Archive for February, 2014


For long, Sabah was considered a “poverty” state, what with extreme destitution, a massive influx of illegal immigrants and corruption being considered synonymous with the state. But all that is now history. The state is now on the fast track to shed its “poverty” tag, having achieved one of the highest GDP growth rates in recent years. The iconic changes have been ushered in by the Musa Aman-led government after he took over the reins in 2003.

The metamorphosis has not gone unnoticed in the country as well as abroad. Sabah is now considered a state on the move, thanks to improvement in governance, law and order, infrastructure and financial discipline. “My first three priorities are governance, governance and governance,” Musa had once said. The stress on governance was primarily because of his finding that Sabah had suffered not just because of bad governance but also due to a lack of it. After taking oath as the chief minister, he embarked on the journey of development with justice. Till recently, it was beyond the people’s imagination that Sabah could embark on a trajectory of development, and an inclusive and equitable one too.

Profile of the state started changing since late 2003. Plan expenditure leapfrogged from RM1.22 billion in 1984 to RM3.84 billion in 2013. The annual growth rate of Gross State Domestic Product, which averaged 2.42% between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, jumped to 7.36% for 2013. Even tourism receipts of RM 6.35 billion for 2013 was the highest record where 3.3 million tourist arrivals of which 2.29 million was domestic arrivals. This growth rate and the consequent transformation in the economic profile of the state made the country sit up and take notice, since it had surpassed many developed states.

“Sabah’s turnaround illustrates how a handful of seemingly small changes can yield big results in Sabah’s most impoverished and badly governed districts. Sabah is a textbook case of how leadership determines development. At a recent speech at the premier assembly with members of the State and Federal public service personnel at the auditorium Menara Tun Mustapha, Musa said since the people have given the mandate to the Barisan National to lead the people in Sabah, it was imperative for civil servants to deliver and ensure the success of policies and programmes that had been planed.

In the same speech he also talked about prudence, he being in the East-coast of Sabah in Brumas a week ago, visiting Yayasan Sabah subsidary the Sabah SoftWoods, and the next day he had to go for Deputy Education Minister Datuk Mary Yap Kain Ching’s Chinese New Year Open House in Tawau. He could have driven down from Brumas to Tawau which was just an hour’s drive and stayed at the Promenade Hotel’s suite with a few other rooms for his security personals. This could have easily cost the state RM five thousand, but he refused to spent that money and instead stayed on at YS Guest house for free. He was similiarly requested by former deputy chief Minister of Sabah, Tham Nyip Shen to come down to Tawau and stay in comfort at the hotel but Musa adamantly refused. Now we know how Musa accumulated more than RM3 billion in cash reserves for the Sabah state government.

Remember, under Musa, Sabah has been given recognition by the Auditor-General for its financial administration and 9 agencies, including district offices and departments, all having been given four-star rating. Many who had given up on Sabah are constantly astonished by the ‘turnaround’ of the state. Musa Aman has achieved the status of a miracle worker.  How did he manage to resurrect the state? Musa works well under Prime Minister  Najib Tun Razak and his younger Foreign Minister brother Anifah is also a political ally of Najib. Putrajaya sees him as someone who is reliable and the Prime Minister even once said to Musa, “I have been to all the states but when I think about Sabah, I can sleep well.”

Musa is a professional manager. His years as a banker, businessman and Sabah Finance Minister has certainly proven to be of great help to Sabahans. But more than a minister or chief minister, Musa thinks of himself as a politician. A professional politician. Although he exudes an air of supremacy but he is still humble. When he took over as chief minister in 2003, he would often remind civil servants that his ministry had the greatest stake in the performance of the government, not the bureaucracy. If the government achieved success, his ministry would get all the credit; if it failed, his ministry would have to bear all the blame. In short the bureaucrats wouldn’t have lost their jobs – He would. So, from the outset, he concentrated on driving the bureaucracy. During the years when Sabah had so many chief ministers at the helm, the bureaucracy had stopped thinking because the leader never provoked them, or taking action because it was not expected of them. Problems remained unresolved in the absence of ideas. Implementation of programmes lagged for lack of exertion.

The twin problems Musa faced were of his people suffering and him having to propel a paraplegic bureaucracy to join him in his attempt to resolve that suffering. In the initial few months of his first tenure Musa held long meetings with officers of all departments. He tried to understand where things stood, where they were going wrong, and in the process also gauge the quality of senior bureaucrats: how much each bureaucrat understood his job, whether he had new ideas to offer, how much of a leader he was; who was a charlatan, who had a social conscience, who was earnest, who was a shirker.

