The Chinese contribution in Malaysian nation-building
Published on: Sunday, March 22, 2020
By: James Sarda
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James with Lo during the latter’s final years. Lo died of old age at 96 on New Year’s Day 2020.
I FEEL privileged to speak about someone who I have known for many years, maybe 30 years or so. Somehow we became very close. He used to share with me a lot of things that he had never spoken about in public life. A lot about the history of the formation of Malaysia and things like that. Maybe he felt that me as a journalist should know. It’s one of those things that journalists have the privilege. We earn the trust and confidence of leaders and when leaders think that there’s something that needs to be told and for us to know, they think we are the right people to talk to.

So, when the family approached me on New Year’s day 2020, when he passed away, I was pleased that they thought of me. But at the same time I was thinking whether I was the right person because I’m sure there are a lot of others.

Today I will not take up a lot of your time about how good or bad he was. We all know he was a great guy. You’ll never easily find people like him in this world. Of course, we all know that he was Mr Clean. 

Something I was told that even the British colonial administration noted in their communication back to London at the time of the formation of Malaysia. I will come to the Mr Clean thing later.

When you talk about a person like Tan Sri Peter Lo, I shall refer to him as Peter, you just don’t know where to start and where to end. Because his contributions were immense.

It’s just that many don’t know about it. And that is why I feel very strongly, as do my historian friend Datuk Dr Danny Wong, who used to contribute articles to the Daily Express, that Sabah needs a Chinese museum because if we do not catalogue the contributions of people like Khoo Saik Choo, Pang Tet Tshung, my late boss Tan Sri Yeh Pao Tze who was the pioneer of both the Chinese and non-expatriate English press in Sabah, and if we go even further Albert Kwok who led an armed resistance against the Japanese during WW2, the Chinese contribution to Sabah is immense but has never been highlighted.

This is where Peter comes in. Of course he was one of the last surviving members who was very involved in the formation of Malaysia. His name might not be in the Malaysia Agreement as a signatory, but was playing a very important role on the sidelines.

He was easily the most educated person at that time. There is no doubt about it. It is because of him that we now have the 20 Points safeguards that Sabah insisted when she finally agreed to merge with Singapore, Sarawak and Malaya to form Malaysia. 

That was the initiative of Peter. I knew about it for a long time as Peter, himself, told me about it. There was a lot of debate that it was not due to Peter, but somebody else.

Peter, himself, told me that he was responsible for 12 or 13 of the 20 Points with Kwan Yew Meng and the rest contributed by other members like Tun Mustapha, Donald (later Tun Fuad) Stephens and the Sabah Alliance members.

To be very sure, before I came to speak to you, I called up Tan Sri Harris Mohd Salleh, the former Sabah Chief Minister this morning. Harris told me ‘Yes, Peter Lo was the man behind the 20 Points’. I need to put this on record. 

Because if I don’t, later on it will be debated again. And it was coming from Harris, who was Finance Minister in the Peter Lo Cabinet.

Peter shared with me a lot of things on matters that were very important for Sabahans to know. 

He and another person that I knew very well, the late Datuk Mohd Fauzi Patel, both said the real political history of Sabah has never been told. 

It is very important that these things are recorded and like I said, it is very important for the contributions of the Chinese community, in particular, to be institutionalised in the form of a Chinese museum by Sabah’s Chinese themselves because nobody else would do it. I believe the KK Chinese Chamber is working on it.

As a lawyer, of course, Peter was at the top of his game. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have thought about the 20 Points as a compromise when all opposition to the formation of Malaysia in favour of self-government first proved futile. 

It is because of the 20 Points that Sabah still has power over State land and internal immigration. Of course, immigration is another matter. The situation with the immigrants in Sabah today was one of the things that Peter was very unhappy about.

Peter was a very good lawyer, but if I were a criminal I would never go to Peter because he was too straight. He would ask you to plead guilty, in exchange for a lesser sentence. 

This is what his colleagues told me. Some would go to his other partners but not to him because he would always want you to admit your guilt. But that was Peter. He was straight forward. 

