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A man for the people (Fuad Stephens)

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

FUAD Stephens, first known as Donald, rose to greatness later in his life. His early life, though, was one of suffering. During World War II, he suffered physically when he was almost vanquished by a form of leprosy. Then came the emotional pain of knowing that his father and his best friend had been executed by the Japanese, and that the rest of his family - his mother, younger brother and two sisters - suffered much hardship.After the war, while isolated from family and friends during the latter stages of his disease, the young Fuad was confined to a shack on his family's land in Likas; it came to be known as ''Don's Sulap''. From here he would listen to family members and friends who survived the Japanese and the lady known as the ''Black Princess'', Pengiran Hapsah of Karambunai, who doted on him. Hapsah brought native court cases to his attention, and with his store of books around him, Fuad was able to advise and counsel her kampung people. Soon, he was increasingly seen as a scholar who understood the law and the intrinsic rights of man. His advice was often sought after when his coterie had to deal for aid with the post-war administrators.

After years of writing for the North Borneo News and developing a following with articles that often championed the rights of the people, Fuad realised his dream of starting his own newspaper, thanks to financial help from his brother. He and a like-minded friend, Yeh Pao Tzu (proprietor of the Overseas Chinese Daily), established The Sabah Times; the first edition hit the newsstands on Jan 21, 1953.

Then, in 1954, Fuad felt he had racked up enough experience to take on more journalistic work. So he took the outrageous step of buying out his former employer, the North Borneo News! He then merged it with his own Sabah Times and diplomatically named the new entity the North Borneo News and Sabah Times. To reach out to the masses, Fuad ensured that his paper had a page dedicated to Malay readers, and also ran a Kadazan column, which was edited by his friend Fred Sinidol. Sinidol was a Penampang man, from Kampung Hungab.

Another vital association was forged by Fuad when, in 1954, he reported in his paper a major highlight of that year: the opening of the first Western-style hotel in town, descriptively called the Jesselton Hotel. Donald covered its opening extensively because it was the first public act of the new governor, Sir Roland Evelyn Turnbull. After they had gotten to know each other better, Turnbull nominated Fuad as a member of the Legislative Council, or Legco. Turnbull's rationale was to give the talented newspaperman a first-hand appreciation of the basic problems in leading and running a country. Even then Turnbull saw a certain quality about Fuad that marked him for great things.

Fuad joined the Legco on Jan 8, 1955. In keeping with his deepest beliefs, and despite his personal regard for Turnbull, Donald soon became ''a vociferous critic of government measures, or lack of them, in cases where he thought action was necessary''. Despite - or, more likely, because of - Fuad's refusal to be a quiet native ''yes man'', Turnbull and he subsequently formed a deep friendship born out of mutual respect and recognition of each other's abilities.

In his quiet moments, Fuad continued to ponder the issues raised by his fellow Kadazans. He understood their plight of being ''second class citizens in their own country''. It was a frustration shared by the Malays on the Malayan peninsula. Fuad thus became more involved with the Kadazan community and took an interest in the societies they were forming.

His Kadazan people desperately needed help. Fuad believed with an intense passion that just as the Malays were the rightful dominant race of Peninsular Malaysia, the Kadazans were by right of birth and history the true ''owners'' of North Borneo. So, in typical Fuad Stephens fashion, the tack he favoured was enhanced education. In February 1955 he ran a series of articles in his newspaper, using his clout as owner, publisher and editor of a paper read across the breadth of Sabah, to show the Kadazandusun community in a better light. These articles explained the traditions and cultural strengths of these people to Fuad's readers.

The first Society of Kadazans was registered on Aug 24, 1953. It began as an offshoot of a local Penampang school sports body. Its objectives included the care and attention of Kadazan culture and language and the elevation of the Kadazans' standard of living. Fuad supported and attended their meetings and functions over a number of years. Then in March 1957, urged by Lee Kim Cheong, a Sino-Kadazan friend, Fuad attended the Annual General Meeting of the society. Lee worked on Fuad's newspaper and was the incumbent society president. At the AGM Fuad was delighted to be made vice-president and adviser. The incoming committee was fully aware of the local groundswell of support for Fuad. Plus, it didn't hurt that he had the ears of the powers-that-be in the Colonial Government.

