Isnin, Julai 02, 2012


The passing of an icon

June 30, 2012: IN her classic "Land Below The Wind" about the paradise that British North Borneo was until war came, Agnes Keith tells of this far-flung British colony getting visitors that fell into two categories.

She said there were those who needed to be taken care of (which is true even today as evidenced by the large transient population) and those who take care of themselves and leave many indebted to their presence.

Datuk Fauzi PatelDatuk Mohd Fauzi Patel was a visitor to this land who falls in the second category and his contributions - since becoming a journalist by accident - would live forever in the memories of those who knew him, in homes, archives and reference halls of libraries. Wherever his jottings about Sabah are being kept.

With increasing calls lately for more information relating to events in the State's history, his would be among the writings future generations would look for when there is a need to know more about the State's transition from the Crown to being one of the states in Malaysia.

Nuggets that would provide a better understanding which no history book would provide.

And told on a first person basis rather than analysed and retold by a second or third party.

They have been discussed at various times for almost 16 years in his weekly Sunday columns in this paper until Parkinson's reminded him of his own imminent mortality about two years ago.

Sabah has seen many journalists and will see thousands more.

But only a handful were true icons, serving the profession by giving their best and at the same time enriching the lives of others beyond the scope of the profession.

With his passing due to old age last Wednesday, Patel joined Tan Sri Yeh Pao Tze, Tun Fuad Stephens and Datuk GS Kler as the true pioneers of the Sabah press. When he breathed his last just before noon that day, he was two months short of his 84th birthday.

It is easy to see why these four would always loom large on the State's journalism landscape.

They had so much to offer.

Apart from keeping the people informed about what was happening, they were agents of change, and on many occasions, alternated between the role of player and participant. In some instances, even agenda-setting.

But that is for the scholars to deliberate.

When he arrived at Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in 1954, Patel was penniless (he had only $9 in his pocket), knew no one and without a job.

He said to me that he was horrified when, from the deck of the MV Marudu, all he saw were two or three concrete buildings hidden among raintrees. He had expected it to be bustling and began wondering whether he did right in choosing to come to Borneo to look for a job.

Days earlier, he had been ordered to leave Labuan by the OCPD there, a white man who also doubled as the Immigration Officer - and just because he had insufficient funds. However, a kind soul, a Sikh, stood guarantor for him and turned his attention towards Jesselton.

Somehow luck was kind to him and the many events that happened in his lifetime suggests that his life may even have been scripted for him.

There seemed to be some hidden hand guiding him out of every difficult situation.

An Indian he befriended on the ship thought he was insane to travel 3,000km (his village was in Gujarat, India) and expect to find a job in the jungle. Out of pity, he invited Patel to join him as they walked all the way from the wharf to the Sikh Gurdwara near the State Secretariat for free lodging and capatis which the temple offered to those who are hungry.

There he met a Sikh gentleman who was planning to leave for Singapore because he saw no future for him at the Sabah Times that was started almost two years earlier in 1952.

Patel immediately asked if he could introduce him to the Paper's Chief Editor, a rotund bespectacled man called Donald Stephens.

At the interview, Stephens told him that the job did not pay well because the paper wasn't making money.

But to Patel, something in the hand was better than nothing even though the hours were long and the pay small and unpredictable.

"Thus, I became a journalist by accident," he said.

It would not only change his life forever but benefit Sabah society immensely because it would soon give him a ringside seat to every significant event that happened as British North Borneo became Sabah in Malaysia.

Here was a man who had never worked in a press, had zero journalism experience and knowledge, a poor grasp of the white man's language and did not even know how to type. Where the job's requirements are concerned, he was what one would deem unsuitable.

Not worth even giving a try.

Had someone like him applied for a job at the Daily Express today, I must admit that I would be inclined to reject because the investment in resources, time, energy and patience would not be worth it.

But thankfully for Patel - and for Sabah - the times were different.

When determination alone more than made up for any shortcomings.

Nevertheless, his survival instincts told him that Stephens would soon throw him out if he did not improve himself. So he started learning proper English right away.

When pay day came, Stephens told him there was no money to pay him in full. He told Stephens if that was so, to at least settle his food bill at the Indian restaurant where he was getting meals on credit daily.

I once asked him how he managed to do proofing armed with a little knowledge of English and he said with a chuckle that the paper always had glaring grammatical errors. But it was not an issue because the English literate community was small. Telephones were unaffordable.

Gaya Street alone had four shops that had phones so much so that when one phone rang, the other three also thought it was theirs.

