Memoirs By Malaysian Politicians No True Confessions

Memoirs based on selective amnesia raise more questions than are answered

History probably may not judge almost all of the spate of local Memoirs kindly. These Memoirs by politicians all have common themes marked by selective amnesia.

Lee Lam Thye for example, according to a former Sabah state secretary, allegedly works very little but floods the media with press statements designed to help build up public perceptions on the political personality cult revolving around him. Until Lim Kit Siang responded to the Lee Lam Thye Memoirs, there was no counter narrative on him in the media to demolish the myth of a male version of Mother Teresa.

There’s no counter-narrative on Lee Lam Thye in the media to demolish the myth of a male version of Mother Teresa. If push comes to shove, the Sabahan senior civil servant may make a good material witness and character witness on Lee Lam Thye. See here.

The common themes in the Memoirs arise from starting stories in the middle, looking at only part of a story which suits the convenience of the writer, avoiding true confessions or self-incriminations, and leaving probably nothing but an empty torrent of words and/or diarrhoea of words for posterity.

Form Of Literature

The Memoirs may be a perverse form of literature, viz on characters and moral values, which have to be read between the lines. There are many other stories making the rounds on the writers.

It’s inherent in our nature, more true in the East, to belabour in delusions, indulge in flights of fancy, work the imagination overtime, take liberties with the truth and deny the personal Truth although — in a contradiction in terms — we may seek the truth in spiritual ways.

Life isn’t black and white. It comes in various shades of grey. There are exceptions, qualifiers, caveats, ifs and buts. One size does not fit all.

Knowledge, like money, is intrinsically worthless. It’s skills that matter. If one wants to lie, then be good at it. Otherwise, it’s counterproductive.

The bookshops tell us that local Memoirs don’t do well even when cover prices are slashed for recovering printing costs. Even Memoirs by Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew are gathering dust in the storerooms.

Former journalists have stopped working on documentation. The books don’t sell and reality quickly sinks in. The failure to tell the truth comes at a very high cost.

Best Seller

Wannabe politician and former Attorney General Tommy Thomas’, “My Story: Justice in the Wilderness”, may be an exception, considering that the book hit the best seller list within days.

The book’s worth may lie in the criticism of the Attorney General’s Chambers, the legal fraternity, the court, judiciary, government, politicians and all and sundry.

I stand corrected but not on Syrian Christian. The Thomas recall on the history of Christianity and Hinduism in Kerala, southwest India, being full of holes, may have been taken from erroneous Hindu sources. See here.

Mustapha Harun

An aborted biography on Mustapha Harun may help keep the culture of Memoirs in perspective.

After I was commissioned by Mustapha to write his biography, I resolved against writing the Memoirs of any politician.

Mustapha related so many stories full of holes during the brief 21 days that I spent interviewing him over three months. It made the head spin because there were too many gaps to plug.

Writers in the West usually get access to intelligence files and declassified documents. I abandoned the exercise in futility.

Eddie Sequerah, my colleague at AsiaWeek, prophesied that I would regret not writing Mustapha’s Memoirs. He arranged the commission in return for being mentioned on the book cover as co-writer.

The commission letter on the Mustapha biography read, “by Joe Fernandez and Eddie Sequerah”. Then, the letter read, “by Eddie Sequerah and Joe Fernandez”.

That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Another AsiaWeek Writer

Sequerah contacted MGG Pillai, another AsiaWeek colleague, to write the book. Pillai agreed to write the book provided Sequerah or someone else did all the interviews and research.

The latter mentioned my interviews. Pillai wanted the notes on them.

Sequerah came back. He demanded that I hand over all the notes on the interviews with Mustapha. I asked him about the rumours in town that he had secured another letter from Mustapha, mentioning my name, and collected RM450K from Jeffrey Kitingan to sponsor the book.

He denied it angrily. He wanted a meeting with Jeffrey on the matter. I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

In an about-turn, he offered to pay me RM50K in ten installments, each time RM5K, after I fax him some chapters of the book.

I advised him to keep the RM50K and write the book.

Sequerah sent a thug after me to collect the notes of my interviews with Mustapha. I told the thug the whole story about the Mustapha book. He never came back.

Sequerah has moved on. It’s said that we should not talk ill of the dead. We are not talking ill of him. The story must be set straight as a matter of public record although, it’s said, that there are no secrets in Sabah.

The last time I saw Sequerah was after Mustapha passed away in 1995 after suffering an asthma attack. He was on an escalator at a shopping complex in Kota Kinabalu. He turned around suddenly, smiled from the distance and waved.

To this day, I have yet to ask Jeffrey about the RM450K. No one in Sabah can whisper that I took the RM450K and didn’t write the book. It defies logic although dead men tell no tales.

