Hannah Yeoh on balancing politics, family life

by Gan Pei Ling, 22 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

HANNAH Yeoh made history when she was sworn in as the youngest, first female state speaker in the country at the age of 34 on June 22, 2013. She also became a mother after giving birth to her second child earlier that year.

Barely a few months into her term though, the new Selangor speaker was thrown into the deep end when PKR initiated the controversial “Kajang move” to remove Khalid Ibrahim as the Selangor menteri besar.

“That was probably the most challenging time in my five years as speaker,” Yeoh told The Malaysian Insight at her office in Shah Alam.

Nonetheless, the political dramas that ensued did not distract a focused and driven Yeoh to cement the legislative reforms her predecessor Teng Chang Khim had initiated.

In 2014, the Selangor assembly amended its standing orders to make it compulsory for the opposition leader to be made the Public Accounts Committee chairman.

The state assembly also amended its standing orders to make it mandatory to broadcast live its proceedings and to give the opposition leader a last chance to speak at the end of a sitting by introducing opposition time.

Although Selangor Barisan Nasional has not made full use of these opportunities, Yeoh said it is still important for her to push through these democratic changes to set the Selangor assembly apart from the others.

“An opportunity like this doesn’t come to an ordinary girl my age. I wanted to make full use of the time and prove that a woman can perform when we are given the opportunity to do so.”

She also introduced Adun Muda (youth assemblyman), allowing youth age between 18 and 24 to experience debating in the state assembly.

“The experience is unique to them. The whole idea is to make the state assembly a more human place. If we want to encourage young people to become lawmakers, we have to start them young.”

If there is any regret for Yeoh, it would be the failure to push through the Selangor Legislative Assembly Service Commission Enactment (Selesa) 2009 that would restore the state assembly’s financial independence.

Yeoh, who won Subang Jaya seat by 13,851 votes and 28,069 votes in 2008 and 2013, said she is contented with being an assemblyman and has no aim to become a member of parliament.

Here, she shares the challenges of being a female politician and the wisdom she has gained after a decade in politics.

TMI: Do you face challenges to your job as a speaker because of your sex?

Yeoh: Thankfully, no. I never saw it as a disadvantage. The only thing I didn’t like is the costume of the speaker. I requested for the height of the songkok to be lowered so that I look like a woman. It’s not feminine enough, that’s my only complaint.

Also, when I attended official functions with my husband, they didn’t know how to treat him. He was with the wives of the other excos (executive councillors). It was awkward in the beginning.

TMI: How is the relationship between you and the menteri besar?

Yeoh: I think it’s a healthy tension that every speaker needs to have with the head of the executive. I will be more worried if the speaker feels indebted to the head of the executive.

Azmin Ali is a very hands-on menteri besar. He is always in the house. He takes down notes as the assemblymen are debating.

The house becomes a real platform for assemblymen to raise issues when they know the head of executive is there listening.

I think Selangor and Penang have also worked out a good model where the head of legislative and executive come from different parties.

TMI: You joined politics in 2008. It has been almost 10 years. Can you share some of the key lessons learnt?

Yeoh: I think politics have done a lot of good for my soul. My stress level is a lot better compared with when I was a lawyer.

Last time, I would have been easily stressed out by a nasty email. Now I have learnt not to take it personally. You know you have to deal with malicious lies and full-time cybertroopers who will use your faith as a weapon against you.

After I gave birth, I gained weight and they would always choose the fattest photo, who would want that permanently on the internet?

(But) when you are faced with this kind of challenges every day, you have to force yourself to remain sane. You cannot be stressed out.

You have to be very disciplined at what you carry at the back of your head when you go home. I’m also a mother and a wife, if I allow that kind of stress to affect me then I cannot function as a mother.

As a working mother, when I’m at work, I feel guilty for not being with my children and when I’m with my children, I feel guilty for not being at work. I don’t know whether other working women have that kind of tension within them, but I definitely do.

TMI: Have your children or husband complained?

