March 2, 2010

Spirit of Tambunan, where art thou!

For the uninitiated, Tambunan is a district in the interior region of Sabah.

In a 2000 consensus, its population was estimated at 27,852. The population is mostly Dusun (now known as KadazanDusun), with Chinese, Malays and other ethnic groups being the minority. The Dusuns in Tambunan are predominantly Christians but there are some Muslims among them.

Tambunan's most famous son is Datuk Seri Panglima Joseph Pairin Kitingan whom is the current Deputy Chief Minister of Sabah helming the Ministry of Infrastructure Development.

Famous Standoff

In 1976, under the Berjaya ticket, Pairin was elected a Member of the Sabah Legislative Assembly for the Tambunan electorate and he was also appointed as a Minister in the then state government.

I remember during that era, there was a common understanding, a rumour that was circulating among the people of Sabah that if you are a Non-Muslim, live would be less easy. After all, this was post Tun Mustapha Bin Harun era, the Chief Minister of the toppled state government. The late Tun Mustapha had been accused of allowing illegal immigrants from the predominantly Muslim South Philippines to enter Sabah en masse in order to get phantom votes to stay in power and also to create a manufactured Muslim majority. He was also alleged to be responsible for the mass conversion of Non-Muslim natives and also Non-Natives into Islam by way of offering monetary and other benefits.  

Hence, Pairin's victory could be seen as hope and assurance to the Christian natives who had seen their constitutional rights suppressed by the previous state government.

After 8 years being in the government, Pairin was forced to leave Berjaya when he constantly questioned some of the government's policies. That was in 1984.

In December 1984, Pairin stood as an Independent Candidate against Berjaya to defend his seat in Tambunan. An epic David versus Goliath battle. A lone politician fighting against the might of Berjaya which was backed by the then juggernaut Barisan Nasional. The then government probably thought that the people of Tambunan were push overs. The population was probably less than 18,000 then, give and take. There were reports that the government gave on the spot approval of development projects and other private amenities, a 'vote buying' tactic which put Pairin at a disadvantage. All the might of a giant was used to bring down Pairin. A lost cause.

In a most inspiring turn of event, the people of Tambunan stood by their assemblyman. Pairin won the election with a comfortable margin. Their collective voice was probably, "Go and do what you must, we trust you".

The state government in retaliation to the will of Tambunan people, punished them for their choice. Words spread throughout Sabah that they were facing hardship. They were even deprived of basic amenities. Words also spread out to other parts of Malaysia. Opposition MP like Lim Kit Siang lent his voice for the people of Tambunan in parliament.

As the state government continued their campaign to destroy Pairin and to bring the people of Tambunan to their knees, unbeknown to them, the Rakyat was watching. The injustice done on the Tambunan people only helped stroke the fire of REFORMASI amongst the Rakyat and the various community leaders in the state. Far from securing their hold on power, their (government) action only loosened their linchpin.           

Pairin's cause became everyone's cause. In March 1985, barely four months after defeating Berjaya in Tambunan, Pairin successfully registered Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) in the eleventh hour. He was going to fight Berjaya in the State election in April 1985. Leaders of various ethnics and religions from all parts of Sabah rallied to Pairin. They accepted him, a Catholic, as the leader of this new party. The flame of democracy and the brotherhood of Sabah were rekindled thanks to a little kicking by the state government or shall I say a big kick since it awaken a sleeping giant. A giant that is made up of people of different race and religion who came forward to put an end to an injustice and reform the politics in Sabah.

I remember as a 13 years old, I followed the events unfolding itself and I was in awe. It was an exciting period for everyone. Who were these people who dare to fight Berjaya and BN? To a 13 year old, it was a bigger than life event. All the people setting aside their differences and fighting under one banner.

During the campaigning, agents of the government used the religion issue to scare voters from supporting PBS. "Pairin is a Catholic. Do you want a Catholic to rule over you? He is a threat to Islam.." these not so soft whispers doing its round around kopitiams. The Sabah Times newspaper ran daily article in what was a character assassination attempt. Caricatures of Pairin were printed in the paper, wild accusations and I remember there were even leaflets, I picked one up myself although I can't remember exactly what it said about Pairin and PBS.

Election day came, a rude shock would come to the state government when the result was announced. PBS won! Sabahan had rejected racial and religion politic.

The struggle of a rural district led to the downfall of a state government. It didn't take more than four months. Brothers came to the aid of another brother. They say you see the best of humanity in times of great distress. We saw the best of humanity that day.

That is the Spirit of Tambunan.

An excerpt from

The Tambunan by-election of December 1984 gave Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan a spirited triumph that heralded Parti Bersatu Sabah’s toppling of Datuk Harris Salleh and his Parti Berjaya four months later. Tambunan’s many-sided impact on Sabah politics remains to this day.

So my fellow Malaysians and Sabahans, who is holding the Spirit of Tambunan now?

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