This is a comment piece by my friend Joe Fernandez on yesterday’s highly anticipated debate between two former Chief Ministers – Tan Sri Harris Salleh and Datuk Yong Teck Lee.

by Joe Fernandez

COMMENT If there are any lessons that emerged from a “non-debate”, of sorts, between two former Chief Ministers of Sabah on a cold rainy Fri evening in Kota Kinabalu, it was this: “that ignorance is bliss in matters of law, Parliament and the Constitution and that a little knowledge is dangerous”; that even the best subject matter expert opinion would have little chance against a wall of ignorance acting in perhaps good faith and with little else to go on.

Siapa yang makan cili akan rasa pedasnya!

If the cap fits, wear it!

Moderator Simon Sipaun, a former Sabah State Secretary, had his hands full keeping Harris Salleh, 83, from interrupting his opponent Yong Teck Lee, 55.

The debate was supposed to be about Sabah’s rights in the Federation of Malaysia which entered its 51st year on 16 Sept last month. Fifty years of Malaysia, in particular in the Borneo nations of Sabah and Sarawak, is a watershed year. The word out in the streets in Borneo is that there must be some form of consensus on the way forward. If the past 50 years is any indication, the people want no more of it.

Harris and Yong, going hammer-and-tongs against each other offered little help here. Yong was more than willing to help forge consensus on a way forward but for the most part Harris refused to play ball. He took no baits.

Harris, chief minister from 1976 to 1985, was the past which refuses to go away and offered little clues in forging a way forward for the next 50 years.

Yong brings up four issues for Debate, Harris only one

Yong, chief minister from May 1996 to April 1998, had to concede at least in his heart that he had little chance to begin with against Harris in their impromptu debate on Fri 11 Oct, 2013 at the Sabah Golf and Country Club in the Sabah capital.

He was “out-done” by Harris on all fronts in a way that only the latter could do: dismissed in a few words and sentences; or otherwise berated and out-shouted when it came to the law, Parliament and the Constitution. Yong did most of the talking; taking up his full 15 minutes allotted for every issue, while Harris did not go beyond three minutes each time on each issue.

Yong is a British-trained lawyer. Harris had only six years of school education.

One story making the rounds is that Harris was once offered a place as a mature student to do the Bar in London but apparently dropped the idea when another student in a similar situation as him gave up the idea after three years in the British capital. It must have been the English language. Had Harris completed his Bar, perhaps he could have had a better idea of the difference between Rule of Law and Rule by Law and that the Constitution is not so much about law but the ultimate political document.

Yong had four issues to bring up during the Debate: the 20 Points (20P)/1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63); the Petroleum Development Act/Oil Agreement; the surrender of Labuan island to the Federal Government; the power grab incident and the street riots which broke out in Kota Kinabalu in 1985 when the Berjaya Government headed by Harris was thrashed by the 45-day old Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) led by Joseph Pairin Kitingan in state elections that year.

Yong pledges to “shoot himself” if White Paper on SAS implicates him

Harris merely wanted Yong to explain to the crowd why the shares of the state-sponsored Saham Amanah Sabah (SAS), a unit trust, had fallen from its initial RM 1 offer price and was now hovering at about 0.35 sen. Harris felt that Yong, as a former Chief Minister, owed a duty of care to the 66,000 SAS holders – mostly Chinese housewives — saddled with bank loans in buying their stake.

Yong explained that Bank Negara (Central Bank) rules prohibited political interference and involvement in SAS or any unit trust. In short, he had no role in the misfortunes of SAS, no matter how much he sympathized with the stake holders. Yong’s successors have since tried injecting Sabah Government assets into SAS, in a bid to boost the unit trust price, but to no avail.

The SAS issue remains a political hot potato and Yong has paid a heavy price for it. In General Elections this May, his PBS-breakaway Sabah Progressive Party (Sapp) failed to win even a single seat in the Federal and state legislatures. SAS was by no means the only reason but that’s another story.

Yong wants the Sabah Government to release a White Paper on SAS and pledged twice, dramatically with a fore finger to his head, that he would “shoot himself” if the White Paper on the SAS found any wrongdoing (criminal) on his part.

Harris denied that the street riots of 1985 were masterminded by the losing Berjaya leaders who allegedly hired illegal immigrants to go on a rampage of burning and general mayhem.

He admitted, in downplaying the riots, that there might have been “a little burning” but was rebutted by Yong waving pictures of the incident from the newspapers and pointing out that a curfew had to be imposed. The latter also stressed that local Muslims – Dusun and other Orang Asal (Natives), Suluk, Bajau and other Muslims – were not involved in the riots “meant to pressure the Federal Government into declaring a state of emergency” to facilitate the take over of the Sabah Government from PBS.