Long Term Memories

Much water has passed under the bridge. I have no regrets about not writing Mustapha’s Memoirs. He never kept notes and diaries. Otherwise, he would have handed them over.

His memory was faulty and he may have resorted literally, or inadvertently, to making things up. Some of the things that he said, based on long term memories, maybe more accurate unless he took liberties with the truth.

He denied the contents of a letter which Peter Mojuntin wrote to Tun Abdul Razak. The letter is in “The Golden Son of the Kadazan” by Bernard Sta Maria.

The book stays banned in print probably because of the letter. It was a litany of complaints on forced conversions, especially in the Ranau area, and how Mustapha dealt with foreign priests in Sabah, among other issues.

Based on personal testimonies, these forced conversions have come back to haunt Sabah. Many “new” Muslim have reportedly gone back to their old ways but the religion in the MyKad hasn’t been corrected. They pour out their woes on social media.

It appears that Sabah has an extraordinarily high number of apostates.

Mustapha’s Legacy

In the wake of Mustapha’s legacy, there are many cases on religion in the High Court of Borneo. In law, the High Court has no jurisdiction if applicants say that they want Islam to be dropped from the MyKad and substituted with another religion.

The court cannot get into theology. It’s only about law.

The High Court can consider an application involving religion if the applicant first fills a correction form at the National Registration Department (NRD). The form must request that details on religion be left blank.

If the NRD denies the correction form, the applicant can Apply for Leave for Judicial Review and file, at the same time, the application for Judicial Review on the matter. In law, the High Court can order the NRD to remove religion from the MyKad.

Before Malaysia, there were no inter-faith conversions in Sabah upon marriage.

Illegal Immigrants

Conversions aside, Mustapha denied that he was the main person behind the influx of illegal immigrants in Sabah. He claimed that as chief minister before 1976, he only allowed 1, 200 Sulu refugees from the Philippines to enter Sabah.

He lamented that a letter on this authorisation was used repeatedly, 1, 200 people at a time, to allow thousands to enter the territory and secure the IMM13 pass which ensures legal residence.

IMM13 holders don’t need a work permit. Banks however do not accept the document to open an account. Those affected keep their savings in gold.

Other snippets from the aborted Mustapha Memoirs, worth recalling, may make useful reading.

He prided himself on his command of English and wondered why local graduates were lacking in the language. He began life as an office boy after dropping out in Year 1 in Sabah.

Sequerah said that Mustapha was born on a nearby island in the Philippines.

Mustapha confirmed that Orang Asal leader Donald Stephens never wanted Malaysia. The latter visited the Suluk leader in London, where the Year 1 dropout was attending a short course in the English language. They discussed independence for North Borneo.

Mustapha cautioned that the British would never agree. In retrospect, as related by Mustapha, he called Tunku Abdul Rahman when Malaya was about to get independence on 31 Aug 1957.

Tunku felt that North Borneo could not join the Federation of Malaya since the former territory “was so far away” and besides it was not in the peninsula.


In 1962, at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Singapore, Tunku disclosed the plans for Malaysia which covered North Borneo, Sarawak, Brunei, and Singapore as well. Ironically, Mustapha from the Philippines may have been the real Father of Malaysia.

He may have been worried about the future of the local Muslim community in a territory which was 80 per cent non-Muslim. Malaysia may have been Mustapha’s idea of ensuring that the Muslims had a place in the sun after the British left Sabah.

The term Sabah, said Mustapha, was a kind of banana. The Datu (traditional chiefs) from Sulu saw many Sabah plants in the Lahad Datu area where they first landed.

They called the place Sabah. The Sulu sultanate’s claim to Sabah refers to the Lahad Datu area and by extension to Tawau and the eastern seaboard stretching northwards beyond Sandakan.

Tunku wasn’t very happy with the close relationship between Mustapha and Stephens. He cautioned that Stephens would one day kill Mustapha “politically”.

The caution followed Mustapha turning up in Kuala Lumpur and proposing that Stephens be sent to Australia as High Commissioner.

Mustapha got the idea after he saw Stephens walking in town, one day, near the Capital Hotel in Kota Kinabalu. The Suluk leader stopped his car and offered to send Stephens home.

On the way, they discussed Stephen’s proposed appointment.

In 1976, Stephens returned from Australia and led the Berjaya Party to victory over Mustapha’s Usno (United Sabah National Organisation).

Usno, in recent days, joined the ruling Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition.

The Mustapha biography may finally be out. I haven’t read it. – New Malaysia Herald

About the writerLongtime Borneo watcher Joe Fernandez keeps a keen eye on Malaysia as a legal scholar (jurist). He was formerly Chief Editor of Sabah Times. He’s not to be mistaken for a namesake previously with Daily Express. References to his blog articles can be found here.

The points expressed in this article are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the New Malaysia Herald.

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