Recalling the first Sabah election in 1967

Posted on January 7, 2013


Reproduced from The Daily Express 6 January 2013. 

HL Tan Sri Datuk Seri Panglima Dr Herman Luping

Former Deputy Chief Minister and State Attorney-General (


There are many differences in today’s general election and that of the first one in Sabah. To begin with, more money is used today by candidates to get themselves elected.

My experience of the first State general election in 1967 was very different from today’s experience. Candidates were not expected to spend a large sum of money on entertainment, for instance. It was then the custom amongst the Kadazan that a visitor to a house is entertained by the houseowner, or the hosts. Chicken were slaughtered for the occasion and the chickens came from the hosts. It was common then that each family raised chickens in the backyard of the house and in many cases, there were plots of vegetables planted at the back section of the house. These plots were normally used as the nursery for the padi which were sown before ploughing of the padi fields started. The padi seeds sown in the nursery took about a month to grow and ready to be transplanted to the padi fields, it was part of the custom and Adat of the Kadazan to respect padi. Padi culture ran deep in the mentality of the Kadazan farmers.

The respect was because of the belief that the spirit of the padi, Bambaazon, was a transformation of the flesh of Huminodun who was sacrificed so that the Kadazan could have food to eat. When the padi plants in the nursery were transplanted in the padi fields, the plot of land become empty. The farmers then used it to grow vegetables. There were also fruit trees, and common then was papaya, soursop – hampun sina in Kadazan – and many more.

The tradition of self sufficiency then was still very much part of the Kadazan way of life in the 60s; and in the 1967 first election, the custom was still kept. “Mitabang” (when ploughing, planting padi and harvesting) and “Mitanud” (when a major repair to a house or building a new house), both terms mean “gotong royong”, were still practised by the Kadazan, but was slowly “vanishing” due to the introduction of “money” and the use of “contractor” to build houses.

The two concepts as described above are no longer the norm in Kadazan modern way of life, but up to the mid 60s, they were still very much part of their custom. Thus it was that when the first State general election was called by the Election Commission in March – April 1967, the three major communities – Kadazan, Muslim and Chinese were grouped together in political parties on racial lines.

The United Pasok Momogun Kadazan National Organisation (Upko) for the Kadazan, the United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) for the Muslim and the Sabah Chinese Association (SCA) for the Chinese.

The three parties had formed the Sabah Alliance Party, but the Alliance was actually a mere “marriage of convenience” as there was intense rivalries between the two foremost indigenous leaders, Tun Stephens and Tun Mustapha, for political control and hence the governance of the State.

And although Stephens was the chosen leader of the Alliance soon after the formation of Malaysia in 1963 and became the first Chief Minister of Sabah, his hold on to power, was hotly contested by Mustapha the leader of the Muslim party, Usno.

He was the first Head of State, the “governor” but he was allowed by the Prime Minister to take part in politics and was, therefore, the President of Usno. In this contest of strength and for the governance of Sabah, the SCA leaders had allied themselves with Usno and Mustapha.

The first State election then was fought between the Upko party and the Usno and SCA together in what was “agreed” to be a “friendly contest” when they could not “agree” to the seat divisions amongst the three parties.

There were only 32 constituencies. The political strength of the two indigenous parties, Upko and Usno were almost roughly equal – 12 for Upko and 12 Usno. The SCA party was predominantly in 6 constituencies.

The two remaining constituencies were marginal constituencies for both the bumiputra parties. The votes of the “third force” (Chinese) were vital in these two constituencies. In the ensuing results of the election, Usno obtained 14 seats, Upko 12 and the SCA 5. One Chinese seat went to an Opposition candidate.

I was given the constituency of Tandek in the Kota Marudu region. It was and still is predominantly a Kadazan constituency and therefore considered the “blue constituency” – an almost 80 per cent Upko’s stronghold. It was one of the 12 constituencies that Upko was sure to win. Tandek was the constituency favoured by Stephens.

He decided Tandek as his constituency. He could have chosen any Kadazan controlled constituency; he could have had the Papar constituency as his Kadazan grandmother came from Limbahau; or the Moyog constituency (in Penampang the bastion of Kadazans at the time) but he decided to give these to his strongest colleagues and supporters. Datuk Peter Mojuntin the secretary general of Upko was given the Moyog constituency.

Ever since the 32 constituencies had been demarcated and made known, however, he decided on Tandek and therefore spent some money to have people to help to look after the constituency. He had the late Maralang Majun to do this.

Marallang [sic] spent time and efforts to visit many parts of Tandek constituency to inform the people about Upko. The majority of the people were and still are, Kadazan whose tribal name is “Kemaragang”. Stephens decided to give me the Tandek constituency.