Mustapha failed to persuade Court on early bird theory

Harris attributed the riots to the “Malay Muslims’ being cheated by PBS in not forming a coalition government with United Sabah National Organisation (Usno). Harris is Brunei Malay on his mother’s side. His father was Indian. There are very few Malays in Sabah.

The “cheating”, Harris claimed, was behind the infamous power grab incident which saw Usno and Suluk leader Mustapha Harun clambering over the walls of the Istana (palace) in the wee hours of the morning and having himself sworn in as Chief Minister.

Usno, defeated by Berjaya in 1976, came in with 17 seats in the 1985 state elections, Berjaya had six and PBS took 25. The power grab incident saw Usno and Berjaya disingenuously forming a coalition Government together with six nominated state assemblymen. Mustapha, explaining the power grab, said that “the early bird catches the worm”. He was ousted within days by the Court which he tried to persuade with the “early bird” theory.

Harris cautioned the crowd against referring to every Tom, Dick and Harry in Sabah as an illegal immigrant. He pointed out that the present Governor was a Suluk, yet the Suluks in Sabah – and also the Bugis among others – were being referred to as illegal immigrants. He claimed that the Suluk – people from the southern Philippines like the Bajau — had been in Sabah the last 500 years and the Bugis (from Celebes, Indonesia) have also been here for a very long time.

Whenever Harris came up short in the argument, he had one constant piece of advice for Yong throughout the debate which turned out to be a stormy affair that lasted three hours: campaign hard throughout Malaysia, win two thirds majority in Parliament, amend the Constitution, and reinstate the 20P and the MA63 to set up a “banana republic” and/or win independence for Sabah and Sarawak.

He offered to be Speaker of the new Sabah Parliament, proposed his former Berjaya Deputy Mat Nor Mansor — a Brunei Malay now with Sapp – as the Sultan of Sabah and Yong as Prime Minister.

Parliament Supreme and can do anything on 20P/MA63

For Sarawak, he urged Yong to look around for a Dayak leader to be the new Rajah of that country in echoes of the Brooke Dynasty of white rajahs from England (1841 to 1941) who once ruled there for some 105 years.

It was Harris’ considered opinion that the 20P and MA63 no longer matter, that they had either been incorporated in the Federal Constitution or done away with through amendments in Parliament and in the State Assembly. He did not mention any part of the 20P/MA63 being excluded from the Federal and State Constitutions.

Yong begged to differ and wants the Sabah Government, for a start, to amend the State Constitution and restore Sabah’s status as a Negara (nation) in the Federation, a key point in the 20P.

He explained that he could not do anything on 20P/MA63 during his term a Chief Minister as the Federal Government was very powerful at that time and the “window of opportunity” did not present itself until the 2008 General Election when Sabah and Sarawak came centre stage as the Kingmakers in Parliament.

He echoed the popular view that that there was no Malaysia without 20P/MA63 which formed the basis for both Sabah and Sarawak to be in the Federation with Malaya. He wants the letter and spirit of both constitutional documents on Malaysia to be upheld, honoured and respected. His plea if true will fall on deaf years, Harris retorted.

Both Speakers did not touch on the need to interpret the intention of the framers of the various constitutional documents on Malaysia in a manner which reflected as if they contained a Basic Features Doctrine i.e. the 20P/MA63 could not be amended out of the Federal and state constitutions, done away with or not included.

Harris wants to take on Jeffrey Kitingan on colonisation

Sensing that the mood of the crowd was definitely against him, Harris denied that he was consistently taking a pro-Federal Government line on Sabah.

He claimed disingenuously in a simplistic brief that he was more concerned about the thinking among the people in Sabah on Malaysia. The Muslims, he stressed, would attribute their poverty to fate. The others including those in the kampungs (villages), he anguished, blamed Putrajaya for demolishing State rights – the famous 20P – and/or otherwise being in non-compliance on MA63.

Turning at one point on Bingkor State Assemblyman and State Reform Party (Star) chairman Dr. Jeffrey Kitingan, who was seated in the front row, Harris reminded him that he had no response to his offer in a local daily (Daily Express) to debate him and other activists on the issue of whether Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia) had been in colonial occupation of Sabah and Sarawak since the British departure in 1963. The issue is that there was no Referendum on the British leaving Sabah and Sarawak after their independence – 31 Aug and 22 July 1963 — in a Federation with Malaya on 16 Sept 1963, whether expanded or new.

Harris obviously feels compelled, even though long in retirement, to speak up whenever something doesn’t quite jell with his weltanschauung (worldview).

Jeffrey had no opportunity to explain that a Right of Reply delivered to the said newspaper by the UK-based Borneo’s Plight in Malaysia Foundation (BOPIM) chairman Daniel John Jambun was not carried by it until the Debate day. (It was carried the next day after the Debate almost a week late.)

