May 31, 1985
AsiaWeek – Interview with Tun Mustapha Harun
For Malaysian old enough to remember, the name Tun Mustapha Harun stirs vivid memories of the late 1960s and early 1970s when the lean, chain smoking, charismatic figure ruled the East Malaysian state of Sabah with an iron hand. “Maybe I am the most criticized, most maligned man in this part of the world,” he says with a chuckle. “(But) I tell you the people here still love me.” The stuff of legends at 67 still draws a crowd when he speaks and sees himself as “still young.” Says he: “I have ten children. And maybe a few more to come.” Born in a section of Sulu royal family that fled to Borneo about a century ago, Mustapha in 1934 joined the British North Borneo Company that owned Sabah, beginning as an office boy in the district office in Kudat. When Sabah became a British Colony after the war, Mustapha was already the paramount chief of the Muslims in the Kudat area. In 1955 he was appointed to the colony’s legislative and executive councils making his entry into politics. Last week Mustapha granted a rare interview. In the Kota Kinabalu office of the Muslim Welfare Organisation that he heads, lie talked to Asiaweek’s Assif Shameen for two hours about the past and present. Excerpts:
In 1963 Mustapha was appointed Governor of Sabah when the British colony joined the Federation of Malaysia. Only a year before, Mustapha had formed the United Sabah National Organisation but the role of Chief Minister went to Donald Stephens, a charismatic Kadazan leader. Mustapha and Stephens soon became sworn enemies and Mustapha was accused of interfering in state politics when his role was merely constitutional head.
“I was Governor for 18 months. It was really terrible. I felt like a big bird in a small cage. I couldn’t do anything. Stephens would never listen to me. He thought as he was Chief Minister he had a licence to do anything. I told him as Governor I too had some powers. We clashed a few times but it all came out in the open towards the end of 1964 when he presented me with a text of the policy speech that I was to deliver at the assembly. The clash was about how the administration should work. The text of speech was very inadequate and I told him to go away and make amends. He told me that Governors was only supposed to read the speeches prepared by the Chief Minister. I told him the Governor had every right to make changes. So the next day I stood up at the Assembly and read out a different speech. I had added new paragraphs and discarded some of Stephens’ text. He was horrified and complained to Tunku Abdul Rahman. In my speech I stressed multiracialism and improving the standard of life and educating the rural people. When Tunku heard my side of the story he said Mustapha is right. Rural development is important and we must have balance because there are so many races in Sabah”.
In early 1965 Mustapha resigned as Governor saying he couldn’t work with Stephens. Soon after his resignation was accepted the Tunku asked Stephens to join the federal government as minister for Sabah Affair. In August 1965 Singapore was ousted from the Malaysian Federation and Stephens, a close friend of Lee Kwan Yew, resigned his ministerial post. Mustapha was invited to replace him.
“I join the Federal Government on the persuasion of Tunku. He tried for three days and at the end of every day I used to tell him ‘I don’t want to be a minister in the Federal Government.’ I don’t know why I took it but I realized that there were going to be elections in Sabah soon and my eyes were on the State Government. I reorganized USNO and the same time Stephens was busy reorganizing his party, UPKO [United Pasok-Momogun Kadazan Organisation]. In the 1967 elections, UPKO won 12 seats, USNO 14 and the balance was with Sabah Chinese Association which had 5 seats. There was one Chinese independent. I got the SCA to join hands with USNO so I became Chief Minister in 1967. In the late 60s there were no major political problems in Sabah. Stephens left politics, dissolved UPKO and merged it with USNO. Our relations with the Federal Government were very good. Tunku was the closest friend I had”.
But soon after Tunku stepped down as Prime Minister, Mustapha began to have problem with the Federal Government which thought he was increasingly charting an independent course for Sabah. His battles with Premier Tun Abdul Razak and Deputy Premier Tun Dr Ismail are legendary.
“I had nothing personal against Tun Razak or Dr Ismail. It was always on policy matters. One big clash I had with Razak was over foreign policy. He thought as Sabah Chief Minister I had no right to interfere in foreign affairs. I was saying this is federation. Everyone has say in the running of foreign affairs. In 1973 he began to make statements that he wanted to normalize relations with China. I am an anti-communist.
But I have nothing against the Russian people or the Chinese people. I just don’t like their system, that’s all. All my life has been spent in a free system. So when Tun Razak started talking about normalizing relations with China I flew to Kuala Lumpur, I said to him ‘Tun, are you crazy? How can we have good ties with the bloody communist?’ At that time even the U.S didn’t recognize China. I asked Razak why Malaysia should have relations with China. He said to me there were four objectives he wanted to accomplish on his China trip. One, he wanted China to persuade the communist guerilla in the jungle and the border to scale down or stop the war against Malaysian forces. Two, he wanted China to support the region to be neutralized. Three, he was planning elections in 1974 and didn’t want a repetition of 1969 when the Chinese voters deserted the alliance and voted for the opposition. Four, he wanted Chinese support for the Straits of Malacca to become territorial water.
