Sun, 23 Jun 2024



Daily Express forced Malaysian, Aussie governments to declassify Double Six findings
Published on: Sunday, June 02, 2024
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Britain’s Independent newspaper on how “a small town newspaper in Borneo”, referring to Daily Express, kept tabs on Nick Leeson while he hid in Sabah as the world’s most wanted man after causing the collapse of Barings, the Queen’s bank. The Times of London acknowledged that what Sabah’s Daily Express achieved was a world scoop, which no other Malaysian newspaper did. Interpol confirmed it stationed guards at Frankfurt airport where the Royal Brunei flight originating from KK transited, just in case Daily Express was right and finally got their man.
CHIEF Editor James Sarda said making Sabahans know their past, helping them get justice, righting wrongs and highlighting unfairness, among others, have been a tradition at Daily Express since it hit the streets of Sabah and Labuan as British North Borneo before Malaysia came into being.

Today, it is Sabah’s only Heritage paper after the first claimant, Sabah Times, bowed out in 2020. Incidentally, Sabah Times was co-founded by late Tan Sri Yeh Pao Tzu in 1952, who founded Daily Express 10 years later on March 1, 1963.

The licence to publish the Sabah Times was issued to Yeh by the colonial administration coincidentally on the anniversary of his marriage to Lim York Sham, who helped steer both the Overseas Chinese Daily News and Daily Express when Yeh entered active politics, particularly during the Berjaya administration, when he served as Tawau Member of Parliament and Senator. 

The other three co-founders of Sabah Times in 1952 were Donald Stephens, Chong Pak Nam and GS Kler.Stephens as its Chief Editor made the Sabah Times the first Malaysian newspaper to be manned 100 per cent by local-borns for whom English was not their native language.Unlike the Straits Times and Malay Mail in the peninsula where white expats ran the show well into the 1970s. 

James said the paper strongly believes its duty goes beyond telling readers the why, what, when, where and how.

Which explains why the Daily Express, he said, managed to punch above its weight on many occasions over the years, winning multiple awards at both the national and State level, in the process. 

Following are some of the more important highlights of Daily Express’ contribution to Sabah over the years, particularly after James took over as its Chief Editor in 1996:

Only Malaysian newspaper to win the Prime Minister’s Hibiscus Award for excellence in journalism in 2015.

This can be described as the feather in the cap for Daily Express for achieving what no other paper did. It was the Award of awards, so to speak.

A series of reports by senior writer Kan Yaw Chong and support from wildlife icon Sir David Attenborough in the UK forced the State Government under Tan Sri Musa Aman to finally scrapping a RM730 million project that would have destroyed the habitat of the orang utans, pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys in Kinabatangan in the State’s east coast, the same mega biodiversity area that the Johnsons made famous in their world’s first wildlife documentary, “Jungle Adventures” in 1920 and Attenbrough in his BBC series in the 1990s.

The project that was opposed by all and sundry in Sabah, was approved by the then Najib administration without going through both the Federal and State cabinets.

Only Malaysian newspaper to achieve a world scoop.

Daily Express is the only Malaysian paper to achieve a world scoop which was officially acknowledged by the Times of London and the Independent of the UK for exposing the whereabouts of the world’s most wanted man, Nick Leeson, in 1995. 

Leeson was hiding in Sabah’s Shangrila Tanjung Aru Beach Resort with his fiancée after causing the collapse of Barings Bank in Singapore and Interpol relied on the Daily Express front page exclusive when it arrested Leeson at Frankfurt International Airport, while he transited there. 

Time and Newsweek covers on Leeson. 

Investigative journalism by Crime Reporter Clifford Santa Maria and then Deputy Editor James sounded the alarm that Leeson was fleeing on a Royal Brunei Airlines flight that originated from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

Establishing that Sabah’s Kinabatangan was the subject of the world’s first wildlife documentary in a 1920 silent movie called “Jungle Adventures” that was a hit in New York cinemas.

Sabah’s Kinabatangan was featured in “Jungle Adventures” that became a hit in US and European cinemas in 1920, making it the world’s first wildlife documentary, which introduced Borneo to the world for the first time as exotic and wild.

Investigative reporting by James led to exposing that famed silent-era Hollyood film makers Martin and Johnson visited the Kinabatangan in 1920. They were hoping to capture headhunters on film and wildlife.  

Having just finished making their ground breaking classic “Cannibals of the South Seas” about the Solomons, they also heard about iconic wildlife (orang utans, pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys) inhabiting the jungles of then British North Borneo. 

Kan (right) receiving the PM’s Hibiscus Award for stopping the RM730m Kinabatangan jungle highway project.

They failed to get headhunters on film but glimpses of interior Kinabatangan they captured while spending six months on a houseboat with guards provided by the colonial government did not go to waste. 