Musa used a hands-on approach in all areas. That was his style. He would not be there just to frame policies and draw up programmes and leave the implementation to the bureaucracy. He did not believe in the conventional method of governance as it had come to be followed in post-Independence Sabah. He believed implementation was the key. Governments usually faltered on implementation. Ministers would call officers to meetings and lecture them on policies and programmes, and there the involvement ended. Once the officers saw the chief minister individually involved, they got involved themselves. There was somebody watching them. Musa regularly monitored the progress of the programmes. That kept up the momentum.

Sermons did not help; what worked was the delegation of powers. Responsibility would still be considered a burden by officers if no authority was given to them. Musa framed a policy delegating authority down the line from the minister of a department to the junior-most officer for approval of projects of a progressively declining amount. Authority for approval of projects and freedom of action alone, however, could not have brought about the success in his ‘Halatuju’ development framework for the state which focused on tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing. There was a wholly new driving force he had created that worked wonders. Musa was even successful in further preventing occurrence of another Lahad Datu Style intrusion by bloodthirsty crackpots from Southern Philippines. The Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) has stepped up security measures, with heightened alert from the military and police, in the 10 districts placed under the Esszone.

Sabah is far from becoming a paradise despite these initiatives.

The best that can be said of the transformation Musa Aman has brought is that he has pulled Sabah back from the dead. That is a significant accomplishment in itself. At last Sabah has shown stirrings of life. But there is a long way to go but Musa has put the Sabah administration back on an even keel and brought changes to the state.

In a recent development, unscrupulous elements are trying to drum up religious sentiments in Sabah to disrupt harmony among peaceful Sabahns. So I asked Musa what his take is on this. Interestingly, he said “Sabahans must get on with their lives and not be carried away by certain quarters who are trying to create chaos and confusion. Sabahans must take heed of the experience of countries that fell into abyss from prosperity due to distrust and lack of respect for each other’s religion and belief. The present generation and leadership should strive for excellence to be inherited by the next generation, instead of destruction, sufferings and misery.”

Musa said about the changing Sabah: “The state is experiencing all-round development because of our policy of ensuring that the benefits of development first go to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Over the years, we rose above the feelings of race and religion, and have worked tirelessly on the agenda of inclusive development of the state.” Musa believes in the maxim of “miles to go before I sleep”. He once told me “I work 24×7 without a break, thinking often of the philosophy of uninterrupted service day and night. I understand this will need to go on without any let-up, so that more and more people join hands to bring a brighter future. I am not fully satisfied with the work done. But one has to remain dissatisfied only to move ahead with vigour. I feel satisfied seeing the happy faces of people, who are now living without any fear.”


The Academy Awards are most closely associated with expensive, red carpet dresses and banal acceptance speeches. There is rarely space for the edgy, politically meaningful, or foreign. This year, however, one Oscar nominee for best documentary feature, “The Act of Killing,” resurrects one of the great “forgotten” mass murders, some would say genocide, of 20th Century Asia.

The murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is well known to have killed up to three million people. Estimating the death toll of Communist Party misadventures in China continues to produce internationally acclaimed books with figures as high as 45 million for the famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward. And yet, while killings by communists are well publicised, the killing of communists, has received far less attention.

However, between 5,00,000 and three million communists, or people branded as communists, were slaughtered in Indonesia between 1965-67, a massacre that has been airbrushed out of Indonesian history textbooks and the world’s consciousness at large.

“The Act of Killing” — co-directed by American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, and produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog — examines this little documented, or even acknowledged, part of Indonesian history, to deeply disturbing effect.

The facts behind the massacres remain shrouded in obfuscation, propaganda and resultant historical amnesia. What is known is that an attempted coup on the night of September 30, 1965, led to the killing of six Indonesian generals. In the days and weeks that followed, the Indonesian Army fingered the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) as the perpetrators, unleashing a killing spree in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of suspected communists were murdered.

The army is known to have instigated many of these murders, although large parts of the civilian population were implicated in them as well, through their mobilisation via religious and social organisations. There was also alleged U.S. involvement, with the CIA having possibly provided the Indonesian Army with lists of names and other details for thousands of communists.

