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Why Stephens capitulated to ‘Malaysia’

Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad writes in his just-released memoir, “A Doctor in the House”, that Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew wanted to be prime minister of Malaysia. Mahathir may have been speaking the truth for a change although he’s not quite right, considering his ethnic Indian origins, for implying that Lee was wrong to harbour such ambitions.

If Lee is to be faulted, it can be more on the grounds that he was “before his time” as he still remains today and for dragging Sabah into the Malaysian Federation. He could also be faulted for being naïve enough to be taken in by then Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Euphoria, no doubt, made Lee momentarily lose his usual good judgment of situations and character.

It’s an open secret in Sabah that Lee told Huguansiou (paramount chief) Donald Fuad Stephens that he (Lee) would be prime minister of Malaysia after Tunku and that Stephens would be made deputy prime minister. Stephens was ecstatic when he heard this and screamed from the aircraft door, upon his return to Kota Kinabalu, “Malaysia bagus” (Malaysia is good) in flashing the “very good” sign.

Stephens’ about-turn surprised the Dusun who, like the Chinese, were in the majority and opposed to Malaysia. His agreement, however, sealed their fate and they went along very much in the manner of the tribal society they were then and are still today. This is the reason that the Kitingan brothers, Pairin and Jeffrey, can still run circles around the Dusun and call the shots in and out of government.

Patently, it was Tunku who prevailed upon Lee to persuade Stephens to drop his opposition to Malaysia. Stephens was then very much influenced by Orang Kaya Kaya (OKK) Sedomon Gunsanad of Keningau who was strongly opposed to Malaysia. Stephens’ capitulation broke Sedomon who died within three years of Malaysia.

It’s not known why the Tunku, who was no fan of Lee either, turned to the Singapore leader to work on Stephens.

One reason could be that the Tunku had an even more intense dislike for Stephens, confirmed by the late chief minister Mustapha Harun who told this writer during his last days that the Tunku advised him more than once “not to trust that Serani (Eurasian).” Stephens was partly Australian, besides being Kadazan (urban Dusun), and also had some Japanese blood.

DPM idea
We can only ask Lee how the conversation between him and the Tunku went before the former accepted the mandate to persuade Stephens. It would not be surprising, however, to discover that the Tunku himself planted the “Prime Minister” idea in Lee’s head. It would be unthinkable to consider that Lee was so dishonest as to go fishing for Stephens with the “DPM” bait. Singapore could have done well with or without Malaysia and there was no great need to drag Sabah into it.

When a group of Sabahans called on Lee last year at his office, he was asked by one of them about the “great mystery” behind Stephens’ capitulation to Malaysia and whether he had “any regrets”. Lee reportedly hung his head suddenly in apparent regret for several moments before looking up and giving a non-answer. His facial expressions and body language told all.

It is among many of Lee’s regrets, apart from initially rejecting the idea of Formula 1 and casinos, that Sabah found itself locked in Malaysia along with Sarawak when Singapore was ushered out of the new federation by Parliament in Kuala Lumpur. Singapore clearly was booted out from the federation for two reasons: to thwart Lee’s prime ministerial ambitions, and the MCA’s fear of Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) in the battle for Chinese votes in Peninsular Malaysia.

Stephens, not surprisingly, wanted a review of Sabah’s participation in Malaysia after Singapore’s exit. His reasoning was that it was because of Singapore that Sabah joined Malaysia and now that the island was out of the federation, there was no longer any reason for the Borneo state to continue to be in the federation.

Stephens was referring to the DPM idea, but privately as the old timers tell it, but in public it was pointed out that Sabah and Sarawak opted for Malaysia to facilitate the merger of Chinese Singapore and multiracial Malaya. The Chinese population across both sides of the causeway was greater than the Malay numbers and this was to be compensated by the Malay and other native numbers in Sabah and Sarawak through Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur would have none of it and eventually bundled Stephens into exile in Australia as High Commissioner. The ruling elite, by this time, had cast its covetous eyes on the considerable oil and gas resources of Sabah and Sarawak.

It was from Australia that Stephens returned as the Sabah governor, having converted to Islam in the meantime, and went on to head the Berjaya Party which toppled the United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) led by Mustapha in 1976. It was Mustapha who refused to sign away 95% of the oil and gas revenue to the federal coffers.

Oil royalty
Stephens, curiously, refused to sign as well like Mustapha, and held out in Labuan like his predecessor for a higher percentage of at least 20%. Stephens’ tragic death in an air crash, on the way back from Labuan, settled the oil royalty issue in favour of the federal government and Petronas. His successor, Harris Salleh, signed away the oil revenues witnessed by the new Huguansiou Joseph Pairin Kitingan. The rest is history.

Stephens did not know what’s known today, that is, the Malaysian Federation ceased to exist after Singapore’s exit.

Amendments to the Federal Constitution now refer to “Federation” as the entity that existed in 1957. This means that Sabah and Sarawak, since 1965, ceased to be equal partners of Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia) in the federation. The federation that exists today, in short, is the Federation of Malaya masquerading as the Federation of Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak are just two of the 13 states and three federal territories in “Malaya” (now Malaysia).

This explains the reason for the federal government being in non-compliance of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement and for the Borneo states losing their promised autonomy in the Federation of Malaysia.

Mahathir would have done well to address these issues in his memoir and laid the ghosts of the past to rest once and for all.

Lee has been a failure as well on this score since he never mentioned the idea of being prime minister of Malaysia. This has been one big disappointment for both Sabah and Sarawak. Mahathir’s disclosure on the idea of Lee being prime minister calls for an appropriate response from the latter.

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