The alternative would be to take a ride to town on buses with hard wooden seats that hurt the rump when passing uneven stretches.

They would then have to get down somewhere and walk the rest of the way to the printing plant in Tanjung Aru. The other option was by post which had its own challenges. So for any reader to complain would not be worth the effort.

It was through periods of long conversations with Patel that I also gained a valuable insight into how journalism and politics began in Sabah and how they also combined to become a potent force to assist ambition during the time of Sabah's independence.

What he told me would fill volumes but I will share some of these with readers here.

For instance, that the idea to start the Sabah Times came from Chong Pak Nam, who convinced his good friend Yeh Pao Tze that he might as well start an English paper since he already had a printing press putting out the Overseas Chinese Daily News (OCDN) and had nothing to lose.

Chong's other reasoning was that the expatriate-run North Borneo News, a weekly at that point in time, arrived in Jesselton (now KK) at 6pm, provided passengers booked flights on the six-seater canvass-walled Rapid aircraft plying Jesselton and Sandakan. Otherwise, the paper came via boat.

It was a time when there was also no radio and so people were more or less insulated from the outside world.

The OCDN was at that time produced on cyclostyled sheets by a husband and wife team - Yeh and his dutiful and hardworking wife, Lim York Sham, (who in the 1960s even transported the Daily Express and OCDN on a Datsun pick-up herself from Tanjung Aru to the outlets in KK for sale in addition to helping her husband proof the OCDN).

It helped that Chong, from Hong Kong and the Manager for Dat Tung Trading, was a literature buff.

Yeh was initially not convinced when Chong sold him this idea because he did not know where to look for an English-speaking Editor.

Chong told him that he need not look far as a young man called Stephens was already contributing articles to the Sandakan-based North Borneo News while working as a petition writer (lawyers were expensive to engage and hard to find then) at the Malay Club in Kg Air.

Yeh left it to Chong to put things together and Stephens was all fired up when approached.

Chong then also roped in GS Kler, a Sikh and a sports fanatic who could not get involved in the paper openly because of his government job as a health inspector.

Hence the Sabah Times was set up with the four partners chipping in $1,000 as paid up capital, except for Kler who said he would contribute his sweat.

Yeh by virtue of being the publisher and owning a press, became its first licence holder.

Coincidentally, when the licence was issued, it was on Yeh's wedding anniversary.

The Sabah Times at that time had only three staff - Stephens who was the Chief Editor, the Singh that Patel replaced as the proof-reader-cum-accounts clerk-cum-circulation man and one Johnson, whose job was to collect the paper from the machine, fold it and distribute it.

The Hong Kong-made machine relied on bamboo sticks to flip over the printed pages and often these broke. So it was Johnson's job to also cut and bring ample bamboo sticks of the required size every day to work.

The last that was heard of Johnson was that he stood as a candidate in Beaufort in the 1976 election.

When Patel joined the Sabah Times two years into its birth, it had progressed from a four-page tabloid (or 1 broadsheet like the Daily Express you are holding folded into half ) into 2 broadsheets with a circulation of around 700 copies.

When Patel started at the Sabah Times, Yeh and his wife already had a reputation as a caring employer.

He even provided his 20-odd workers two free meals plus Chinese tea daily.

When he realised that Patel had no place to eat since there were not many restaurants around, Yeh offered Patel to eat with the workers.

"But I saw that when the food was placed on the table, everybody attacked it, leaving nothing for me but rice," he said.

"So I told Yeh, I cannot fight over food and that I came to North Borneo to avoid that'.

Yeh replied 'all right, then eat with my family'.

Hence, he joined the Yehs at meals from then on and grew very attached to their first son who had long since died of an illness.

"I used to walk back to the Sikh Temple (from the Tg Aru factory after work) and the place was an overgrown jungle with high tide submerging the road at certain times of the year.

"Only a few people in town had cars, one of which belonged to Yeh.

It was a black Austin with the plate number 428 and Yeh would offer to send me back even at 2-3am.

"For all that they have done for me, I will be forever grateful to the Yehs," he told me.

Fortunes soon turned for the better when the Sabah Times was allowed by the colonial administration to merge with the expatriate-run North Borneo News that was based in Sandakan (then the capital) to become the North Borneo News & Sabah Times.

It solved the paper's financial position because it meant that the advertisements placed by firms like Harrisons, William Jacks, Sime Darby and the Borneo Company that used to be in the previous NBT were now going to the new paper.

With income now more steady, Patel said he moved out of the Sikh temple and shared a room on the top floor of the newly-built shops in Tanjung Aru. His roommate was none other than the paper's General Manager and co-founder, Chong.