Yeoh: My children are not old enough yet to physically stop me from going out. But they have asked me why do I have to work at night.

Weekends are supposed to be family time but as a politician, we are expected to work over the weekend.

My husband always says we have to be fair to our kids. They never signed up for a public life. Finding the work-life balance is crucial.

I have not been the perfect mother. There is a lot of room for improvement. It’s still work in progress.

TMI: Is your husband supportive?

Yeoh: I don’t think I can find a more supportive spouse in my role as an assemblyman and as a speaker.

I think it’s crucial for women in politics to have a spouse who is equally interested in politics. I can discuss politics with my husband.

I tell a lot of single women who want to join politics, you have to make sure your spouse will understand you. The work is very demanding and time consuming.

I think with the right support structure – family, spouse, party and coalition, you can flourish.

TMI: Does this mean you will stay in politics?

Yeoh: I will continue for as long as I’m needed. I think the danger of people who see politics as their life calling is that you can overstay when the people don’t want you any more.

There are a lot of politicians who feel entitled, that they need to continue, that the nation needs them. I actually look forward to the time when I’m no longer needed.

There are some politicians who don’t know what to do if they are not in politics. I don’t ever want to be that. I don’t want to change who I am just to win power or win votes.

I surround myself with people who can still speak to me and tell me to my face “no you’re doing the wrong thing”. (Laughs) I have a lot of friends like that. It keeps you grounded. It’s so important.

Don’t change your friends when you’re in power.

The green warrior fighting to save our forests

by Gan Pei Ling, 18 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

ARRESTED, stonewalled by state agencies and politely shunned by friends and politicians, outspoken environmentalist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil has colourful tales to tell of her thankless role as a defender of the forest.

Since setting up the Association for the Protection of Malaysia’s Natural Heritage (Peka) in 2010, Shariffa Sabrina has waged “war” against deforestation in Kelantan, Pahang, Johor, Selangor and Penang.

But it’s a lonely battle that she and very few like her are fighting.

“When we meet the Forestry Department, they always say their hands are tied. When we meet the federal government, they say forests are under the state governments.

“We’re often treated like ping-pongs,” she told The Malaysian Insight.

In late 2016, the 55-year-old and her assistant Norhayati Shahrom were arrested and remanded for allegedly making insulting remarks against the Johor ruler.

“We were thrown in a lock-up and treated like criminals just because we asked why the last permanent forest reserve in Mersing is being degazetted to plant oil palm,” she said.

“Our forests are like ATM machines for some people. They think logging is a fast way to make money. Once the forests are cleared up, how are you going to make money?

“And what do you get from logging? Can you make the rakyat rich? (The) Pahang (government) is still in debt. The Kelantan people are still poor.”

Lonely fight

Over the years, the owner of the award-winning Tanah Aina Resorts in Pahang said she has tried in vain to pitch to state governments the idea of adopting eco-tourism as a means of sustainable development over logging.

Peka’s success in halting logging activities around Fraser’s Hill in Pahang last year is one of the environmental watchdog’s rare victories in its struggle for nature conservation.

“Eco-tourism is sustainable even though it takes a longer time to develop. You also provide long-term jobs for the locals as tour guides and hospitality staff,” said Shariffa Sabrina, citing Taman Negara as one of the successful examples of eco-tourism.

When asked whether some of her friends from wealthy and influential backgrounds have backed her environmental campaigns, Shariffa Sabrina’s answer was in the negative.

“They just say what I’m doing is good. Full stop. They won’t go beyond.”

Instead, she said, the answer to halting unrestrained deforestation lies in the power of the people.

“The only solutions I can find are the voices from the rakyat. Society, residents of the kampung should come out and go against destruction of green lungs like (the those in Taman Tun Dr Ismail did for) Bukit Kiara.

“If we’re strong together to go against deforestation, the government will think twice (before cutting down forests).”

The certified patisserie chef and fitness instructor draws motivation to fight the unpopular battle against environmental wrongdoings from her love for the forests.