I told him he’d be lucky if Mao or Chau En-lai would agree to even consider one concession he wanted from them. I told him I know the mentality of communist leaders. In the end I was proven right. As far as the Chinese voters are concerned, I told him there is nothing to worry about as long as they are in a minority. If Chinese are smaller in number there is nothing they can do politically. But Razak would not listen. He kept saying ‘Mustapha, you don’t understand foreign policy.’ I told him ‘Yes, I do understand. It is you, Tun, who don’t appreciate my point.’ So we clashed and quarreled.
The clashes between the two men led to a point of no return and Razak wanted Mustapha removed from his position. He offered Mustapha appointment in Kuala Lumpur as Defence Minister but Mustapha turned it down. In mid-1974 Razak began wooing Mustapha again.
“I knew all along he wanted me out of Sabah. He told me that he was offering me the Defence Minister because he wanted to consolidate power in Kuala Lumpur. I was like a brother to him. Despite our differences on policy we are good friend. Financial, material, moral, whatever support he needed, I gave him. He used to call me ‘Mustapha, I want this.’ I would say ‘Right, OK’.
When Razak insisted that I join the Federal as Defence Minister I said, I will on one condition: I have a free hand in running the ministry and strengthening the county’s defence by beefing up our arsenal with new sophisticated equipment. I took leave as chief minister and appointed my deputy as acting CM and went to Kuala Lumpur to prepare a working paper with the help of Gen. Mahmood Suleiman and a few others. Day and night the committee sat discussing what equipment should be bought from where. When Razak saw the working paper he said ‘Wow, this is very good. Now our defence will be very strong. But later he turned around and said, ‘This thing going to cost us a fortune, Mustapha. Where are we going to get all the money?’ I told him, ‘You just say you agree with the proposal. I will get the money.’ So I went to Ghaddafi in Libya and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. It was 1975, Vietnam and Cambodia were falling to communist. Thailand and Malaysia were next. Gaddafi said, ‘Ye, we must have a strong Muslim nation in Southeast Asia.’ King Faisal was also very receptive to my idea. He said to me, ‘Go, buy the arms. Don’t worry about the repayment. If Malaysia has a fortune one day it can pay back Saudi Arabia. If not, never mind, I’ll share my money for the defence of my Muslim brother.’ You know I had 10 billion [Malaysian money] in pledges from Ghaddafi and King Faisal and some others. King Faisal said to me he would never allow a Muslim country like Malaysia to fall to communist”
Once he had the pledges, Mustapha, officially still Sabah’s chief minister, flew around the globe wrapping arms deals, much to the chagrin of Premier Razak and others in federal government who suspected that Mustapha’s main objective was to collect commissions.
“I approached the Malaysian ambassador in Paris to ask the France defence minister whether he could have 25 Mirage fighters. I went to Washington to look for a big aircraft carrier. I told the British defence secretary that we were interested in 25 Phantom jet fighters. We were also in touch with the German to purchase a destroyer and some submarines. I was doing all these because I didn’t want to take over as defence minister of a weak nation. Once we had all this equipment, I told Razak, I will resign from Sabah and become defence minister. But before the plan could be finally approved Razak called me and said that he had been thinking about the whole thing. I said to him, ‘What is there to think about?, Ghaddafi is willing, Faisal says money no problem. If we have the money, why don’t we buy?’ But Razak said to me, ‘You don’t understand foreign policy. If we strengthen our defences our neighbor will be suspicious. China and Russia will be angry. There might be a war.’ I said, ‘Rubbish. The communist guerillas have been fighting a war with us for 30 years.’ I told him, when we have the arms we would have nobody to fear except god. But Razak said no. So I turned down the request to become defence minister. I wasn’t doing anything for money. It was Razak’s idea to make me defence. I tell you I have enough money without doing hanky-panky.”
Mustapha bitterest dispute with Razak and other federal leaders was over the formation of Barisan Nasional, an expanded coalition that would include winning parties from all states besides all the Alliance members UMNO, MCA and MIC. Mustapha thought it was another plan to clip his wings and federal leaders saw his reluctance as further proof that he wasn’t interested in national integration and harmony.