No airs about him like ex-CM Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat said. Very simple and you can see the honesty of this man. It was unbelievable. When I look at Peter’s contributions, I can see that he impacted Malaysian society at three levels.

First is the national level, when he became the Minister Without Portfolio in the very first Federal Cabinet under Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1964. I mentioned this in a series of articles I did on former Sabah chief ministers in the 1990s. 

That (Federal post) was even before he became CM. He also told me the circumstances under which he became the CM. 

He said the Tunku long knew that trouble was brewing in Sabah because we had two bumiputra political giants, Stephens and Mustapha, who could not see eye to eye. They agreed on everything before independence. 

But after independence, there was so much bitterness between them to the extent that Tunku said to him, ‘Peter, we need you back in Sabah, as CM.’ Peter told Tunku, ‘Sir I can’t do that because I do not want to be the Chief Minister. I’m very happy serving Sabah as a Federal Cabinet Minister’. 

He also said he still had a legal practice, the first Sabah legal firm he started in Sandakan as the first local-born lawyer. 

He said he was not ready and the matter was laid to rest until the first political crisis in Sabah with the appointment of Datuk John Dusing as the first local-born State Secretary. 

The previous State Secretary was Stephen Holley, also someone I knew since he came on a down memory lane visit in the year 2000. 

He was around 80 then and was involved in the reconstruction of British North Borneo after the war until it became Sabah in Malaysia. It was Holley who identified all the first leaders of Sabah like Stephens, Mustapha and Harris and prepared them for their future responsibilities. 

In fact, many Sabahans don’t know that the first State Secretary was a white man (Holley) despite independence through the formation of Malaysia. It was because of my association with Holley that we now have the book, “A White Headhunter In Borneo”. Which I edited and greatly encouraged Holley to write.

Holley was suddenly asked to leave in September 1964 by Tunku through Stephens. Holley was very close to Stephens and Tunku thought that the white man was still having a strong influence in running Sabah. 

When Holley left, Dusing was appointed as the first local State Secretary. And that was the first political crisis because Mustapha as first post-independence Governor refused to endorse the appointment.

Things came to a head and Tunku again told Peter, ‘You got to go back to Sabah.’ So, he reluctantly accepted the request to be CM while both Tunku and Razak prepared Sabah for the first State election to decide who should eventually hold power.

The reason why this problem developed between Stephens and Mustapha is that Mustapha had the mistaken notion that being the Governor, he was an all-powerful man. Under the colonial system, the Governor was very powerful. His was both a ceremonial position as well as like a CM. He held power. 

But once Malaysia was formed, the Governor was just a figurehead. The real power lay with the CM. Of course, the first CM to be appointed was Stephens and Mustapha felt that a lot of decisions were being made by bypassing him and was not being respected.

That his position was not being recognised. So things came to a boil and that is where Peter came into the picture as a compromise candidate until things were sorted out.

Even though he accepted the job, he did not know the scale of the problem that he also inherited. I remember him telling me he was paid something like $2,400 which was, of course, a lot of money as a CM then. But within a year, he went back and told Razak and Tunku, ‘I want to give up because there’s too much politicking.’ 

Of course, another thing I need to mention is that there were certain quarters that never accepted a Chinese as a CM. Peter even told me that on the very first day that he took office as CM of Sabah in January 1965, there was no picture of his swearing-in. 

He asked the Information Department cameraman why there was no picture of him taking the oath of office and the staff who was playing politics told him, ‘Sorry boss, no film inside.’ 

On occasions when he gave speeches at functions, the microphone would go dead. There was a lot of sabotage to prevent Peter from doing his job. 

Of course, the British who stayed on to help the administration temporarily also had their interests. They sided with local politicians and made it very difficult for Peter to function as CM.

Peter again went back to Tunku and Razak and said, ‘I want to go back to legal practice.’ They told him to hold on until the first State elections. When it was held in 1967, Peter became the biggest casualty when he lost his constituency in Sandakan. 

I asked him how that happened and he said, ‘The Chinese killed me politically.’ I said how could they do this to you and he said ‘That’s the problem. Because I was too honest and straightforward. A lot of them were asking me for benefits. I never even gave myself a timber concession, so how could I give others. I had to run a clean government because KL was watching me’. 