“I look at things differently… My parents divorced when I was four years old. I never had a mother’s love. My mother left me.

“Two things made me happy (growing up): playing sports and trekking in the forests.

“When you go back to nature, it makes you feel very serene, peaceful and happy,” said the feisty Penangite wistfully.

“It gives us so much of benefit, why are we destroying it?”

A 30-year-old love letter to Chandra Muzaffar

by Gan Pei Ling, 28 Oct 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

DR Chandra Muzaffar has carried a handwritten letter in his wallet for the past 30 years‎.

Imagine that. Prime ministers have come and gone, laws have been repealed, and Malaysia is unrecognisable from 1987, but ‎that letter has been preserved like treasure.

It is from his daughter, then eight years old. She was writing to give him hope and love while he was detained under the Internal Security Act. ‎He has kept the letter all this while to remind him of the loving support he received from his family during the 52-day ordeal.

He proudly shows it to The Malaysian Insight. Yellowed and torn at the sides, it reads:

“Dearest Abah, I miss you. I hope you will come back early. I didn’t go to school for 4 days. Every time I pray for your safety.

“We went on Wednesday but they won’t let us in. We gave you same things. I hope you got the things.

“Abah dont worry, you will be safe. I cant go and meat you. but soon I will go and meat you. I cannot go there becoes on the way back mama will go thear. thear wil not do anything you. dont werry. Good bye Abah i love you.”

Chandra was among 106 individuals detained under the 1987 Operasi Lalang, a police crackdown allegedly to prevent racial clashes after group confrontations over vernacular education and other hot button issues.

Chandra was the founder of Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran), a multi-ethnic reform group in Malaysia for justice, freedom and solidarity.

He was picked up at home in Bayan Baru, Penang, on October 27, 1987. His wife and two daughter were with him.

He said he had anticipated the government crackdown a month before it took place and had warned his Aliran colleagues to be prepared.

Now the chairman of Yayasan 1Malaysia, Chandra said he had forgiven those responsible for his detention and moved on.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

TMI: Why were you detained?

Chandra: I think in some aspects, Aliran was perhaps the most vocal of the emerging middle-class urban intelligentsia that was increasingly vocal about several issues. Aliran was emblematic of the growing dissent.

I think Operasi Lalang was an attempt to curb dissenting voices. This was reflected in their line of questioning during interrogation.

TMI: What did they ask you?

Chandra: They were basically not happy with dissent. They tried to implicate me in opposition politics. It didn’t work.

I was interviewed twice by the then Inspector-General of Police Hanif Omar and the Special Branch chief Abdul Rahim Noor.

Based on the questions asked, I think there was a lack of appreciation for the role of dissent in democracy. In a democracy, you really should have no need to justify peaceful dissent.

That was Aliran’s work. We organised forums, seminars, conferences and wrote articles.

They were worried even though we did not have the support of the masses or the political parties. It was nothing like Bersih today.

TMI: Did they ask you questions not related to dissent?

Chandra: They asked me why I did not appreciate what the government did. This shouldn’t have been an issue as in all my statements, I would acknowledge the good and positive things that the government did. We welcome what is good and critique what is bad. That’s democracy.

But I saw that they were uneasy with dissent. Security and stability issues were used as camouflage, to perpetuate the position of the power holders at that time. That was clear to me.

I can say now that during my detention, they wanted me to see (then prime minister) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad). Hanif wanted to arrange the meeting.

I suspect Dr Mahathir was unhappy with the dissenting voices and my role in Aliran. I have reason to believe that was the reason Hanif wanted to arrange the meeting. But I turned it down.

I told Hanif it was not right for me to meet Dr Mahathir because he was a free citizen and I was under detention. I was not in a situation to make decisions. Hanif accepted my stand.

TMI: Were you mistreated?

Chandra: For 10 days there was no communication with the outside world except with the interrogators. After that they allowed family visits. That in itself was abuse, the solitary confinement.

To be fair to the police, there was no attempt at physical or verbal abuse. I was released on December 18, 1987.

