 1957 he returned to  Sabah to open up and take charge of the Singapore law firm of Donaldson and Burkinshaw in Sandakan. In 1961 he left the company to open up his own practice.

In 1958 he was appointed a member of the Sandakan Town Board and Deputy Chairman in 1959, 1960 and 1961. At that time the Town Board deputy Chairman was a very senior post because the Chairman was always the Resident, who was the regional representative of the Governor and there were only two Residents, i.e. the West Resident and the East Coast Resident.

In 1962, he became the first of two persons to be appointed as member of the Appointments and Promotions Boards (a forerunner of the Public Service Commission) from which he resigned in the following year to be the Secretary-General of the United Party led by Datuk Sri Panglima Khoo Siak Chiew.

His involvement in politics started in 1962 when the British Government appointed him a member of the Legislative Council. Before that Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, the then Prime Minister of Malaya mooted the idea of merging the Federation of Malaya with Singapore and the Borneo States into a larger nation. 

Although initially the people received the proposal with lukewarm response, slowly the Sabahans began to see the advantages of joining Malaysia.

In preparation for the merger, local leaders formed several parties based on communal lines. Together with Khoo Siak Chiew, Lo formed the United Party which later merged with the Democratic Party under the chairmanship of Peter Chin, and shortly after the Lee Yun Hin to form the Borneo Utara National Party (Bunap) and was renamed Sanap when North Borneo was renamed Sabah. In Jun 1965 Sanap merged with the Sabah Chinese Association and the new merger maintained the name SCA.  Lo took over as President of SCA from Khoo when he became Chief Minister.

During the negotiation period to form Malaysia, Lo was appointed by the British Government as a member of the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) to sit in two important subcommittees - the Constitutional Sub-Committee and the Judicial and Legal Sub-Committee to help thrash out the terms and conditions of Sabah’s entry into Malaysia with proper safeguards and autonomy for Sabah’s special interests.

Here’s where the famous 20-points came into full focus, which he helped to draft. And it was here during the negotiation meetings that he caught the eyes of the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaya, who was also the Deputy Chairman of the I.G.C, Tun Abdul Razak bin Hussien.

The Tun was obviously favourable impressed with Lo’s performance and soon after Malaysia was to be formally launched as a new nation, an offer of appointment was made to him to sit in the Federal Cabinet by the Prime  Minister himself, the Rt Hon. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. 

Lo humbly declined the offer but was prevailed upon after a year of waiting by both the PM and the DPM. For Lo wanted to remain in his law practice and be elevated to the bench, which he made it clear that he would like to sit eventually in the Court of Appeal for the attraction of conducting as case by Socratic dialectic method. 

In fact, Lo would have been the first home-grown lawyer to be appointed to the High Court had he minded to do so after he left office as Chief Minister. The offer came year after in succession for a long time but Lo was unable to accept. By the he was heavily committed to politics.

When Indonesia and the Philippines challenged the authenticity of Malaysia, soon after Malaysia was formed, Lo was a member of the Malaysia Delegation to the Tripartite Talks between Malaysia and Indonesia/Philippines in Bangkok in 1964.

Lo was also part of the three-man team of the Special Malaysian Delegation led by the late Tun (Dr) Ismail Abdul Rahman (the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia) to the United Nations Security Council in September, 1964 defending Malaysian existence as a nation. 

The other member was Dr Goh Keng Swee, the Finance Minister of Singapore which was then a state of the newly created nation of Malaysia.

After the formation of Malaysia he was elected a Member of Parliament from 1963 to 1978. At the end of 1964, when he was a Minister without Portfolio (Federal), a political crisis broke out between the two leading parties in the States Government Coalition, i.e. Usno (United Sabah National Organisation) an Upko (United Pasok Momogon Kadazan Organisation). Following an agreement reached in Kuala Lumpur between Upko, Usno and SCA during the middle of December, 1964, Lo (a SCA leader) was appointed Chief Minister of Sabah after Datuk Donald Stephens (Upko leader) resigned on December, 31 1964 to take up the post of Federal Minister for Sabah Affairs while Tun Mustapha bin Datuk Harun (Usno leader)  remained as the Yang Dipertua Negeri. 

Lo was to be interim Chief Minister until the State General Elections in 1967, in which he failed to defend his seat. After losing his state seat he continued to be a Member of Parliament until 1978. After that he resumed his legal activities. Lately due to age factor, he only acts as Consultant to his firm.

Arguably, Lo served as Chief Minister of Sabah during Malaysia’s most turbulent history. The new nation was  just adjusting itself to the realities of life comprising people of many races. This is by no means an easy tasks.

The difficulties were compounded by the fact that there were four principal players with different aims and priorities. 

They were: the Federal Government, the State Governments of Sabah and Singapore and the British Government.

Singapore’s battle-cry of a Malaysian Malaysia did not help to smooth ruffled feathers.

The British too made life uneasy: they wanted to continue to be in control. The coalition parties in Sabah were split. And the Indonesian army was poised along Sabah’s borders. All this made governance almost an impossibility.

Lo was married to the former Rosie Dorothy Funk (deceased). They have four children, three girls and one boy. The eldest daughter became BBC editor cum producer in London, his second daughter became a senior officer with a bank in Sabah and the youngest daughter became a Chartered Accountant in London. His son became a lawyer in Singapore. His hobby were reading and listening to music.

Lo was awarded the Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM) which carries the titles of “Tan Sri” by the King in 1996 and the PGDK a state honour by TYT in 1972. He declined to accept the SPDK offered to him many times during his chief ministership by Tun Mustapha who was then the TYT.

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