With the nascent politician within him taking form, Fuad promised to use his position on the Legislative Council to take up the matter of native land reserves and the request for a recognition of Kadazan culture in the form of a public holiday. Two years later, at the 1960 AGM of the society, Fuad was able to announce that a public holiday for a Pesta Menuai, or Kadazan Harvest Festival, had been approved.

Soon it would be time for another challenge. His thoughts, encouraged by his friend, Governor Turnbull, turned increasingly to statehood and independence.

The outside world was becoming aware of North Borneo. Important visitors came to the colony. Simultaneously, political awareness was burgeoning. Britain's Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited early in 1959. With that visit a certain degree of world attention was focused on North Borneo. Perhaps as a result of that, the United States became aware of this generally quiet colonial backwater. Fuad was then invited by the US Government to tour the United States under a Foreign Leader Grant. The trip was to last two months, and introduced the Sabahan to the diverse cross section of communities, projects and lifestyles there.

On his return to North Borneo in August 1959, Fuad immersed himself in his newspaper and Legislative Council work - which now included agitating for a name change for North Borneo. He felt the name North Borneo was ''not only cumbersome but gave the impression that it was a promontory or lighthouse and of use only to mariners.'' Being a ''West Coast'' boy, he was enamoured of the old accepted name for the West Coast, Sabah. Because of his extensive travels throughout the territory while tagging along with his father during Jules Pavitt Stephens's itinerant career, Fuad knew that the inhabitants of major towns on the East Coast, like Tawau and Sandakan, also accepted the old name. Fuad deeply believed that Sabah would be acknowledged as a more fitting name for their land.

Over on the peninsula, events were taking place that would bring up the notion of uniting different territories to counter the threat of Communism.

Even with the official end of the Emergency - that had been declared by the British in 1948 to deal with a Communist insurgency - in 1960, when Chin Peng (the leader of the Communists on the Malayan Peninsula) and his ragged followers were pushed into the jungles bordering Thailand, the possibility of a Communist resurgence never left the mind of the Federation of Malaya's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. Therefore, some time during the first half of 1961, the British successfully convinced the Tunku that, should Singapore fall to the Communists, Malaya also would be threatened. With that in mind, the Tunku would naturally enough have carried out straightforward ethnic calculations and realised that the natives of the Borneo territories were a necessity to counterbalance the presence of Singapore's largely Chinese population (the Communists insurgency was led largely by Chinese who were influenced by the Communist takeover of China).

The Tunku mooted the idea of a union of territories again - this time seriously - in Singapore at the Foreign Correspondents' Association of South-East Asia on May 27, 1961.

After the Tunku's suggestion was aired, Fuad become less and less eager to embrace the idea of a union based on the situation then. His thoughts increasingly centred on a painful, perhaps even embarrassing reality: the illiteracy of Sabah's natives and their abysmal level of political awareness were huge disadvantages when weighed against the sophistication of the energetic and highly educated Chinese in Singapore, and the relatively astute and entrenched politicians of Malaya who had learned their lessons from four years of independence.

1st Sabah cabinet:- seated from left to right: Datuk Harris bin Mohd. Salleh (Menteri Kerajaan Tempatan); Datuk Khoo Siak Chiew (Menteri Perhubungan & Kerja Raya); Tun Fuad Stephens (Ketua Menteri Sabah); Datuk Pang Tet Tshung (Menteri Kewangan); dan Datuk G.S. Sundang (Timbalan Ketua Menteri).
standing from left to right: Encik R.(Bob) Speedy (Setiausaha Kabinet merangkap Setiausaha Sulit kepada Yang Di-Pertua Negeri); Tan Sri Mohd Said Keruak (Menteri Pertanian); Encik R. Jones (Peguam Besar Negeri); Encik R.. M. Turner (Ketua Setiausaha); Encik A. Jones (Akauntan Awam); dan Datuk Richard E. Yapp (Menteri Sumber Alam).