I had three affidavits submitted on my behalf, asking for my release, from Dr Tan Chee Khoon, and (former prime ministers) Hussein Onn and Tunku Abdul Rahman. The three individuals succeeded in making a point.

I think that was also one of the reasons the IGP interrogated me. I was brought down from Penang to Kuala Lumpur (for questioning).

The police also tried to (insinuate that) I had Marxist leanings. I told them I was critical of Marxism and liberalism, even though there were good ideas in both ideologies.

TMI: The police picked you up from your house?

Chandra: My wife, my two daughters and I, we were coming back from town in the car. There was a car that was following us. They must have followed us for quite a while. I was staying in Bayan Baru.

We entered the house. They said, ‘you are under arrest under ISA.’ I asked them for the warrant, which they had. They were very sheepish.

They took a number of books from my library. My wife got ready a few things to put into a bag, toiletries and prayer mat and stuff like that.

I told them it was Maghrib already and they allowed me to do my prayers before they took me away.

TMI: You mentioned Operasi Lalang was a setback to democracy and peaceful dissent. Have we recovered from it?

Chandra: The best barometer is the media. The media was undoubtedly targeted. It was tamed by that operation. There have been amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act. Has the media become bolder, braver? I don’t think so.

The amendments mean they don’t have to renew their license annually. But most newspapers, partly due to media ownership and editors (being) very cautious, still toe the line.

You have a situation like 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd), but the newspapers are presenting it as a fight between two individuals (Dr Mahathir versus Najib Razak) when it is not. It is about something far more important – integrity, and they transformed it into a personality issue.

From that point of view, I don’t think we have recovered.

(As for) civil society, they became quiet after the crackdown, but I think they have made a comeback.

TMI: Dr Kua Kia Soong is asking Dr Mahathir to apologise, but Hanif Omar and Rahim Noor say Dr Mahathir is not responsible for Operasi Lalang. Do you think he should apologise?

Chandra: It does not serve any purpose. I have suggested that Dr Mahathir be introspective and look at himself and his career – the good and bad things he has done.

TMI: You say Dr Mahathir doesn’t have to apologise. Does that mean you have forgiven him?

Chandra: There is no bitterness. I have interacted with him quite a bit.

There are some people who still want to carry the wounds, but I don’t think that’s the way.

Running Selangor

by Gan Pei Ling / 7 December 2012 © Selangor Times

DATUK Mohammed Khusrin Munawi reported to work amidst fierce dispute between the federal and state government over his appointment as the state secretary on Jan 3, 2010.

Having served at district offices, local councils and the state secretariat extensively, the 56-year-old is well acquainted with the nuts and bolts of the Selangor civil service.

But the Menteri Besar and his executive council (Exco) had then opposed Khusrin’s appointment as it was done by the federal-led Public Service Commission (PSC) without consultation.

Khusrin's profile

Almost two years down the road, Selangor Times spoke to Khusrin at his office on Nov 26 to find out how he has coped with the job thus far.

The father-of-four gives us a glimpse into his working life as the chief public servant in Selangor. He spoke candidly about the challenges he faces in tackling inefficiencies and corruption in a 25,000-strong state machinery.

Can you share with us what your main responsibilities are  as a state secretary?

We have 41 standing committees chaired by exco members on various subjects in Selangor. My main task is to coordinate and make sure state officers implement policies and projects approved by the state and federal government according to procedures and the time given.

How many employees are under the state?

We have about 25,000 people working in state agencies, the 12 local councils, nine district and land offices, PKNS (Selangor State Development Corporation) and PKPS (Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation).

They all report to you? 


What about other state-owned companies like KDEB (Kumpulan Darul Ehsan Bhd), SSIC (Selangor State Investment Centre Bhd) and such?

They report to the Menteri Besar but I’m also on their board of directors.

So what’s a day like for a state secretary?

I have meetings almost every day. Every Wednesday I have to attend the exco meeting and Thursday the MTES (Selangor Economic Action Council) meeting. So I only have three days in a week to meet with my officers, supervise, follow-up and make sure decisions made by the exco are implemented.