The photographs they took came in handy for the colonial North Borneo stamps. Although the world’s first glimpses of Africa’s tribes, particularly the pygmy and wildlife were also captured by the lenses of the Johnsons, this was only after they left Borneo for Africa from 1921 to 1934.

The Johnsons returned to Kinabatangan 15 years later in 1935 to make a second movie titled “Borneo”, this time with sound, which featured the Rumanau and Tenggara, who were Dusunic and Murutic offshoots in Sabah’s interior.

On that trip they captured the biggest orang utan who was shipped to New York’s Central Zoo where it died shortly afterwards, besides other species and cared for by Saudin Ambatual, the first from Borneo to go to the Big Apple and back. Saudin also became the subject of a documentary, “The Orang Utan Whisperer”, that was shown on History Channel.

Daily Express investigative reports also uncovered that the Johnsons (below) made a return visit to Sabah (North Borneo) where they made a second movie with sound titled “Borneo” in 1935 which featured the Rumanau Dusuns (top) and Tenggara Muruts. DE also shed light on Saudin (below, right), who was the first Borneo native to visit New York in 1939. A documentary on Saudin was aired on History channel. 


Top: A scene from the 1920 movie “Last Adventure” by Hollywood couple Osa and Martin Johnson on the Kinabatangan. At right: A poster of the movie in the New York Times. Daily Express investigative reporting, confirmed by the Safari Museum in Kansas, USA, established this silent-era movie as the world’s first wildlife documentary and which introduced Borneo to the world.

James also helped to connect the Safari Museum in Kansas, USA, with the Sabah Museum, which benefitted from nearly 3,000 rare photographs taken by the Johnsons from both their Borneo expeditions. 

As appreciation, James was also presented a set of these photographs by the Safari Museum, which were published in a coffee table book “Spirit of Borneo” that has since become a collector’s item, fetching upwards of RM1,000 on the internet.

Among those who were presented with copies of the book by the State Government were visiting dignatories and Britain’s Prince William.

Tracking down Jusit Rantai, the person who raised the Malaysia flag at the town padang upon independence on 16.9.1963.

Investigative reporting by James when he was roped in to assist in the federal-funded restoration of the Agnes Keith house in Sandakan led to him tracking down late Jusit Rantai, then aged over 70, who was raised as an orphan in the mid-1930s by the Agnes Keith whose international bestseller “Land Below The Wind” gave Sabah its famous nickname. 

James tracked down Jusit Rantai (below) the orphan who was raised briefly by Agnes Keith of Land Below The Wind fame. She sketched him in her international bestseller that gave Sabah its famous nickname. Jusit (circled), who raised the Malaysia flag at the town padang in 1963, also played a key role in restoring the house in Sandakan that is now a tourism draw.

After the war Jusit joined the North Borneo constabulary which became the police force after the formation of Malaysia. He was picked to raise the Malaysia flag on the day of the proclamation. His memory came in handy during the restoration of the Agnes Keith house that is now a major tourist attraction in Sandakan.

Identifying the razed premises of the first Chartered company office in the city’s banking district as where North Borneo became the British empire’s last acquisition in 1947.

Investigative reporting by James shed new light on the once iconic 1905 building which also served as the Lands office, repository of surrendered Japanese weapons at the end of the war and the Welfare Department during the PBS administration until it was abandoned as unsafe and was destroyed in a fire in the late 1990s.

The important role that the building played only became known during an interview that Sabah’s first State Secretary, late Stephen Holley, gave to James during his last down-memory lane visit when he was aged 80 in 2000.

Holley was also the Undersecretary to the last Governor, Sir William Goode, and the Secretary of the Inter-Government Committee set up to facilitate the formation of Malaysia.

Sabah’s first State Secretary Stephen Holley (below) revealed on his last trip that the former Lands Office (inset) beside Hong Kong Bank was where Sabah (North Borneo) became the last addition to the British Empire. The building also served as the Charted Company’s office since 1905 but was destroyed in a fire and only its columns remain today.

He was also one of the signatories of the Malaysia Agreement, alongside Tunku Abdul Rahman, Lee Kuan Yew, Donald (later Fuad) Stephens and Tun Mustapha, among others.

Holley disclosed that the former Lands office was where the territory was transferred from the British North Borneo Chartered Company to the Crown on 15.2.1947 shortly after the Brooke family did likewise for Sarawak. 

India then became the first to be granted independence six months later on 15.8.1947. Holley, not wishing this important colonial and Commonwealth history being forgotten, explained it in his book “White Headhunter in Borneo”. 

He was also the person who identified Sabah’s first post-colonial leaders. 

Revisiting the Double Six tragedy which forced the Australian and Malaysian governments to finally after 47 years declassify their separate findings into the Nomad air crash that claimed the lives of 11 people, including former Chief Minister Tun Fuad Stephens and half his Ministers.

