Of Americans, Filipinos and the logging oversight
Published on: Monday, August 10, 2020
By: Nicholas Chung
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Vun Hon Yung with the Kitsons in Sydney.
THE Langisan, a handsome, wooden-hulled administrative launch built in Singapore and fitted with a Thornycroft diesel engine, carried a crew of five and had a passenger cabin with two bunks. As my two fellow passengers were Tony Wilkins and John Jolly, I had to share the sleeping quarters of the sailors below deck, courtesy of the captain, Serang Awang Pendek. 

Tony Wilkins’ special assignment was a tough one; it was to recover from the Kennedy Bay Timber Company (KBT) unpaid duties for the import of goods and materials. For years, this American company, wholly-owned by the Ireton family, had been extracting timber from its vast concessions in Silam and Bakapit and exporting them to overseas markets. 

The precise conditions under which they were allowed to operate were not clear, but obviously a lot of leeway had been granted to them and only minimal control imposed. Nominally, the company’s domain fell under the jurisdiction of the Lahad Datu District, but a de facto autonomy existed within their concessions. 

They enjoyed freedom to employ workers direct from foreign countries with only documentary control by the Immigration Department. The management, with the exception of one or two British staff, was exclusively American; the workforce was entirely Filipino, mostly from Zamboanga and Basilan City in Mindanao. 

There were no policemen stationed in the concession and neither were there any health or port personnel to ensure compliance with the laws. Only the Customs and the Forestry Departments maintained a physical presence and represented government authority, to which the company often showed ill-concealed disdain and even non-cooperation. 

To be fair to them, their workforce was generally a docile lot. The logging operations were well managed with clockwork efficiency, the Filipinos lived peacefully among themselves and no serious crimes were reported.

The problems faced by the Customs were caused by the shipping manager, Ben Carley, who ironically was one of the two British star .His responsibilities included liaising with the Customs to make arrangements, for the boarding and clearance of ships arriving, and the attendance supervision of logs being loaded for export. Although the company’s two loading anchorages in Bakapit and Silam were not officially gazetted as ports, they were approved “sufferance wharves”, meaning that any foreign-going ship could arrive at and depart from them for the purpose of loading or unloading any goods which the Customs Department specifically allowed. 

Legally speaking, and as a condition for the grant of sufferance wharf status, a newly-arrived ship could only start working after she had been attended by a Customs Officer. 

Lahad Datu wharf in 1960s. 

 

Carley had the bad habit of by-passing or ignoring this requirement, and would become hostile and abusive when confronted over the infringement. The lowly Customs Officer on the spot was often regarded as a nuisance, and browbeaten. 

There was nothing the officer could do: he had to rely on the company to provide him with the arrival notification and the launch to take him out to the ship. He lived in a house provided by the company and he worked in an office allocated by the company. All mails and supplies arrived via the company’s goodwill. All transport to and from Lahad Datu and Silam was by the company’s ferry. 

The isolation and total dependence on the company left him in no position to argue his case. Only after the ship finished loading and was ready to leave would Carley acknowledge the role of the Customs. He would storm into the office to demand the issuance of the departure clearance, threatening to hold the officer responsible for delaying the ship. So, Carley operated a system of near-anarchy in dealing with the Customs for many years, and his malpractice had resulted in hundreds of ships’ files not being submitted to the Customs. Many of the files contained manifests of imported goods, mainly oil, fuel, motor vehicles (logging trucks, bulldozers etc.), machine parts and equipment imported by the company for which import declaration had to be submitted and the amount of duty tabulated and paid. 

The export of timber logs extracted from the company’s concessions did not attract any customs export duty; royalties were paid to the Forestry Department. This state of affairs was, of course, reported by the DO in Lahad Datu and he quite correctly felt that the matter could be best handled by the Customs Department. 

To resolve the situation, the Head Office dispatched Wilkins, an officer enormously qualified both in terms of physical size and demeanour, to confront the Americans. To emphasise the enormity of the situation, another big shot in the person of John Jolly from Tawau was included in the entourage. 

So when the Langisan docked at the KBT jetty in Bakapit three days before Christmas in 1959, a reception committee comprising all the Company’s bigwigs was there to greet the two British officers. Carley was conspicuously absent from the line-up. Indeed, thereafter he adopted a low-profile existence and was soon not seen again in Bakapit. 