At the state secretariat

At the state secretariat

I have a post-exco meeting every Thursday morning to convey the exco’s decisions to the heads of department. Sometimes actions need to be taken immediately so we don’t wait for the minutes to act.

Every month I also have a meeting with all the district officers, local council presidents and mayors.

How is the exco meeting different from the MTES meeting?

The exco meeting on Wednesday is exclusive for exco members. We discuss papers prepared by state departments, UPEN (State Economic Planning Unit) on policies or district officers on land matters.

Issues that we cannot solve in exco meetings, we bring to MTES. We invite the stakeholders to MTES meeting. It’s more open. Let’s say we have a LRT (Light Rail Transit) project, we call the company to give a briefing, and the local council president, district officer and residents involved, whether they agree with the alignment and try to solve the problem.

We give an opportunity for everyone to air their views at MTES meetings before making any decision.

When we receive complaints from the public, MTES is where we bring the complainants and the state will listen to the communities’ grouses.

I see, right, I remember there were MTES meetings on the high tension cable projects in Rawang and Cheras?

Yes, we also call the state assemblypersons and members of Parliaments involved to voice their concerns.

Okay, what are the main challenges that you face in your job?

Compared to previous governments, it’s more challenging (for public servants now) because the current Menteri Besar wants everything to be transparent.

As Tan Sri (Khalid Ibrahim) often says, the public has a right to know what we do and Selangor is a developed state so most people know their rights. They want to know the reasons behind decisions made, not just by the state government but local governments as well.

And starting Jan 1, we will implement the FOI (Freedom of Information Enactment), so it will become even more challenging (for the public service). Most importantly we must always be transparent, we cannot hide things from the public.

There are still public complaints that the civil service is inefficient and unfriendly? What is being done to address this?

We have done a lot (to improve and streamline). For example, even though the federal government requires us to reimburse claims made within 14 days, in Selangor we have managed to shorten the period to three days. We process 80% of the claims from contractors or suppliers within three days. That’s our achievement in speeding up the public delivery system.

Also, previously it took weeks or months for the district and land office to approve the transfer of land titles, now if you want to sell your land you can get the approval within one day. Now operators of risk-free businesses (such as stationery and convenience stores) can get their licence within an hour of application.

Is this because the application process has been computerised?

Yes and we simplify the process by using checklists and make the process transparent. Now the public can also pay their quit rent and assessment tax through online banking or at post offices.

We are trying to improve the public delivery system, it’s an ongoing process.

But sometimes we still receive residents’ complaints that local or state authorities do not respond to their problems in time?

That I do not deny, there are still lower officers that procrastinate and delay the processes. We try our best to improve but public expectations are high and there is a lot that needs to be done.

We award departments or agencies that have provided the best services with RM25,000 cash grants to encourage them to continuously improve their delivery system. It’s up to the departmental chiefs whether they want to use the reward to organise a feast or trip for their staff.

What have you achieved over the past two years? Are you satisfied with your own performance?

There are many things still that I have to do, to say if I’m satisfied, I’m not. There are many things that still can be improved such as the speed we respond to complaints, procrastination and non-compliance of rules and regulations among civil servants.

I plan to go down to the ground to conduct spot checks next year because we have received complaints that our officers are not at the service counters. There have also been complaints that our officers are unfriendly and some rural villagers were scolded when they go to local or state departments.

The villagers came from afar because they have a problem they want us to solve, we shouldn’t add to their problems. This sort of incidents shouldn’t happen again. I was even told some were eating while serving the public. (Frowns) There is a code of ethics to how we should entertain the public. Our officers must always be ready to serve.

We are also trying to get Chinese and Indian officers to serve villagers that cannot speak Bahasa fluently. Public expectations are high so public servants cannot be complacent and laidback anymore.

