Even a stone speaks in Sabah

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    OUTSPOKEN: It may sound strange, but it is true. In Sabah, even a stone speaks and speaks loudly when the repeated cries of the people in this Borneo state are left unanswered by the people in power at Putrajaya in Kuala Lumpur.

    An ‘oath stone’ on which was engraved Malaysia Day promises that have not been kept in the past half a century has now come back to haunt those in power and cry out for retribution.

    The oath stone was an iron clad guarantee on three conditions for natives in the interior region of Sabah to accept the new Malaysian Federation, namely freedom of religion in Sabah, the state government to have authority over land in Sabah, and that native customs and traditions are to be preserved.

    The proposal for the stone to be erected was made by Datuk G S Sundang, a native chief in Keningau, administrative headquarters of Sabah’s interior division, following a series of discussions and consultations, to summaries guarantees given by the Malaysian government to Sabah and at the same time to reiterate the loyalty of the people of the interior to Malaysia.

    Known as the Keningau Oath Stone, erected within the compound of the previous site for the district office of Keningau, was unveiled on August 31 in 1964, the first anniversary of Malaysia’s formation. A ‘maningolig’ ritual ceremony was held, involving the sacrifice of a cockerel and conducted by a ‘babalian’, a tribal priest, in accordance with beliefs of the Murut people.

    Tan Sri Richard Lind, who was the district officer of Keningau at that time and in charge of overseeing the erection of the oath stone, has stressed on the significance of that ceremony to the natives in the interior.

    “An oath stone is held in reverence by the people of the interior. Any person or tribe breaking the terms of peace symbolised by the oath stone is said to be liable to incur misfortune or disaster,” he said in an article in a local daily recently.

    According to him, the people in Sabah’s interior were reluctant to accept a written Constitution or the ‘Twenty Points’ of safeguards for the formation of Malaysia. Eventually, through diplomacy, this reluctance gave way when the essence of the Twenty Points were literally set on stone in a manner reflective of the traditions of the natives of the interior.

    Local leaders had requested the unveiling of the oath stone to be conducted by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the prime minister or his deputy Tun Abdul Razak. Neither was able to attend.

    Instead, Tan Sri V Manickavasagam, Minister of Labour was asked to represent the Malaysian government to witness the oath taking ceremony. Also present were Sabah Chief Minister Tun Fuad (Donald) Stephens, Datuk GS Sundang, president of Pasok Momogun, the main opposition party at that time; OKK Sedomon Gunsanad, OKK Angian Andulag and leaders of various other ethnic groups.

    As it turned out, the hopes and dreams for a better deal than what the British colonial masters were able to dish out to native inhabitants on North Borneo have been shattered and remain largely unfulfilled.

    The oath has been broken.

    “The promises such as religious freedom, land owned by the original inhabitants and their customs are not respected and protected by the government, that’s why unity is a difficulty issue among Malaysians today,” declared Paul Kadau, a Keningau-based vice-president of Angkatan Perubahan Sabah (APS) last month as Malaysia Day approached.

    Prior to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia by four components of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah – former British colonies, community leaders from Borneo states were brought on study tours of Malaya to see how people in kampungs there lived a happy and progressive life. Their villages were well linked by sealed roads to cities and towns.

    “What you see is what you would get,” native chiefs from Sabah and Sarawak were told during those pre-Malaysia tours of a more progressive Malaya. Over 50 years later, for many in Sabah, those images of modern and better conditions of life remain a pipe dream.

    Ask the poor farmers at Kampung Kinabuntung, a 45-minute drive from Kota Marudu town in the Pitas district near the northern tip of Borneo, and they can tell you that life is as hard as ever. They cannot even afford the fare by private transport (as there is no public transport yet 50 years after Malaysia) to sell whatever meagre crops they could gather from the fields in exchange for some basic provisions for their households.

    The bumpy, dusty gravel road is in fact a former logging track left over by a timber extraction company that had reaped its rich harvest and made millions from the area in years gone by.

    It was from Pitas too where a group of natives from a remote village who adhere to Christian beliefs were taken to Kota Marudu town under false pretext recently and converted to Islamic faith.

    Subsequent protests by Christian group leaders have been left unanswered. No group has so far denied or given an explanation to that act against religious freedom of Sabah natives.

    On Sept 17, after a three-day retreat in prayer and deep reflection, native Christians from many parts of Sabah, including the interior region, gathered at Honkod Koisan in Penampang, a cultural centre of the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut races and tribes, came out with a 30-point declaration highlighting the many sore points experienced by native Christians in the state today.

    Earlier, the Catholic Church had voiced regret that young students were constantly subjected to various forms of harassment, ridicule and pressure to change religion. Archbishop John Wong disclosed in August that the Catholic Church of Sabah and the Sabah Council of Churches had a year ago made an official complaint to the Education Ministry concerning a conversion ploy at Labuan Matriculation College.

    He asked whether such institutions of higher learning in the country were conducive at all for studies if they were engaged in such conversion activities. The Catholic leader appealed to the government to ensure that religious freedom as enshrined in the Constitution be upheld at all cost.

    But who is listening?

    Since no one is, the Keningau Oath Stone has to spring to life and speak up. The natives in the interior of Sabah have repeatedly told the story that the white cockerel that was used at the maningolig ritual at the Oath Stone on September 16, 1964, had mysteriously sprung to life and ran away when it was brought back to the native chief’s home that day.

    Was that a premonition that the Keningau Oath Stone itself would spring to life 50 years later to tell the world that what was inscribed on it has not respected and fulfilled?

    Around Malaysia Day this year, local dailies have published countless stories on how certain groups of people have been denied free access to the Keningau Oath Stone, why the crucial words of “The Malaysian Government guarantees” are missing from the present plaque on the stone and loud calls for the location of the stone to go back to its original site.

    The Keningau Oath Stone has spoken and spoken loudly in 2014.

    It is patiently awaiting an answer to this crucial question, “Would the powerful men and women at Putrajaya have an ear for the plight of the people of North Borneo and make good their unfulfilled hopes and dreams of decades past when Malaysia was formed?”

    Born, brought up and started journalism career in Sarawak, Joseph Leong Sai Ho has lived and worked in Sabah since 1966. His dream and mission is to see that the voice of the peoples of these two Malaysian entities on Borneo Island is heard and heard clearly.

    Source: The Daily