“The Barisan Nasional was a modified plan. The original idea of Tun Razak and Dr Ismail was to have one party system Razak told me one day. I think it was 1973, that after what happened in the 1969 general elections and the subsequent riots, he had concluded that a multi-party system was not for Malaysia. I said to him, ‘Tun, we have a democratic system. We can’t had our system with this one-party plan.’ Then he told me the plan was to merge UMNO, MCA, MIC and the rest. He said, ‘USNO will also have to merge.’ I told him there was no way USNO will merge with anybody. In a multiracial society every community must have its say. In a federation every State must have its say. He kept saying we had the system in 1969 and look what happened. Later he modified his plan and appointed Ghafar Baba to draft a constitution for Barisan. I think it was during this time he made up his mind that I should be removed from Sabah. He was only waiting for a right time to topple me. In 1975 BERJAYA was formed on the orders of Tun Razak. He encouraged Harris, Stephens and the others. I was also opposed to the initial draft of the Barisan constitution. All power was with Kuala Lumpur. It was like dictatorship. I told Tun Razak, ‘You can’t direct everything like the colonial office in London used to. We already have our Merdeka.’ But he amended the constitution. They call me dictator but I tell you I did more for democracy in Malaysia then any of the other leaders.”
As he battled on against what he describes as federal interference. Mustapha reopen issue after issue, much to the annoyance of Kuala Lumpur. A key one was oil royalties.
“I told Razak that Tunku had agreed that according to the 1963 agreement all natural resources would be shared between federal government and state government. In 1974 when oil prices began to move up I went to Razak and said before we talk about other things let us talk about oil. Offshore oil we share 50:50 with federal. Onshore we get 60, federal takes 40 percent. Razak said no. So I negotiated. After talks which went on for months, Razak agreed on 80:20 for both onshore and offshore, 20 percent for us, 80 percent for them. But before it could be finalized they toppled USNO and one of the first things they did was to get Berjaya to agree on a deal that gave them 95 percent of all oil royalties. If Sabah could maintain 20 percent of the oil royalties it would be a very rich state. But BERJAYA sold out on everything. They were puppets.”
Federal leaders and his successors in the State Government called Mustapha’s administration autocratic and dictatorial. Books on Sabah’s contemporary history describe his government as being plagued corruption and economic mismanagement.
“Those who accuse me of being autocratic and dictatorial are the ones committed misdeeds themselves. I was only a scapegoat. I don’t care what people say or write about me. It doesn’t matter. I got 16 seats and came very close to getting another five. After what they wrote and said about me you would think I couldn’t win a seat.
But people are not fools. I ruled by consensus but Harris ruled by brute force. He was a minister in my cabinet but resigned to start his own business and bought a 10,000 acres rubber plantation. He chopped all the trees down, planted it with tapioca. I said to him, ‘Harris, you’re mad. Why cut these trees? But he said tapioca will make more money than rubber.
He said he could sell to Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong. He invited me to inaugurate his factory. After a few months he was bankrupt so he came crying to me. ‘Tun, please help me.’ So I gave him some timber land to cover his outstanding loans with the bank. I got the state land development authority to take over his plantation. He was over extended. I had to keep helping and he kept coming back. Ungrateful.
Harris says that I was a dictator. You can refer to minutes of cabinet meetings of USNO supreme council. It should be all there unless they have burnt them. There were discussions and then consensus. In the party there was democracy. I welcome suggestions.
But sometimes in the party and the cabinet they said ‘No, Tun, you decide. We leave it to you.’ They wanted me to get the impression that they were very loyal to me. I didn’t know it then but I now realize what they were doing. They all wanted to make me happy so that I will give them timber land or some contract. But this is not dictatorship. Under Harris there was no democracy. He forced his decision on people. Before anybody could speak he used to say ‘I have decided that…’ In the party everything was engineered. He used to tell people, you stand for this post, you stand for that, you nominate this man, I’ll get you nominated by that man. If I was a dictator and autocrat you have to find another word for Harris, much worse.
I admit many of my ministers were corrupted. Many close friends were also corrupt. They used my name to do all sorts of hanky-panky. They knew because I am a nice man and I don’t betray my friends, I won’t touch them. That’s how Sabah got this bad reputation of corruption. Most of this hanky-panky went on while I was away. I have family outside. I have so many business interests in London, in Australia, so I have to be away. Most of the ministers and my friends who applied for timber lands got them while I was away. My deputy gave them all. But I have to save his face and the face of others so I can’t do anything. Now they say Mustapha is a bad man. He is corrupt. My mistake was I just closed my eyes when all this was going on. Now my eyes are wide open. Under Harris there was more corruption. It is now all coming out.”
In 1975, Mustapha angry at Kuala Lumpur’s interference and its campaign to trim his powers, threaten to pull Sabah out of Malaysia. At one point he even contemplated joining forces with the Sulu region in the Southern Philippines and Sarawak. Some aides say he toyed with the idea of becoming sultan of an expanded Sulu-Borneo state.