What was first needed, he felt, was unity among the three Borneo territories. For that, Fuad had to seek out leaders in Sarawak and Brunei. Ong Kee Hui, the founding chairman of Sarawak's first political party, the Sarawak United People's Party (which had been established in June 1959) was a natural choice for Sarawak. Then there was a ''mercurial Malay-Arab'', A.M. Azahari, chairman of Brunei's Parti Rakyat, who was a tornado of colonial dissatisfaction in Brunei. Fuad met twice with Azahari and Ong in July 1961 with the clear intention of forming a united front to oppose the new Federation proposal. Fuad's own thinking at this time, according to Kadazan historian Luping, was that Sabah had to be independent first before joining Malaya in the new Federation.

Singapore's leader, Lee Kuan Yew, however, wanted the union. And in a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference held in Singapore in July 1961, the genius statesman was in a passionate and persuasive mode. Fuad was also strongly influenced by Lee's clear articulation of the demographic composition of the proposed nation. Lee's message in essence was that the natives of Borneo held the balance of power.

The upshot of Fuad's momentous, secluded ''meeting within a meeting'' with Ghazali Shafie and his numerous encounters with the Singapore statesman Lee was that Lee and Ghazali made a crucial convert. With unassailable logic they managed to allay some of Fuad's fears for Sabah, going a long way towards convincing the Sabahan that the idea of the union was both sound and workable for the entire region.

Fuad was the only North Borneo delegate at this secluded conference. Despite having travelled quite some way down the path of resisting Malaysia, Fuad was willing to bend enough to at least explore the issue. Later during that conference, Fuad and Yeo Cheng Hoe, the Sarawakian delegate, pushed for the establishment of a consultative committee to look into the viability of Malaysia.

What then remained for Fuad to do was to return to the Borneo territories to discuss and spread the idea of the Malaysian proposal. But before that, he went to Kuala Lumpur to meet with the Tunku. In a two-hour meeting with the Malayan Premier, the remnants of Fuad's fears that Malaya intended a form of neo-colonialism for the Borneo states were put to rest.

Fuad brought to the merging talks an enthusiasm usually the preserve of religious proselytes. This enthusiasm was eventually contagious. So much so, retired Federal Minister Tan Sri Khir Johari says: ''Malaysia would not have been born if not for Donald Stephens.'' Others may not share such a clear-cut view, feeling instead that Malaysia was an inevitability. At this point it is impossible to be sure. Fuad was, however, able to ensure that the rights of Sabah and Sarawak would be protected in the form of the retention of their own separate state constitutions.

The Sabah and Sarawak delegations to the July 1961 Commonwealth Parliamentary Association regional meeting in Singapore proposed the formation of the Malaysia Solidarity Consultative Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. That mouthful quickly gave way to the acronym MSCC. Representatives from the five affected territories, namely Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei, would form the MSCC. With Fuad fully in favour of the creation of Malaysia, he was made chairman of the MSCC.

The 28-member committee made no apologies about being pro-Malaysia. Among the many issues agreed upon within those four meetings was that the natives of Borneo should be accorded the same preferential position the Malays held within the context of Malaya, that the existing Constitution of the Federation of Malaya would serve as the basis for the Constitution of the enlarged country, and that while Islam would be the official religion of the new country, there would be freedom of religion throughout Malaysia. It was a masterful demonstration of Fuad's burgeoning ability to leaven the broader considerations of a genuine statesman with the common touch needed by a leader of specific race: in the MSCC he worked to iron out problems so as to benefit all Sabahans, not merely the Kadazans.

* To buy copies of P.J. Granville-Edge's book, The Sabahan: The Life and Death of Tun Fuad Stephens, contact Florence ( 088-232 823 / e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF - : The focus on Sabah in the Millennium Markers continues with this extract from P.J. GRANVILLE-EDGE's book, The Sabahan: The Life and Death of Tun Fuad Stephens. The writer brings to life Fuad's early life and examines his role in persuading Sabah to join the entity that became Malaysia.

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