“No one” held under ISA for opposing Labuan handover

Harris warned Yong at one time during the debate not to imply in any manner that he had sold Labuan Island, ostensibly to become an International Offshore Financial Centre, to the Federal Government. He challenged Yong to repeat any insinuations against him on Labuan outside the debate hall and promised to retaliate with a swift lawsuit against him. He mentioned that there was already a lawsuit pending in Court on Labuan and the matter was subjudice.

Harris stressed, in response to a question from the floor, that the question of seeking compensation for Labuan did not arise at the moment since the island was a losing concern. Similarly, the Sabah Electricity Board was handed over to the federal Government without compensation because it was another losing concern.

Harris denied that anyone had been held under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) for opposing the Labuan handover and dismissed a statement on the issue by one Darshan Singh from the floor. Darshan spent some time in detention without trial under the ISA apparently for opposing the Labuan handover. A lawyer in the crowd confided that he was standing next to Darshan when the latter was detained but escaped arrest, according to him, because he was “a Muslim”.

Yong disclosed that he was in Labuan on handover day and witnessed the Federal Reserve Units and Royal Malay regiments out in full force on the island to put on an intimidating display of brute force apparently to deter any opposition. It was a defining moment for Yong as he vowed then and there to enter opposition politics to oust the Berjaya Government.

Harris, not so long ago, picked up RM 1 million in Court-awarded damages from Yong in a defamation suit where the Judge held that the latter had implied that the former had “blood on his hands”. This was a reference to the tragic 6 June, 1976 air crash which wiped out almost the entire Sabah Cabinet led by Berjaya President Donald Fuad Stephens. Harris became Chief Minister by default and days later signed the infamous Oil Agreement with Petronas, the National Oil Corporation, and the Federal Government.

Harris, in response to Yong and questions from the floor, denied that he had been under any pressure to sign the oil agreement. Nevertheless, he disclosed that there was only RM 2 million in the kitty left by the ousted Mustapha Government. Signing the Oil Agreement meant an immediate cash infusion from Petronas in the form of Oil Royalty amounting to 5 per cent.

Besides, added Harris, Sarawak and Terengganu had earlier signed the Oil Agreements. If he had not signed, he ventured, “it would look as if Sarawak and Terengganu were stupid to do so”.

Harris claimed, in defending the Oil Agreement, that it was “international law” – at one time he even referred to the Law of the Sea – that onshore waters belong to Sabah and that the offshore belonged to the Federal Government.

Parliament Supreme and can do anything on 20P/MA63

He begged to disagree with Yong’s take that the boundary of Sabah was what it had at the time that it was taken/pushed by the British into the Federation of Malaysia. Yong, while not faulting Harris for it, also pointed out that the Oil Blocks L and M handed over to Brunei not so long ago were within Malaysia’s maritime boundaries in Sabah and Sarawak.

Harris showed little evidence during the Debate of the articulate self presented of him in the numerous press statements purportedly attributed to him in the local media, the Daily Express in particular.

Age, in any case, may be catching up with Harris in more ways than one. He had little patience with issues brought up by Yong, and in no mood to be apologetic, even displaying open defiance in taking a pro-Federal Government line in Sabah.

The crowd had turned up in the mistaken belief that Harris would concede that mistakes had been made during his time in public office and that he harboured more than his fair share of regrets.

On a plus note, Harris is willing to join the pro-20P/MA63 activists in Borneo if it can be demonstrated in any way that there’s probably a “cause for action” and that “any lost rights can be recovered”.

Parliament, he reminded, was Supreme and can do anything in explaining the perception that the 20P/MA63 had not been honoured. He failed to mention that the Veto Powers of Sabah and Sarawak in Parliament, a pledge under MA63, had been done away with by the Election Commission, the Attorney General and the Registrar of Societies.

Longtime Borneo watcher Joe Fernandez is a graduate mature student of law and an educationist, among others, who loves to write especially Submissions for Clients wishing to Act in Person. He also tutors at local institutions and privately. He subscribes to Dr Stephen Hawking’s “re-discovery” of the ancient Indian theory that “the only predictable property of the universe is chaos”. He feels compelled, as a semi-retired journalist, to put pen to paper — or rather the fingers to the computer keyboard — whenever something doesn’t quite jell with his weltanschauung (worldview) or to give a Hearing to All. He shuttles between points in the Golden Heart of Borneo formed by the Sabah west coast, Labuan, Brunei, northern Sarawak and the watershed region in Borneo where three nations meet. He’s half-way through a semi-autobiographical travelogue, A World with a View . . . http://fernandezjoe.blogspot.com/

Hey, hey! What have you got to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s