After exchanging pleasantries, the Americans escorted the two ACCs to their comfortably furnished hilltop office for refreshments and serious discussion. No doubt the session included the reading of the riot act, with the Americans on the receiving end. While all this was happening, I stayed on the boat and joined Serang Awang for a good night of fishing. 

The following two days were particularly hectic. KBT assigned two very capable Filipino staff, Roque Rivera and Salvador Camins Jr, to help Wilkins and me to go through their shipping records. We also obtained piles of ships’ manifests and bundles of invoices and bills pertaining to the company’s purchases and imports on which customs duties had not been paid. Rivera was Ireton’s principal assistant and the highest-ranking Filipino staff, while Camins was Carley’s No. 2 in the shipping department. 

The Americans had kept records of all their transactions and obviously knew that they would have to cough up the duty payment sooner or later. It was just that the people who were supposed to declare the goods to Customs and pay the amount due did not see the urgency or the necessity to do so. 

I worked closely with Rivera and Camins to match invoices with items shown in the manifest of each of the ships’ arrival and we drew up lists containing details of shipments and the relevant invoices for cross-referencing. These documents were numbered and indexed, put into boxes and loaded on the Langisan. The contents of these boxes would occupy us for the next three months. 


With the Americans suitably chastised and new personnel put in charge of their shipping department, we then left Bakapit and headed for Lahad Datu, arriving on Christmas Eve. While Wilkins and I took the precious cargo with us ashore, Jolly proceeded on in the Langisan, its larder now filled with Serang Awang’s catch of ikan kerapu, ikan merah and ikan putih to sustain them on their journey home to Tawau. 

The Chief Clerk at Lahad Datu, the late Vun Hon Yung, met us at the wharf and efficiently took charge. Tony Wilkins was taken to the old resthouse where he would stay for the duration. I became the temporary house guest of Mr and Mrs Vun, pending the availability of my bachelor quarters. That evening, while Wilkins was treated to dinner at the residence of the DO, Edward White, I was invited to a good home-cooked dinner with the Vuns. 

For Wilkins and me, the hard grind started right after Christmas. Due to the lack of office space at the Customs Office, the resthouse became our operations centre. There were no other guests, and three big tables were requisitioned; Wilkins turned the spacious hall into a vast temporary office. With one table and an Imperial long-carriage typewriter assigned to me, and the boxes of confiscated documents stacked strategically around us, we started work. 

From each ship’s file, Wilkins drew up a demand note which was essentially a statement directed to the KBT detailing the name of the ship, date of arrival, country of origin, a complete list of its cargo, with each item showing its full description, value, tariff item number, rate of duty and the amount of taxes payable. While Wilkins sifted through each file and compiled the statement by hand, my job was basically that of a typist, but I was also required to check on the figures. I suppose I was a kind of a handy general clerk. 

Bakapit, Kennedy Bay in 1960s. 

 

Time was of the essence. Wilkins had to complete his work within a certain timeframe and he worked feverishly. Often we worked late into the night, with only short breaks for meals. Being experienced and more familiar with the nature of the job, Wilkins soon outpaced me and the gap grew as time went on. This caused a certain amount of anxiety, resulting in me making mistakes with potentially disastrous results. 

Usually, the mistakes were pointed out in the nick of time. Late one evening, however, Wilkins spotted a mistake which really peeved him. He saw that I had mistyped the word “onus” with the letter “a” instead, and he blew his top. He would not like the Americans to make wisecracks and gloat on this mistake and to belittle him. But the mistake was corrected before it was too late. 

Despite my imperfections and his impatience and short temper, we somehow got on well. His tempers, although frightening, were short-lived and he never wrote people off. There was a humane side to him. Although he set a high standard for himself, he was always ready to correct shortcomings in his subordinates but not before he had given them an earful of foul language. 

After three months of toiling, we managed to finish the files and KBT paid up every cent demanded. With this, an unpleasant chapter in the annals of an otherwise significant American involvement in the development of North Borneo came to a close. Ireton did not stay long afterwards; he sold off his interests in the company to Weyerhauser Group of companies. Later still, the concession was taken over by the Sabah Foundation and renamed Pacific Hardwood Sdn Bhd.

With the completion of the mission, Wilkins went back to headquarters at KK to resume his duties and I stayed on in Lahad Datu to resume my duties there. The DO, as the chairman of the district housing committee, allocated me a unit of the PWD labour line along the causeway of the wharf. 