If something cannot be done, we must train our officers to tell the truth. For example TOL (Temporary Occupation License) application on road or river reserve cannot be approved according to state policy. I have instructed our officers not to sell any plans and tell the applicants upfront such land applications will not be approved by the state. We have to explain nicely even if they were to get angry because that’s the state policy.

What about corruption complaints against the civil service? How serious do you view the problem and what steps are being taken to address it?

We still receive complaints about corruption but not many. We have a report from MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) every two months. The amount of investigation cases and arrests have reduced over the years. Compared to the private sector, cases involving the public service are fewer.

It also helps that now we have a very clear policy of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. No lobbying is allowed unlike last time. With low profit margin, contractors also cannot afford to give bribes.

Still, I view this problem seriously and we work closely with MACC in sand-mining operations and raids on massage parlours. We invite them to be part of the team (as observers).

Corruption is between the person who receives (the pay-off) and the person who bribes, so we hope the public can report to MACC.

What about local enforcement officers? Many graft allegations from the public implicate them.

It’s not easy to find evidence and catch them. We need proof. I think if we can simplify the work processes, with a checklist and very clear SOP (standard operating procedures), then few can manipulate it. If the process is complicated, then it may leave loopholes and room for corruption.

For instance, the problem with the enforcement process for illegal cybercafes is that the errant operators have bargaining power. They can appeal to the enforcement officer to reduce their fines according to the bylaws. That’s why we insist MACC officers to be on site during the raids because we don’t want the bargaining process to happen and open the doors for bribery. The enforcement officers must also go in one team instead of one, two persons. It’s harder to bribe an entire team.

It’s not just in local governments, any enforcement department must have clear SOP and close supervision of the subordinates to reduce opportunities for corruption. There will always be staff who try to exploit the loopholes.

Also, every civil servant has to declare his or her assets before accepting a job confirmation and promotion.

What if they choose not to declare or try to hide?

We can take disciplinary action against them if they failed to declare their assets. Last time it was hard to enforce this rule because we collect the information manually but now everything is in the computer system. If you sold your house or bought a new car, you have to update the system.

How is your relationship with the Menteri Besar and exco now?

I have no problem with the Menteri Besar or the exco members. There may be some negative perception in the beginning but it’s not that they don’t accept me but the way of appointment. The PSC appointed me without consulting the state government, that was the main issue. According to the state constitution, the state government should be consulted on the appointment of state secretary, legal adviser and financial officer.

As a government servant, I serve as a professional to the government of the day and make sure all state policies are implemented and followed by the state’s civil service. Politicians come and go. Regardless of the political parties in power, we as government servants must implement the policies as long as they are within the laws and regulations.

As a civil servant, do you face challenges dealing with politicians? For example, sometimes they may not understand SOP in the public service?

We had a few problems before. Previously some exco members made direct purchases without approval from the state treasury and exco. But we have explained to them we must adhere to treasury instructions.

We have a procedure. Before making a purchase, we must have a budget and approval from the exco or state financial officer. Let’s say we want to buy T-shirts for students, we cannot just walk into a shop and buy. We have to get at least give five quotations, compare the prices and buy from the supplier with the lowest price. The supplier must be licensed and registered with the Finance Ministry as well.

We need to get the state financial officer’s approval if we want to make direct purchases. They were new (to being in the government) so some of them didn’t understand but now they are okay.

If we failed to adhere to the procedures, the MACC and auditor-general will be after the civil servants, not the politicians. They come and go. We will be held answerable because we are the ones who sign the cheques and purchase orders.

Even the allocations for state lawmakers, we have guidelines on what and how it can be spent. We have to tell them when they fail to follow the guidelines.

So far the assemblypersons have been compliant?

Yes, they also do not want the MACC or auditors to investigate them right?

Any message you want to add to the public?

I still receive many complaints from the public about our officers but I hope they can remain polite when communicating their grouses.

For example, I’m receiving more than 10 emails a day from a complainant hurling personal insults at the Petaling Jaya mayor for the traffic congestion problem at Kelana Idaman. There are already plans to widen the road but the project will take some time to implement, to acquire the land and get the allocation for the construction.