While previous prime ministers refused to heed repeated calls by Sabahans to reveal the findings, the new Pakatan Harapan government of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim decided to do so and duly informed its decision to Australian counterparts, thus forcing the latter also to follow suit as one of the condition by the Australian Government was that both nations findings must be released simultaneously, if at all. 

What led to the decision was an exhaustive investigative series over 20 weeks by  James that uncovered previously unknown aspects of the tragedy. Fuad’s successor as CM, Tan Sri Harris Mohd Salleh, upset over the secrecy on the findings, waited until the Daily Express series was over before suing the Federal Government on the matter.

A special 20-part Daily Express report on the Double Six tragedy uncovered many details of the air crash from first-hand sources that was previously not known. It prompted ex-CM Harris to sue the federal government for withholding the crash findings for 47 years. The High Court ruled in his favour despite objections from the Federal AG. Harris later said it was because of Daily Express that both governments were finally forced to lift the secrecy on the reports. James, who was no stranger to winning awards, also won the Malaysian Press Institute’s first Investigative Journalism Award for his work (inset). Senior writer Sherell Ann Jeffrey assisted in the series.

The High Court then ordered the Federal Government to declassify the findings, saying not to do so was unfair to Harris as well as next-of-kin of the families who lost their loved ones in the crash. Harris later said it was the Daily Express series that prompted him, at age 90, to finally decide to take the federal government to court.

The series unearthed many interesting details surrounding the crash that were never reported back in 1976. These include:
  • The revelation by Harris that Umno under former PM Tun Razak secretly provided RM500,000 seed money (about 10 times the equivalent in today’s terms) to topple Usno – the first time a ruling Malay-Muslim party engineered the downfall of another ruling Malay-Muslim party.

It served as a precursor of what would follow 50 years later when the same politics would result in Malays becoming more politically divided and Umno losing its monopoly on power;
  • The widow of Peter Mojuntin having a premonition a week earlier that he will be killed, which she said he brushed off as just a dream; 
  • The widow of Darius Binion, Datin Jikilin Majitan, disclosing that the suitcase of Darius was returned to her with RM44,000 inside missing;
  • Both Harris and Petronas head Tengku Razaleigh, in separate interviews, revealed that contrary to speculation, Stephens had no hesitation about signing the 5pc oil royalty agreement under the Petroleum Development Act. 

Except that the signing venue was changed from Labuan to the Istana in Kota Kinabalu on the evening on 6.6. 1976. The plane crashed enroute from Labuan at 3pm the same day. 

Both Nancy and Jikilin lent credence to the claims of both Harris and Razaleigh, saying their hubbies told them to wear their best clothes for the Istana banquet later that evening where they were told that some important signing was supposed to take place;
  • Razaleigh was quoted as saying that the 5pc oil royalty agreement was floating in the sea following the crash, which suggests that a fresh copy must have been rushed by KL for the signing by Harris and Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan barely two weeks after the tragedy while the State was still in mourning; 
  • The pilot of another aircraft nearby, Capt Jaweed Noor-ul-haq, said he was alarmed at seeing many boxes containing duty-free goods being loaded into the aircraft without regard to the weight; 
  • That Sabah was kept in the dark on some 52 tragedies of test pilots and technicians that bedevilled the Nomad makers in Australia forcing production to cease in 1995; 
  • Former CM Datuk Seri Yong Teck Lee expressing horror at a High Court judge’s shocking admission that he was not familiar with the Malaysia Agreement (MA63) when deciding on the defamation case brought against him by Harris over the crash; 
  • The revelation that one other Nomad that was acquired at the same time as the one that crashed by the Usno State Governmen in 1975 was still flying without major problems and despite not being able to get genuine critical parts even 47 years later by Sabah Air. 

There have been calls for the plane which now commands high antique value, being the only such remaining Nomad in the world today, to be placed at the crash site to boost historical tourism;
  • Revelation that the bodies of the first six victims of the crash were retrieved from the wreckage by a group of teenagers dubbed the “Sembulan boys” who were in their 60s at the time of the interview, in the hope that some ofthe passengers were still alive. 

The series was also converted into a special documentary titled “Double Six: The Untold stories” with the involvement of Dexter Yeh, a grandson of Yeh, that has since become a hit on Youtube. 

For his part James was bestowed by the Malaysian Press Insitute (MPI) its inaugural Investigative Journalism Award.

It made him the only Malaysian journalist to win three of the nation’s highest awards, the others being for Environmental reporting on the state of Sabah’s rivers in 1996 and for Journalism in 2000 when he investigated the seriousness of a new synthetic drug called Syabu (metaphetamine) that was introduced to Sabah by Filipino migrants and was beginning to surface in peninsula.


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