So I said a very grateful “thank you” to Mr Vun and moved over to my new spartan quarters. It was a one-roomed single-storey terraced zinc and timber house built on stilts over the sea. It was quite adequate for a single occupant as all my worldly goods were packed in one suitcase. Some of the neighbouring units accommodated whole families of various racial backgrounds, so privacy and quiet were luxuries. The house was situated two minutes’ walk away from the Customs Office, and right across the road was a restaurant which I was to patronise frequently. 

Released from the high-pressure routine, I settled into a more mundane pattern. At that time Lahad Datu conducted a fairly thriving barter trade with the Philippines in copra and marine products in exchange for consumer goods and wearing apparel. Mr Vun initially assigned me to enter the daily collections in the cashbook and convey the day’s receipts to the District Office to be accounted for. 

Within a few months, as it was usual for the officers in Lahad Datu to be rotated as a threesome to serve in Bakapit for a six-month stint, I found myself posted there in May 1960. My two colleagues were Soong Vui En and Edwin Wong, both now retired and living in Sandakan and Tawau respectively. 

Although there were three of us, it was usual for only one of us to remain in the office. One of the other two attended to ships loading at Silam and the other boarded ships anchored offshore at Kennedy Bay. The American concession then was a far cry from the Ben Carley days. I found the atmosphere more conducive to conducting a good working relationship with the company personnel. Ireton retained nominal control, but was absent from Bakapit most of the time. His deputy Emmet stood in for him. Roque Rivera was now our main point of contact, and he proved to be a very pleasant man to work with. Camins assumed full responsibility in the shipping department, with Rudolpho Tamayo as his assistant. Gone were the days when our requests for launch service were ignored and when foreign vessels arriving were boarded and allowed to commence work without so much as a wink to the Customs. Now every facet of the legal requirements was strictly adhered to, imported goods were promptly declared and duty, where applicable, was paid without delay. A close rapport developed between us and the two Filipinos, especially Roque Rivera.

(b)


THE Filipino community were a talented, music-loving and hardworking but easy-going and fun-loving people. During my six-month stay stay in Bakapit, no member of this community ever came into conflict with us, either as an individual or as Government official. Hospitable to a fauIt, they never failed to include us when celebrating their festivals, which were always very likely and colourful. Often, they sent their children to deliver home-cooked delicacies to our doorstep located a mile away from their residences. We occupied an American-style log-cabin type of bungalow (provided by the company) built a good mile inland from the sea, well away from the houses of the Europeans, all of whom occupied hilltop locations overlooking the sea. The Filipino compound was situated at the head of the bay. The location of our house on the fringe of the rain forest had one distinctive advantage: we could hunt and shoot animals for food anytime we wanted. Edwin had a carry-and-use permit for a single-barrel Webley and Scott shotgun and it was put to good use. Game animals like the mousedeer, wild boar and deer frequently foraged for food near the house and we could pick and choose our prey. We shared our excess meat with our Filipino friends, none of whom had gun licences for hunting. We seldom needed to buy any fish. All we had to do was go to the log ponds with a net for ikan basung or a hook and tackle for grouper and red snapper. Due to the lack of refrigeration, we would fry all our catch immediately and store it to be used when required. We did not have to worry about going shopping for groceries, except for beer, rice and occasionally beansprouts when we got fed up with the wild kangkung or tapioca shoots which were in plentiful supply in the nearby bush. 

However, transportation was a problem. KBT had constructed a system of logging trails for transporting the timber from the interior to the log ponds. These were merely muddy tracks carved out of the jungle which only huge logging trucks could traverse. When the rain came, the roads turned into a quagmire and the movement of even the big trucks was held up. For the movement of personnel, the company relied on a fleet of Austrian-built Heflinger 4-wheel drive buggies which could negotiate out of mud. These nippy vehicles, powered by whining two-stroke engines, could get out of almost any muddy situation. On rare occasions when all three of us were together in the evening, we would hitch a ride on one of those buggies driven by a Filipino to go to the main logging camp a few miles inland where we would eat canned curried chicken and drink Heineken beer at the Chinese grocery store. Visits to the sundry store in the camp were our only form of social activity, which we enjoyed very much; this was akin to going to a coffeehouse in town for food and beer. 