Some members of the public refuse to understand even after we have explained. We have our limitations too, we are not Aladdin. It’s demoralising when receive personal insults like these.

We are here to serve and we will try our best to resolve your problems but please be polite.

The hushed riot of Sabah

News reports of the riot

by Gan Pei Ling / 14 Sept 2012 © Selangor Times

DID you know there was a riot in Sabah in 1986? Fish bombs were detonated at cities and towns. Buildings burned. Cars flipped over. Five people died. However, no one was held responsible and the instigators got away.

“I want people to know that it happened,” local filmmaker-writer Nadira Ilana, who wasn’t even born when the incident took place, told Selangor Times in an exclusive interview on Sept 7.

The 25-year-old Sino-Dusun from Kota Kinabalu only found out about the riot from her father last year. It inspired her to research the mayhem and subsequently submit a proposal to Pusat Komas to turn it into a documentary.

“The riot only happened in Sabah but the story is relevant to the entire country. It shows what could happen after the fall of a political regime,” she said.

Nadira’s 30-minute film “The Silent Riot”, also known as “Rusuhan Tersembunyi” in Bahasa Malaysia, will be shown at the PJ Live Arts Theatre, Jaya One next Saturday in conjunction with the Freedom Arts Fest.

She shares some information about the cause of the riot, the politicians and civilians who lived through it and how she feels about this black episode in Sabah’s history.

Can you give us some background about the riot, how did it happen?

It started in 1985 when PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah, then an opposition party) first came to power. The previous ruling party, Parti Berjaya, had became increasingly unpopular among Sabahans. So [Tan Sri] Joseph Pairin Kitingan, then Berjaya’s deputy president, left the party to form PBS.

PBS was registered 47 days before the state elections in 1985. It formed a secret coalition with Usno (United Sabah National Organisation), which was headed by Tun Mustapha [Harun], to topple Berjaya.

Berjaya had swept 44 out of 48 seats in the 1981 elections so they were confident. But when the election results were announced on the midnight of April 22, 1985, PBS had won 25 seats, Usno 16 and Berjaya only had six.

Usno tried to contact PBS but there was a communication breakdown. In a panic, Usno called up Berjaya to form a coalition straight away. They then raced to the Istana to swear in Tun Mustapha as the Chief Minister. He was sworn in at 4am but was removed on the same day as the appointment was illegal. Pairin was sworn in as the rightful Chief Minister at 8pm the same night.

Did the riot begin then?

Not yet. Tun Mustapha filed an injunction against the State Governor. As far as Usno and Berjaya were concerned, he was still the Chief Minister. They didn’t want fresh elections. They were afraid PBS would win again. The riots didn’t happen until March 1986 just as the court verdict was to be announced.

Fish bombs did start going off in Kota Kinabalu and the other towns from May 29, 1985 but the incidents were sparse. These bombs were meant to shock people, not to kill or harm. But if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could get hurt.

What happened in March 1986?

On the first day of demonstrations, about 1,000 Usno supporters gathered in front of the Kota Kinabalu High Court. That’s when several fish bombs started going off throughout town. A curfew was imposed for 39 days. There were other smaller demonstrations and arson attacks in Sandakan and Tawau too.

The demonstrators, led by Usno and Berjaya leaders, took to the streets of Kota Kinabalu to protest Pairin’s appointment because he was Christian. The anomaly was that a majority of the demonstrators were Filipino Muslims – many undocumented and legally unable to vote.

Many Sabahan Muslims didn’t have a problem with Pairin and supported him.

The demonstrators were given food, money and they stayed at the state mosque with their wives and children for a week. They were being used. These people were incredibly impoverished. Many of them were political or economic refugees from the Philippines. They fled to Sabah in the 1970s to escape the conflict in Mindanao. Tun Mustapha, being a Muslim Bajau-Suluk, was the first to open Sabah’s gates to them. (He served as the Chief Minister from 1967 to 1975.) So a lot of them felt indebted to Tun Mustapha and were demonstrating on his behalf.