So, the Chinese were not happy with him and decided there was no use keeping him. He said that contributed to his downfall. When I chatted with Harris on this, he also expressed regret, saying if only Peter had been allowed to continue politically, a lot more could have been achieved. 

­But that is politics. He said to me, ‘What happened to me must not be repeated’ meaning no Chinese should do this to another.

The first among his contributions at the first or national Executive level was being an ethnic Chinese in the Federal Cabinet in terms of inclusivity, which is what the very concept of Malaysia was all about.

The second at State level was his contribution in drafting the 20 Points. Of course, a lot of the 20 Points were lost in time but there are still at least three that are being observed, relating to land, forests and internal immigration.

The third is Chinese representation in politics. During a visit to Taiwan, he said Chiang Kai-shek was shocked to learn that a Chinese could rise to the leadership level in a multi-racial society when they are a minority. He said for that to be achieved, the Chinese must be united politically, especially if they are a minority.

Of course, he was CM when Malaysia was on the verge of breaking up. Just five months after taking office came the separation or pull out of Singapore, depending on how you look at it. He said that made life very difficult for him since he was seen as a Chinese CM. There was pressure within the State asking why don’t you like Singapore pull out. He said he had many sleepless nights. 

He said although being CM he didn’t know anything about it officially until on the eve of the pullout he was asked by long distance call from former Federal colleague Tun Sambanthan to fly to KL the next day for an urgent matter.

It was a six-hour journey at that time, unlike now and upon landing straightaway went to attend the meeting at the Lee building where all were there except Tunku. 

The first thing Razak told him was, ‘Peter, there’s a coup’. He asked Razak, ‘What do you mean, who is going to overthrow the government?’ he then told Peter that ‘Singapore is pulling out tomorrow’. 

Peter said he was shocked and confused though he heard of it before. He said, the first thing Razak did was to ask him ‘So, are you with us or do you think this should be the end of Malaysia?’ 

Peter said ‘It was a very heavy decision to make and have to refer to my Sabah Alliance members and Cabinet colleagues. In principle, he said ‘Malaysia was what we had fought for’. He said because of this decision he made not to go along with Stephens’ call for a reexamination of MA63, is why KL always looked at Sabah Chinese with respect, and as someone they could trust.

"When we (Chinese) were against the Malaysia proposal he (Stephens) was fighting against us. When he lost his CM job, and we had already accepted Malaysia he wanted us to join him and fight against KL." This was actually very crucial because, he said, ‘We are a Chinese community that is small. KL is the only way we can be politically and financially secure. They will look after us if the Sabah Bumiputra leaders fail to do so.

Many also fail to realise. This question has been asked many times but not sufficiently explained fully. Which is, why is that Sabah and Sarawak both have ministerial-style governments. We have Minister of Lands, Minister of Rural Development, etc. In peninsula, what they have are Executive Councillors. This is another contribution of Peter. 

When independence was coming and he was a member of the Legislative Council, he moved a motion to say that we in Sabah should be known as Ministers of this and that. Never mind that KL already had similar portfolios. 

The British were not keen on the idea but he argued with the British. 

He told them, ‘You guys are leaving and you already trained us for ministerial jobs. So why do you now say that we are not functioning like Ministers? 

“Why should we be Executive Councillors?” Finally, the British gave in and the motion was passed. He pre-empted the whole thing and thanks to him now we have in Sabah and Sarawak Ministers heading the respective ministries. Something you don’t find in the peninsula.

Another interesting thing he told me was that when he was in parliament in 1964, guess who was sitting beside him? He is 94 years old now and he is Tun Dr Mahathir.

Now, to talk a bit about the man. Those who know him and been to his house would know that he is surrounded by books. It shows that he believes in making himself very knowledgeable. I think that is also what made his children great. 

One, Jenny, was a producer in BBC, another Jacky a chartered accountant, Bonaventure was a lawyer in Singapore while Cynthia was a bank officer. Great people produce great children and I think the children must be glad to have had him as their dad.