Our nearest neighbour, accommodate in a similar building half-a-mile away, was a forest ranger, Kadir Mohd Mastan (now Datu Seri Panglima) who subsequently reached the top post in his Department and retired as the Conservator of Forests in the 1980s. Being the only government officials in the relatively secluded area, we frequently turned to each other for support, companionship and mutual help. This kind of interdependence and IOW companionship eventually led us to Kadir Mohd develop a lifelong friendship. Datuk Seri Mastan now lives in Tawau quite close to us, and I make a point of paying him a visit every year during the Hari Raya festivals. 

The Americans never fraternized with us or the workers. The only supplies they ever needed from town, it seemed, were cases of Tiger beer, to which they were particularly partial; this was brought in by barge. For the Filipinos, during my six-month stay among them, I had only fond memories of their kind-heartedness and generosity. I had a certain affinity with them as we shared the wild and primitive jungle surroundings we called home. Many of these original pioneers stayed on to become Malaysian citizens and their descendents can be found scattered throughout the state today. Halfway into my stint in Bakapit, John Nicholson, who had recently replaced Ed White as the District Officer and the Officer-in-Charge of Customs, arrived to inspect conditions and to hold talks with the KBT management. We met him at the jetty when he arrived in the GML Rusukan, a sister-ship of the Langisan. His first question was to ask about our welfare and whether there was anything that warranted his attention and intervention. He was informed that the company had acted properly and legitimately in all their dealings with us. Afterwards he was taken away by Emmet in his Heflinger and they spent a good part of the day in talks, the substance of which we were not privy to. Before his departure for Lahad Datu in the evening, Nicholson expressed satisfaction and assured us that he would keep a close watch on the situation in Bakapit and told us not to hesitate to bring to his notice any infraction of the law by the company and also to continue to maintain a good working relationship with KBT. We did not see any other government official, apart from the regular replacement of Forestry stall was posted back to Lahad Datu in November 1960. 

In the early 1960s there were already rumblings of change, and the British were preparing to merge Brunei, North Borneo and Sarawak with Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. However on 8 December 1962, the Tentera National Kalimantan Utara (TNKU or North Kalimantan National Army), which was opposed to the federation, tried to capture the Sultan of Brunei, seize the oilfields and take European hostages. The Sultan asked the British for help, and Britain sent Gurkha and British troops from Singapore. By 16 December the British Far Eastern command claimed that all major rebel centres had been captured. On 17 April 1963, rebel leader Sheik Azahari made his escape to Indonesia and the uprising collapsed. Sukarno’s Indonesia had wanted the two Borneo states to be part of Indonesia. The Philippines laid a claim on North Borneo. Indonesia and the Philippines would only accept a federation if there were a referendum of the peoples of North Borneo and Sarawak that was organized by the United Nations. But on 16 September 1963, Malaysia announced its formation (Brunei did not join) as it considered this an internal matter. Indonesia’s Konfrontasi began in 1963, and there were clashes on the Island of Sebatik and at Sipitang around June 1964. Sukarno was deposed in March 1966, and so hostilities ended. This was a great transition period with the British handing over most of their functions to the locals; the Customs Department was no exception. 

In the early 1960s Lahad Datu was a boom town. KBT used it as its main supply base and their workers often spent their days off shopping and patronizing the coffee shops and restaurants in town. The only cinema, the Lacin, which often featured American Wild West films, was always packed in this entertainment-starved town. Filipino cultural influence permeated through every aspect of the local social scenario. A company which played a far more significant and dominant role in the town than KBT was the Darvel Tobacco Plantation Ltd. The DTP’s main base of operations was situated about eight miles away, by the banks of the unpredictable Segama River. This company’s workforce included a fair number of Cocos Islanders who had transmigrated under a government-assisted scheme from their Indian Ocean island homeland to start a new life in Sabah. To the company, the river was both a blessing and a curse. The extremely fertile alluvial soil coupled with abundant rainfall ensured the production of a rich crop of high-value cigar wrapper leaves each year. However, the annual rainfall often inundated the river banks, causing massive floods in the low-lying tobacco plots, often destroying the plants and other infrastructure. During a particularly bad year, the floodwater enabled motorboats from Sandakan to navigate upstream and come within six miles of Lahad Datu town. However, despite setbacks like this and as long as the price remained strong, the company always managed to overcome its difficulties and ship out its produce every week. The Straits Steamship Company ran a regular service to the port using one of its fleet of small 500-ton vessels such as the Semenyih, Resang, Semantan and Tronoh which could moor alongside the dilapidated wharf to load and unload. The arrival of these little ships meant a lot to the economic life of the town in those days before the existence of roads. They not only brought passengers from Sandakan and Semporna, but also essential goods such as foodstuff and mail for the town. And they took away produce such as tobacco, bales of rubber and gunny sacks of copra to be delivered to Sandakan or Singapore for transhipment to larger ocean-going ships.