Perhaps due to the pangs for independence being heard in the rest of the colonies, the colonial government also slowly began to change its attitude towards allowing a home-grown press, as opposed to an expatriate-run press.

Patel reckons this was the reason it was willing in the first place to grant a licence to Yeh for an English paper. The fact that it liked the idea of a press started and run by locals was also evident when it even directed the government printer to help set up the plant.

"Not only that, we were told that we could approach the Government printer for help if we were short of anything like borrowing the linotype setter," Patel recalled.

Following the merger of the two papers, the three partners (Yeh, Chong and Kler) had to opt out as part of the arrangement while Stephens was retained as Editor.

In return and as compensation, Yeh was given the printing contract which meant for once he had fixed income with which to pay his OCDN workers and others. Even then, it was not totally plain sailing for Yeh as there were times when he had to borrow money in order to pay salaries.

Chong was compensated with the manager's post but Kler was left in the cold.

At about this time (1954) also saw the first radio broadcast and whether as a foretaste of things to come, it was called Radio Sabah rather than Radio North Borneo!

According to Patel it operated from near the Clock Tower area and the broadcasts would inevitably include dogs barking in the distance.

The Information Department was also reorganised with a Press Officer put in charge.

As all these changes were taking place, Patel was again in luck.

Stephens was invited to visit the UK and had to leave the day-to-day running of the now merged paper in the hands of a New Zealander, Tim Brookes.

Tim was the Chief Editor of the previous North Borneo News and became the No.2 as part of the deal when it amalgamated with the Sabah Times.

However, Tim had a habit of being Missing In Action and coming back to the press late into the night in a drunken state.

When the printers started to get uneasy and threatened to quit, Patel urged Tim to allow him an editorial role by handling the government press releases with Tim only needing to check them when he came to the office around midnight. Tim grabbed the offer because it would lighten his burden and Patel was soon in the business of gathering news and selecting them for publication.

He learnt the ropes fast that by the time Stephens returned, he was shocked to find that Patel was able to cover simple events. One thing led to another and when the colonial government nominated Stephens to the Legco (Legislative Council) in the mid-1950s, Patel soon found himself covering the proceedings - and in the process learning about how government works.

A journalism familiarisation trip to Australia followed for Patel and upon his return Stephens was by now so impressed with his progress that he had no hesitation in making him the Acting Editor when he (Stephens) was again invited abroad - this time to the US by the State Department for a three-month study tour.

While Stephens was away, Patel summoned enough confidence to start his own column in the paper called "Frankly Speaking With Pat" which stimulated debate on socio-economic-cultural issues.

He also started a Saturday Forum column to allow readers to share their thoughts on issues that affected them.

But his biggest journalism break came in 1962 when first Premier Tunku Abdul Rahman announced a proposal to form Malaysia. Stephens decided to quit and concentrate on politics and Patel was now the paper's Chief Editor.

In less than 10 years, the man who arrived in British North Borneo with just $9 in his pocket, hardly knew sufficient English to engage in a fruitful conversation and knew nobody was now about to play a pivotal role in the new Sabah that was taking shape, along with the movers and shakers of the day.

He said to me that his biggest challenge is his new rule as Chief Editor was also when his now former boss, who initially strongly objected to Tunku's merger proposal, made an unexpected u-turn after attending the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Singapore in July 1961.

"He called me aside at the airport and said 'Pat, no more with the objections to the Malaysia plan.

We are now for it.'

"The public debate on the formation of Malaysia was intense and highly charged.

I was caught off-guard and so were all his colleagues and supporters. I had difficulty in dealing with his fickleness.

It was difficult for me to remain objective in my approach under the circumstances."

Having nurtured the Sabah Times, cared for it and made it strong after its birth, further policy differences with Stephens soon made it difficult for him to remain as its Chief Editor at the end of 1963.

Months earlier, Yeh had also parted company with Stephens over certain differences and decided to set up the Daily Express.

Differences were also surfacing around then between first Governor Tun Datu Haji Mustapha and Stephens when the former complained about not being consulted on decisions by Stephens and suddenly realised that his powers as Governor was unlike the all-powerful colonial governor before independence.

"On hearing my resignation, Datuk Harris Salleh (now Tan Sri) immediately contacted me to inform that Mustapha wanted to see me about a job offer," Patel said.

" Mustapha wanted me to set up a newspaper for Usno to fight Stephens and counter the Sabah Times.