Tun Mustapha led the demonstrations at the mosque?

Not himself although he did address them personally at the mosque. It was mostly Usno leaders who led the demonstrations in Kota Kinabalu. The smaller ones outside of town were led by Berjaya members.

So the riot started on March 13, 1986?

Burnt vehicles in KK

Several bombs went off in a span of two hours that day. Parents panicked and went to fetch their children from schools. There was tear gas from the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) who was trying to contain the situation. Cars were being flipped over by demonstrators. They were also throwing rocks into shop windows.

People were terrified. By 10.30am the city was empty.

My father told me he was walking from his office to visit a friend when a bomb went off a few yards away from him at an Esso station. The roof collapsed and the windows shattered. He ran down the street and another bomb went off under his colleague’s car.

That must have been scary.

I was taken aback by how casual my dad was when he spoke about it. I was like “What?!” and he was like “It’s just a little bomb.” It’s scary to think that he could have been hurt. When I asked if people could die from the bombs, he said “Yeah, I guess but we didn’t die.”

After that I asked a lot of people about it and I think most of them have forgotten that it was a big deal. The newspapers weren’t censored. Their reporting was actually quite detailed. But the people who experienced it…They no longer talked about it. Maybe they don’t want to think about it. I don’t know how they came to terms with what happened.

Some people denied there was a riot. They told me “it was just a demonstration”. Someone even told me “yeah there were bombs but it’s Sabah, not Bosnia.” I thought: “Wow, these people are tough.”

Most of the people from my generation don’t know anything about the riot.

Five people died right? Was anyone caught and held responsible for the bombs and arson attacks?

img_2014It was estimated that 1,763 people were arrested during that period but they were all released after about a month. A newspaper vendor, fisherman, carpenter and two unnamed women died but who will stand up for them?

People suspect that the riot was manufactured to create a state of emergency so that the federal government can come in but that never happened. (The federal government had previously stepped in and proclaimed emergency in response to political turmoils in Sarawak in 1966 and Kelantan in 1977.)

Instead, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad proposed a peace formula whereby PBS, Usno and Berjaya should form a coalition but this never came to fruition. Pairin dissolved the state assembly and Sabah underwent another election in 1986.

It was quite commendable that PBS kept their cool and kept the locals out of the riot.

Who did you interview for your film?

A mixture of politicians and civilians. People who were there, especially petrol station operators. A lot of petrol stations were attacked.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Who were the politicians?

Tan Sri Herman Luping who was the adviser to PBS at that time. Datuk Yahya Lampong, a former Usno member. And Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor from Berjaya. He was state Finance Minister in Sabah.

What were the challenges you faced in making the documentary?

It’s the first time I’m doing a documentary. I’m more accustomed to narrative films. I only have 30 minutes but I wish I had more time. There’s so much to this story.

What were some of the things you wish you could have included in the film?

I wanted to include why Berjaya lost in the 1985 elections, add more interviews with civilians. When Usno first lost to Berjaya in the 1976 elections, there were fish bombs too, but not to the scale of in 1986.

I also had to cut out one of the interviews I did with a friend who was in school on that day. Demonstrators were marching past her school. Students were frantically trying to get home. The demonstrators surrounded her school van and rocked it. They were holding rocks, pieces of wood and chanting loudly. She was only 14.

They managed to get away. She thinks it’s funny now but back then she said she thought she was going to die that day.

So what do you think about the entire episode after making the documentary?

I will never join politics! (Laughs) I think my job as a filmmaker is hard enough. As a storyteller, I can’t control how people will react to my story. It will take a life of its own once I put it out there. But I hope people will respond by having constructive discussions rather than reactive ones.

I’m not interested in pointing fingers but I do want people to know what happened and acknowledge this incident as part of Malaysia’s history.

I feel that the best way for us to move forward as a society is to be honest with ourselves, about our past no matter how dark. It’s part of who we are and we grow from these collective experiences. That’s why we value history.