Prior to the massacres, the PKI had emerged as the largest communist party in the world outside the Communist bloc, with over three million members and up to 18 million followers. It was a formidable political force, well disciplined and organised. After the 1965-66 killings, the PKI was wiped out and even the contemporary democratic Indonesian political landscape has a gaping hole for a Left.

Storyline

In the film, Oppenheimer stays clear of the complex historical details that engendered and enabled the massacres. Instead, he looks at the impunity enjoyed by some of the perpetrators, who, almost 50 years later, remain unpunished, unrepentant, and eager to recount their tales of bloodshed.

Set in a city in northern Sumatra, the movie abruptly switches from a lighthearted, almost cheery mood, with ageing gangsters joking about, and singing songs, to unvarnished horror, as they detail their brutal killings and carry out surreal re-enactments. The movie has an off-kilter feel, with the lines between fact and fiction blurring disorientingly. It is after all a documentary about a movie that the gangsters agree to make about mass killings that they undertook which are officially unacknowledged in Indonesia.

The question that looms large upon watching “The Act of Killing,” is why the massacres of 1965-66 remain buried in the rubble of history, rather than dug up and confronted. The Suharto-led military dictatorship that came to power in the midst of the murders, and that consolidated its power as a result of the elimination of its communist rivals, developed a narrative that stressed the cruelty of the communists and painted them as the aggressors rather than victims.

Schoolchildren were forced every year to watch a gory, propaganda movie, “Pengkhianatan, or Treachery,” that focused on the September 30 killings of the six generals by so-called communists and reinforced the idea that the nation was saved from communist terror.

“I saw so much stuff about communists being the bad guys that it somehow became the ‘truth.’ There was no access to any other version of reality,” explains 29-year-old Ray Hervandi, who went to school in Jakarta.

What is startling however is that even more than 15 years after the downfall of the Suharto regime, the killings of the communists remain largely unvisited. Today, Indonesia is a vibrant democracy with a general election scheduled for later in the year. And yet, there are no revisionist histories, no political party that has made a cause of the murders, and little discussion in the mainstream media about the “genocide.”

Release and reactions

That is, until “The Act of Killing” began to attract attention. The movie has not been released in theatres in Indonesia out of fear of an outright ban. It has however been available to download online for free, and also been shown in private venues across the archipelago. The Oscar nomination has predictably garnered interest, but much of the reaction within the country has been negative. If the film is to win, it will likely be discomfiting for, rather than celebrated in, Indonesia.

Teuku Faizasyah, a government spokesperson, was quoted by the Jakarta Globe newspaper claiming that the portrayal of Indonesia in the film was “as a cruel and lawless” country, and “not appropriate, not fitting.” “Much has changed since the 1960s,” he said.

However, Andreas Harsono, a journalist and human rights activist, points out that it is precisely because “not that much has changed (since the Suharto-era),” that the communist massacres remain so difficult for the political establishment to address.

He points out, for example, that the current Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is in fact the son-in-law of Sarwo Edhie Wibowo who was the military commander of the Special Forces unit that quelled the 1965 coup.

Mr. Harsono, who was born only a few months before the massacres began, says he has not been able to finish watching “The Act of Killing” in its entirety despite repeated attempts. It brings back an image that has haunted him since he was seven years old, when an employee in his father’s electronics company in East Java took him to the banks of the Jompo river and told him how the river had run red with blood. The employee recounted having seen a baby crying with hunger as it tried to suckle the breast of its slaughtered, dead mother.

There have been sporadic attempts in Indonesia at coming to terms with the massacres. During his brief presidency (October 1999-July 2001) Abdurrrahman Wahid, the leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a religious organisation that played a major role in the killings, asked for forgiveness from surviving ex-communists on behalf of the NU. No other national-level politician has followed his example, despite Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission having released the results of an investigation into the slaughter, in 2012. The commission found that “crimes against humanity” had occurred and that the military was responsible. It urged further investigation by the attorney general’s office. But, state authorities largely rejected the report and the attorney general has failed to take up the case.

Mr. Harsono makes the point that “The Act of Killing’s” detractors in Indonesia, who criticise it as a “foreigner’s” fetish, are often unaware that the movie is in fact co-directed by an Indonesian. The co-director, as well as the more than 60-member strong Indonesian crew, have all chosen to remain anonymous. “There is an Indonesian who has also made this movie, and he must remain nameless, because even today he fears for his life. What does that say about Indonesia?” asks Mr. Harsono.