And the funny thing is that in his house, even the sofa is all covered with cloth. I asked him everytime I come, as I used to visit him at home to chat and sometimes adjourn to the beach hotel nearby. 

I said ‘Peter better go to the hotel. Go to your house all your seats are covered. No place to sit’. And he would say, ‘No, no sit here.’ I asked why are the Diethelm chairs of the 1990s era are covered with fabric and he blamed the cats. 

They mess up the place and Rosie [wife] put the things there. But later when Rosie was gone, the cloth was still there. So, even the cats were giving him problems.

Of course, he said, whatever it is you must tell the people what I told you. He told me a lot of things but also said not to speak about it while ‘I’m still alive but can do whatever you want with the information when I’m no longer around’.

It’s one of the things I have to do. It’s quite voluminous. Most of what he told me I have recorded on tape. I think for the purpose of which we have gathered here, I don’t know if you know this, it is very important that I mention this and it is about the power of prayer and forgiveness. 

What happened was that in one of my chats with him, he told me about his father who was a high ranking Customs officer in Sandakan during the war. 

He said ‘My late father almost lost his neck’. The Japanese rounded up the Chinese in Sandakan for execution and his father was one of them. 

Apparently, it was believed that somebody had supplied to the Japanese kempetai a list of all  influential Chinese in Sandakan. 

The Japanese were beheading most of them. On that day the Japanese already beheaded two batches and his dad happened to be the last batch.

This was a very important testimony. I told him he should be telling the church. It is very powerful. It is about God and how your faith in God can change a circumstance from negative to positive. The story is that his father was kept in a cell. 

The first batch was beheaded and the second as well. Then came the third batch and was the 9th. The first eight were beheaded. 

When it came to him, his father told the executioner to hold on as he needed to pray. And he knelt and prayed to God. 

His father prayed to God. He prayed to the heavens saying, ‘Lord please forgive this man, he doesn’t know what he is doing. 

He went on for some time and the executioner was puzzled and asked him, while holding the sword in his hand, ‘do you mind telling me what actually you were shouting to the heavens’. 

He said, ‘I told God you are just doing your job. If you kill me it is just one person but you are robbing a family of a husband and father and I have children at home as well and a disabled wife.’

He said the executioner dropped his sword and cried. Peter’s father made a killer realise that what he was doing was wrong. He made the person realise that Jesus forgives. That is very powerful. Because of him, the executioner didn’t know what to do.

He didn’t want to carry out the task anymore and put Peter’s father back in the cell together with the 10th man. 

The Japanese Commander apparently scolded the executioner for stopping the executions but he replied he can’t go on anymore. 

In fact, I joked to Peter. I said in that case his dad should have been in front, so everyone else would have been saved. In fact, prayer is such a powerful thing. It shows that God works. 

Even at a time when you have lost hope. When you think that you are about to lose your neck, when you turn to God, he may be able to do something. 

That’s very powerful and I told him these are the things he should share.

He said, ‘James, one day you tell everybody else, together with everything I’ve told you about the history of Sabah’s political evolution.’

The 10th person who was supposed to be executed happened to be the father of one of Sabah’s later Ministers.  Mark Pang, I believe. And he told me when his father died, the 10th man who was spared execution spent one hour praying before his coffin for saving his life.

I think these are some of the things we can learn from what others have gone through. I am very fascinated by the way some people come into our lives, change our lives. Inspire our lives. Peter has impacted people at all levels. 

And after he quit, he was a gentleman, an elder statesman and it’s true when you needed advice on anything, you could go to him. He never pretended that he was anybody great. But he was great and nobody could deny it.

He even told me that when Tun Mustapha recommended the datukship to him, he declined. 

He told Mustapha if you want to give me do so after I have left the scene, not when I’m still in politics. That speaks about the man. There are a lot of other things I can tell you but these are sufficient.

I just want to give you an insight that here was this person who actually was in Sabah, who should be appreciated by everybody.

And like I said nobody else would do it for you. We need a Sabah Chinese history museum to remind everyone about his and other’s contributions. Nobody will do this for you. You have to do it.


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December 20, 2014