“I never wanted to pull Sabah out of Malaysia. It was all lies perpetuated by the federal government and their agents here. I even appointed a committee to review the question of Sabah’s autonomy under the Malaysia Federation. The committee prepared a report on the things that we were to surrender to the federal government as the 10-year transitionary period under the 1963 agreement was over. I did say once or twice that we should leave Malaysia. It was more of a slip of tongue. Razak kept testing my patience. He provoked me and in anger I said, ‘look, if this sort of thing goes on we will take Sabah out of Malaysia.’ I remember saying if Singapore can be independent we can go too. But it was a slip of tongue under provocation. I was frustrated at the time. But the federal government capitalized on it and played it up. They made me look like a monster. But people know I am not anti-Malaysia. I have done many for Malaysia than many of the people who criticize me. One thing I will not stand is the colonizing of Sabah, whether it is by the federal government or any other country. Nobody can be allowed to colonise Sabah.
I never wanted to merge Sabah with Sarawak or Sulu and Brunei and become sultan. This is the sort of rubbish that has been printed before. It is ridiculous. “Why should I want to become king or sultan? All the power was with the Chief Minister.”
During Mustapha’s rule the issue of the Philippines’ claim to Sabah came to the boil. Amid growing rebellion in the southern Philippines, Mustapha helped form the Moro National Liberation Front. With Mustapha’s help the Muslim rebellion found Arab support.
“As far as I am concerned there is really no claim. It was settled in 1939 by the British chartered company. There is a high court judgement to prove that. I personally stand to benefit if the claim was valid as I am one of the heirs of the Sulu sultan. But I know there is no claim. The federal government I think has a clever policy on the so called claim. They don’t ignore it altogether but they don’t entertain it either. Maybe they want to use it against the Sabah people as a bargaining item to make them behave. If Sabah people do anything they can say ‘Look, we will leave you to the Philippines.’
The story of MNLF is very straightforward. If you and I have a common enemy, will we do anything to help him? No, we will create problems for him. That was how MNLF came [about]. I was not the only one involved. Ghaddafi was involved, Kuala Lumpur was involved, other Muslim countries were involved, and so many people were involved. My role is 10 percent or 20 percent. You look at it this way: the Philippine armed forces were bombing the Sulu people so they came here for shelter. I helped refugee mainly because of human consideration, not political. Later it became a political matter. Even if I was one who created this MNLF it doesn’t mean I was involved in the war. Libya was giving arms. Others were giving money. I was only giving refuge to refugees. I never gave arms to anyone. Not to MNLF, not to anybody. You say arms went through Sabah. Well, I tell you I didn’t give permission to send them from here. Sabah is big state. I can’t be expected to check everybody.”
Early on April 22, Mustapha was sworn in as Sabah Chief Minister after Pairin’s PBS won a majority in the Assembly. Mustapha says Pairin should have been called first to form the government, but says that it’s the governor’s prerogative to call anyone. Mustapha says he was lucky that he was called since he didn’t have a majority. No, he intends to get back the Chief Minister’s seat which he says is rightfully his.
“At 2 a.m. Majid Khan a close friend to Harris came to see me with USNO leader Yahya Lampong and my son Abdul Hamid. They said [Deputy PM] Musa had given the blessing and green light for an USNO-BERJAYA coalition. I have no access to Musa. Even if I had how dare I have someone up at that time to check. I asked Majid Khan, ‘How are we going to form the government? It is USNO 16, Berjaya 6, PBS 26.’ By 2 a.m. I knew the whole result. Majid Khan said there are six nominated seats. I told him we must accept the will of the people. But he kept saying ‘Musa want you to take oath, the governor is waiting. Let’s go now.’ I went to the istana at 2.30 a.m. At about 3.30 a.m. I took the oath. Harris only called Musa at 3.40 a.m. We told the governor that we will be back at 7 a.m. with a list of nominated members and cabinet line-up. Cabinet was supposed to take oath at 7.30 a.m. When we came back to my house Majid Khan insisted he wanted to be appointed one of the six nominated members. BERJAYA would nominate 3, USNO 3. He said in cabinet it would be 4 for BERJAYA, 4 for USNO. I said ‘You are a fool. You win six seats; you want 4 ministers in the cabinet.’ No more discussion. Later in the morning I called Kuala Lumpur and I was told that Musa had already told Harris ‘no coalition with USNO.’ If not for Berjaya’s greed six members would have been nominated and cabinet sworn in at 7.30 a.m. No way could Pairin be sworn in. I tell you I am still the chief minister because the letter revoking my appointment is unconstitutional.”