It was marked “Personal”. We had not written to each other for some time. Douglas Muir had, at one point in his Malayan service, headed the Kedah Education Department at Alor Star where he came into close official contact with an uncle of mine, YTM Tunku Ismail Bin Tunku Yahaya, the last civil service-appointed menteri besar of Kedah.
I got to know Muir when he was a deputy director in Malaya. He spoke in his letter about a desperate need for qualified teachers to help improve the quality of secondary education in the colony.
Of all the places in the world, the British colony of North Borneo, today’s Sabah, had never, not even once featured in my wildest dreams as a place to work in.
I had to think very carefully if I would really want to work in a British colony after my own country’s independence from colonialism in 1957.
On May 8, 1959, I set out, bound for Jesselton on the MV Kimanis, one of a fleet of the ubiquitous trading ships plying the ports of Southeast Asia and owned by the Straits Steamship Company. Jesselton, the ramshackle capital of British North Borneo, still bore the scars of the heavy bombing inflicted on it by the Americans towards the tail end of the Japanese occupation.
The director of education himself was on the wharf meeting me and I was driven to his bungalow in a large Jaguar Mk VII motor car.
Muir kindly put me up for two nights before I moved into my new quarters. The Government English School Jesselton, where I reported for duty to Geoff Clarke, the most energetic headmaster I had ever come across, was an old all-attap construction on stilts.
The roof leaked every time it rained and it did rain a lot in the Land Below the Wind. Fortunately, after a few weeks of this miserable existence, a spanking new school was ready for occupation.
Sabah College was born, offering sixth form science classes, the first in the history of the colony. Bright young native boys and girls were brought out from the interior districts and put into special classes where they were given intensive English lessons by trained teachers from Malaya, Singapore, Australia, UK, Ceylon and Burma.
If secondary education was bad, imagine what it was like in the native vernacular schools. They lacked facilities and were staffed by teachers who themselves had only six years of schooling.
A native primary school teacher giving an English lesson could not even spell buffalo and this prompted Douglas Muir who was inspecting the school to intone in his usual kindly fashion, “Just write kerbau”.
British North Borneo was underdeveloped, and at least, by my reckoning, 50 years behind independent Malaya. As an indication of the level of development of the colony, according to the authoritative British North Borneo 1961 Annual Report, two years before becoming a component of the federation of Malayan states, North Borneo had a population of 454,421.
Of this number, less than 0.5 per cent received secondary education in government schools. If mission and Chinese schools were included, the figure would be 1.9 per cent. It was largely a country of illiterates and native participation in the administration of the country was non-existent.
Leaving aside educational opportunities, what about medical facilities? There were only two general hospitals in the whole colony, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Jesselton and the Duchess of Kent Hospital in Sandakan, providing, believe it or not, one bed for 677 people.
If you thought this was generous, guess how many government doctors there were in service. There were a staggering 18 government doctors or, put another way, one doctor for every 25,000 people.
Many Sabahans today believe they would have been better off if they had not come into the Federation of Malaya to become a new Malaysian state. What earthly chance would they have of survival given their backwardness in every respect — economic, social and political?
To quote my friend, Datuk Leslie Davidson, the author of East of Kinabalu, a brilliant account of life as a pioneer planter in the Labuk Valley, a self-confessed friend and lover of Sabah: “In the evening over a glass of whisky, he (Lord Cobbold, heading the Cobbold Commission set up by the British government to ascertain the wishes of the peoples of the North Borneo territories on the proposed new Federation of Malaysia) asked my opinion.
“I refused to comment. However, he persisted and pressed me for my opinion, off the record. I told him that it was my personal opinion that joining the Federation was the only possible route.
“If Sabah did not join Malaysia it would become part of Indonesia or the Philippines within a year or two.” The idea of independence and going it alone, outside of the “Greater Malaysia” arrangements was suicidal.
The British knew it, and sensible, far-sighted leaders such as Donald Stephens and Richard Lind, later to distinguish himself as state secretary of Sabah, knew it.
Richard was the best ever state secretary Sabah has ever produced. In all the circumstances, for anyone to think Sabah could have survived, let alone prospered, would be to languish in a fool’s paradise.
I continue to take a lot of interest in Sabah affairs and I am frankly amazed what orderly development has done for the state in just over 50 years as part of a federation of states.
The sluggish British North Borneo of my brief acquaintance is today’s thriving Sabah, cruising in the fast lane as she celebrates another Malaysia Day on Sept 16, 2015.
Tunku Abdul Aziz NST Opinion 16 SEPTEMBER 2015 @ 11:38 AM