A significant role was also played by the Tabanak Estates which owned a few hundred acres of rubber trees on the fringe of town. The person in charge at that time was Mr Peralta, who appears to have been either the owner or part-owner of the property until it was sold off to a local tycoon, the late Mr Yong Yun, in the 1960s. 

For a junior Customs officer and a newcomer, life in Lahad Datu was quite easygoing; the workload was anything but heavy. Apart from performing the duty of the assistant cashier, the CC, Mr Vun, would sometimes assign me to attend to ships loading round logs at a sufferance wharf located at an anchorage near the beautiful Bohayan Island, just off-shore from Kunak in Darvel Bay. This facility was principally created by the British Borneo Timber Company Ltd (renamed the Sabah Timber Co. Ltd in the 1960s after the formation of Malaysia) to cater for the shipment of logs extracted from their logging concessions in the Tingkayu and Kunak areas. Ships from all over the world arrived regularly, sometimes two or three a day, to carry a full load to discharge in faraway ports such as Baltimore in America, Durban in South Africa, Brisbane in Australia, quite apart from the usual Japanese ports and Hong Kong. Customs officers attendance duty were conveyed by motor launch from Lahad Datu across the Darvel Bay on a journey which normally took about 90 minutes. Just before I started my periodic assignments to Bohayan Island, BBT promoted and posted Mr George Pang Yin Ngok as logging superintendent to assume overall responsibilities as chief of operations on the island, the first Asian to hold the position. Mr Pang and his family lived in a spacious bungalow on a promontory with a commanding view of the sheltered anchorage. Between the departure of one ship and the arrival of the next one, I used to enjoy Mr pang’s hospitality as he would make a point of inviting me to spend a night or two with the family; Mrs Pang’s superb cooking was always a welcome change from shipboard fare. 

Once on board the ship, the Customs man led an idle existence. His job was to be present, because he represented the law. For those who were so inclined, the few days of shipboard life also provided an opportunity to read and to study. During the whole time a ship was in port, its agent paid an attendance fee to the department. In addition, the officer was paid an overtime allowance during holidays or weekends, or if the ship had to work beyond normal working hours on weekdays. 

As the assignment to Bohayan Island carried with it a relaxed routine and a chance to earn extra income, the CC accorded everyone the opportunity to go there by a roster system. Between office work and assignments to the sufferance wharf, there was plenty of time to socialize with the townsfolk. Lahad Datu’s population was smaller than that of Tawau, so it was easy to make friends with people of my age. In contrast with the people of Tawau, they were more sea-oriented. Their leisure was mostly spent on boat trips for fishing or picnicking on one of many small islands or reefs dotting the coastline. Our favourite destinations were Pulau Baik, Pulau Laila, Pulau Saddle and Pulau Kalung-kalungun. All these islands were situated at the western shore of Darvel Bay quite close to Silam. The lighthouse erected on Pulau Kalung-kalungun, which is still in service, serves as a vital beacon to guide ships arriving or leaving Silam harbour. In those days, none of the islands was inhabited, the beaches were deserted and the fishing was always good. We would spend the whole day swimming and snorkelling (scuba-diving was not in vogue then) in the pristine water. Before the arrival of karaoke, social dancing and dinners formed most of the other activities to which I was often invited.

But just as I was beginning to get used to the pattern of life in Lahad Datu and settling into what I thought would be a long stay, I was called into Mr Vun’s office one day in late January 1961 to be handed an office order. I was to be transferred to Jesselton as soon as a relief being posted from Tawau arrived. From the way he looked when handing over the letter, I could see Mr Vun was not happy. Among my fellow officers, my stint was the shortest and he had never found fault with my performance. In fact he asked me if I wanted to put in a request to stay on in Lahad Datu, saying that he would support me strongly if I chose to do so. I pondered the suggestion for a while, but my instinct was not to go against authority, and the call of the big town was too strong. I thanked Mr Vun for his kindness and said I would accept the transfer. So Mr Vun reluctantly booked me a second-class berth on the grand Kimanis, due in Lahad Datu in a week’s time on her return journey from Tawau via Semporna.

 





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