It was a challenge that I could not refuse because he was offering me a chance to take on my old boss and the newspaper that I helped to take care for a decade."

However, Patel told Mustapha that he would need a minimum RM500,000 to set up a printing plant and a similar amount as working capital.

"Mustapha was stunned because someone had told him that it could be done for just RM25,000," said Patel. Nevertheless, Mustapha decided to pay Patel 25pc of the agreed salary while he tried to get the newspaper started.

He also allowed Patel to freelance for other newspapers, except Sabah Times.

Patel then wrote to the Editor of the Singapore Straits Times, Wee Kim Wee, offering to freelance for that paper. Wee, who later became Singapore President, agreed and soon hot political news about Sabah were soon being read in Singapore.

Although Patel activated Utusan Kinabalu Sdn Bhd that Mustapha had set up, due to difficulty in hiring printing and editorial staff, it was to take 18 months before it would finally took off.

While waiting, Patel decided to start a weekly newspaper, the Kinabalu Sunday Times, in 1965.

But Mustapha was not pleased because he wanted a daily publication in time for the first State elections due in 1967.

Around this time also, the differences between Stephens and Mustapha had reached boiling point where Tunku had to step in and ask Sabah's first Chinese lawyer, Peter Lo (now Tan Sri) to agree to hold the fort as Chief Minister until the State elections resolved matters.

By the middle of 1966, The Kinabalu Times was in business and fully prepared for the election, which Mustapha won. Stephens' Upko was controversially dissolved and Stephens also sold his controlling stake in the Sabah Times to Mustapha, who merged it with the Kinabalu Times to become the Kinabalu Sabah Times.

Soon, Patel again found himself having to quit the profession due to differences with Mustapha's top aide, late Tan Sri (then Datuk) Syed Kechik. He decided to try his hand in business until he was recalled by Harris after the 1971 election to set up the Sedco subsidiary Perkasa Trading Bhd, as its Company Secretary.

In March 1976, he was again asked to help the Sabah Times during the election campaign, which Parti Berjaya won.

He was appointed to the Board of the national news agency, Bernama, to represent Sabah and Sarawak newspapers in June that year and resigned in May 1977 when he quit the Sabah Times in March that year.

Upon becoming Chief Minister, Harris invited him to become his Press Secretary.

He set up the Press and Publications Division within the Chief Minister's Department to assist the local media vis-ˆ-vis State Government news and the unit exists until today.

It published booklets on the State Government's agenda, particularly the Chief Minister's policy speeches and important development projects, including a Bahasa Malaysia publication called Panorama aimed at the rural folks.

Harris served in that capacity from October 1977 until April 1985 when Berjaya was trounced by PBS in the elections that year.

Following the defeat he migrated to Australia for a while but decided he loved Sabah more and returned to the State to contribute in another meaningful non-political capacity.

In 1995, he started his Sunday columns which became very popular for its frank takes on almost every topic under the Malaysian sun.

His involvement in Sabah's media and politics, no doubt, was not without cost to himself.

I once asked him how Mustapha took it when he double-crossed him by throwing his weight behind Harris at the crucial moment in the 1976 elections that saw Mustapha's downfall.

"He never spoke to me after that. When he turned his back when he saw me I knew why.

And I respect him for that." Nevertheless, he is full of praise for Mustapha as someone who never fail to keep his promises.

"When he tells you he'll do something, he'll do it. If he can't help, he'll tell you right away that it's against the rule and he'll have to do it for everybody.

"At the same time, he'll suggest an alternative and do it."

He also related the time when Mustapha ordered his boys to pay the Tunku RM5,000 every month to help out when the Tunku stepped down as PM and his pension payment was delayed.

"It was Mustapha's gratitude to him as he always went to Tunku for advice on any major issue."

Even when Berjaya was about to be formed.

He also spoke very fondly of Harris. "Everything that I have today I owe it to this man.

He was the best leader Sabah ever had at that point in time," he said.

Patel, who was bestowed the Toko Kewartawan kinabalu Shell Press Award in 2004, also longed to put out a book on his articles for the benefit of future generations.

Prior to his passing, he entrusted that task to me, including giving the book a name.

When I proposed that it be called "Witness" in view of his special ringside seat as Sabah's most significant events unfolded - he broke into an approving smile.

As he put it: "I write like a Sabahan for Sabahans. I do not write simply to criticise.

I only try to highlight issues that concern the State and our people. I do not expect everyone to accept my views.

And I do not engage in a debate with readers. I merely hope to stimulate debate on those issues.

If I have succeeded in doing so, then I have done my part."

By: James Sarda

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