I had wanted Moyog and so did 5 others, including Peter. The others were Joe Manjaji, Richard Yap, Stephen Tibok. Richard was given Bengkoka-Banggi, to face Mustapha and Stephens promised to stand for the parliamentary seat of Penampang when the Parliamentary election was called – scheduled for 1969.

In the State election in 1967, the voters in Tandek numbered only about 9,000 altogether, if I remember it correctly. But the people were spread over a large area – indeed, huge area, especially when to get to anywhere or visit the voters, one had to depend on leg power! The village of Sonsogon Magandai, for instance was a good whole day’s walk, over hills, valleys and rivers. It was in this village that I decided to make a simple research about the villagers’ income.

And came to the conclusion that the average annual income was only about RM100, earned by selling fruits, brooms from coconut husks and other forest products. But the people were self sufficient and more important, happy and contended. Today, the villagers of Sonsogon Magandai are rated as “people living below the poverty line”, poverty-stricken, destitutes.

But the most difficult for me was to reach the three “Bombongs” – Bombong one, Bombong two and Bombong three. These were the three long houses in the hills of Tandek. It was a hard days walk to reach each one of these “bombongs”. But the people in each “bombong” were all Kemaragang Kadazan and they spoke the same language as the Tangaa and or the Liwan.

There was really no need to “campaign” by asking the Kadazan people to voate for Upko. It seemed to me that this was a “given” matter, understood as part of their duty as members of the same speech community.

What was left for us and the large number of helpers and “campaigners” from Penampang and from the flat plain of Tandek, was to explain and help and show them how to vote – how to mark the “X” on the voting paper.

The helpers came forward voluntarily to help me “campaign”. My sister, Molly, Mrs Maning, Mrs Dahing and brother-in-law William Chan – are amongst the many who turned up to help me, all volunteers. Then there were the two cousins from Penampang, Joe Manjaji and Vincent Ligunjang. These two just came and went to various kampongs to help, all volunteers.

The people in those days were also very honest with their dealings with others, especially in matters of money. Money was seen as a necessity but it has to be earned and not just “given” or “taken”. It was part of the custom, the belief.

Thus, when we arrived in a small village settlement in the hills of Tandek, lying north of Kg Botition in the plain, the Orang Tua was not in his house although he was informed of our coming.

His young wife who had a year old child and still suckling, told us that her husband could not “face” us as he had received money (RM50) from an Usno campaigner. He was obligated to the Usno campaigner, but his wife told us that he would vote Upko, nevertheless. His deputy OT was there to welcome us.

A distant relative from Penampang, Alex Ng, known by his kampong pet name to us as “Busuk” had visited the kampung earlier and distributed salt fish and old clothing. I was asked about the “philosophy” of receiving food and clothing from the Opposition campaigner.

I told them that our, Kadazan custom, is to accept gifts if in our own feeling or opinion there is no string attached to the gifts and in this case, not obliged to vote for the Opposition. Kadazan are by nature not arrogant people or “sumbung” and gifts should be accepted with grace. I was conscious of the provision in the Election Ordinance about gifts as a form of “bribe” though; thus making the gifts during an election could be construed as an offense under the election laws.

The main limitation I experienced in the 1967 election was the lack of road – good all weather roads. To get to Tandek from Kota Kinabalu, in those days, was a real ordeal. The four-wheel British Landrover and the short-based Toyota its equivalent, were the common transportation.

Maralang had the LandRover to use to take him to get to KK and back to Tandek. (Provided by Stephens) To get to Tandek from KK, crossed the same winding river three times before reaching the township of Bandau (Kota Marudu).

Then there was a long dirt road from Bandau to Tandek township. On rainy days, the river was swollen and impassable to vehicles. The alternative to get to Bandau was by boat from the sea in Kudat and through the river which passes through the town of Bandau.

Maralang and I spent nearly the whole day and night “digging” the Landrover which was stuck in the mud which covered the road to Tandek! I had also to fight the mosquitoes that night!

That was how difficult it was in those days when we had our first election in 1967. The important thing, however, is that our people were honest and very loyal to one’s racial origin or community. The Muslim voters – Bajau and Suluk etc – were also very united under Usno. The amount of money we were allowed to spend by law was limited to about RM7,500. I did not finish this money.

In the case of Peter who stood in Moyog, the bastion of the Kadazan community, he used his money to buy a Land Rover, I believe. And Suffian (Stephen) Koroh told me he returned a large amount of the money to the Upko as he did not spend much. Those were the days, my friends!

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