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Looking back on Sabah chief minister Donald Stephens’ first Malaysia Day message

Donald Stephens (later known as Tun Mohd. Fuad Stephens after his conversion to Islam in January 1971), was the first chief minister of Sabah in Malaysia.

After founding United National Kadazan Organisation (UNKO) in Aug 1961, Stephens helped to negotiate Sabah’s independence through the formation of a federation.

The federation now known as Malaysia was heavily opposed by its neighbouring countries Indonesia and the Philippines.

After Sabah held its first elections in April 1963, Mustapha Harun was installed as the first Head of State while Stephens its chief minister.

On Sept 16, 1963, Malaya, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak joined together to form Malaysia.

That was the day Stephens relayed his Malaysia day’s message in a special broadcast. His message was also published in local newspapers.

Daily Express‘s headline on Stephens’ Malaysia Day message.

Think as Malaysians

He first urged Sabahans to break all barriers which divide people in the different territories of Malaysia and instead to think and act as Malaysians.

“To begin this process of barrier-breaking, let us henceforth think of ourselves as Malaysians, not as Malays, Kadazans, Muruts, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and so on.

“Let us not only learn to think as Malaysian, let us act and live according to Malaysian ideals.”

To Sabah’s first chief minister, Malaysia Day was the greatest day yet known to Sabah.

This was because it was the day he said, “Sabah emerges from its colonial cocoon into full nationhood, an independent state within the great new nation of Malaysia.”

Campaigning for racial harmony

Speaking at the time when unity was something that needed to be worked on, Stephens placed racial harmony as one of the major political objectives of his party.

He said, “There are still strong fences dividing many of us. I want to see these fences go down as quickly as possible, however it will not be easy.

“We must destroy these barriers if we are to bring into being a Malaysia where all the people are truly one in their loyalty and love for Malaysia.”

He added that his government would encourage the capital needed to come in and get the gold lying in Sabah’s unexplored land– of minerals, oil, rubber, coconut, timber, cocoas, oil, palm, sugar, rice or other crops.

A group photo of Sabah’s first state cabinet.

How have Stephens’ high hopes for Sabah in Malaysia fared?

He was hopeful in his message for the Malaysian federation promising that his government would do everything possible to improve the standard of living of the people of the kampongs.

“With the funds we need for development guaranteed, I have no doubt that within a matter of years, ours could be one of the richest states in Malaysia, if not the richest state in Southeast Asia.”

In 2010, Sabah made headlines when the World Bank stated in a study that it was the poorest state in Malaysia.

However, the State Economic Planning Unit (EPU) of the Chief Minister’s Department was quick to refute the claim pointing the fact that its former chief minister Musa Aman had successfully reduced the incidence of household poverty in Sabah from 24.2 per cent in 2004 to 16.4 per cent in 2007.

As for Stephens, he later died in a plane crash – a subject of numerous conspiracy theories – on June 6, 1976.

The crash happened less than two months after Berjaya, Stephen’s party won the 1976 state election.

Less than two weeks after the crash, Stephen’s successor Harris Salleh signed what most considered was a lopsided deal which led to a 95 per cent loss in oil revenue for Sabah through the Petroleum Development Act.

A stone to commemorate Malaysia Day displayed in Sabah State Museum.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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