The incident that changed Sabah
Rebel priest, Benjamin Basintal, who stood up for social justice once blogged: 'Let us fix a collapsing Malaysia once and for all and let's begin now.'
KOTA KINABALU: Benjamin Basintal died last month. Few will remember that name unless they happened to live in Sabah in 1990.It was perhaps typical that the daily newspapers with their jingoisms and fawning, sloppy journalism ignored the death of the former Catholic priest-turned-teacher from organ failure at the age of 59.
A bit odd because Benjamin, then a young priest, was the man at the centre of a curious event that was credited and blamed, depending on which side you are on, for the near landslide victory of the opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah government in the 1990 elections.
This was before the state was perversely opened to hundreds of thousands of immigrants, especially Muslims, who were swiftly granted citizenship in an alleged scheme to re-engineer the Christian-majority state into the Muslim one which it has since become.
On July 16, 1990, a feisty local tabloid, Borneo Mail, published an intriguing report on its front page immortally titled: ‘Priest missing – linked to secession plot?’. It appeared on the morning of the state election.
The paper, quoting reliable sources, reported that the priest was believed to have been detained under the ISA in connection with a plot to take Sabah out of Malaysia. It also reported that several other priests were being sought by police for questioning.
Syed Othman Syed Ali, the state police chief at the time, immediately ordered an investigation of the Borneo Mail and its journalists under both the Internal Security Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act for the “inflammatory” nature of the report.
The article was written by then Borneo Mail chief editor Pung Chen Choon. He became the first journalist in the country to be charged under the Printing Presses and Publications Act which carries a penalty of three years jail or a fine of RM20,000 or both.
The case was heard in court over the following two years with several high-profile witnesses called and widely reported by both the local and national media. But then another strange thing happened; it fizzled out and was quietly shelved as though the outcome was too frightening to pursue.
Pung was defended by Chong Kah Kiat who went on to become Sabah chief minister. Chong was assisted by lawyers Richard Barnes, who is now linked to out-going Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman, and Gerard Math Lee Min. Current Attorney-General of Malaysia Abdul Gani Patail, then a Senior Federal Counsel, led the prosecution.
KL was paranoid
Some argue that while the Borneo Mail report was speculative it was not far from the truth. Many say that federal authorities were in a heightened state of paranoia about a plot to take Sabah out of Malaysia as they are aware that there has always been nationalistic undercurrents in the state in respect to the peninsula.
Benjamin’s family have always maintained that the former priest was indeed hounded and was being sought by the police along with others he associated with. Church authorities later acknowledged he had been forewarned to “go on leave”.
His elder brother Francis said in a recent interview that his brother was known to campaign for justice for the poor and forgotten and this had put him at odds with the authorities.
But what was he to do? He was a priest and he saw many of them (his parishioners) living in hardship and in distressing circumstance in kampungs in the interior of Sabah.
“Many of his parishioners and the people in the kampungs used to warn him that there were certain men in shiny black shoes asking questions about him.
“They were protective of him and told him not to drive his old and battered vehicle as it was well known to the men who came in Proton Iswara’s with Wilayah (peninsula) number plates.
“These people were going in and out of the kampungs and town in Membakut and Kg Bawan, chit chatting with the people and asking about my brother,” said Francis.
How he was allowed to leave Sabah without the authorities knowing, remains a mystery. According to his brother, Benjamin caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur from the Kota Kinabalu International Airport and from there made his way to the United States after being told to take leave by his superiors in the church.
This was a period, it must be remembered, when Sabahans were defiant and proud about their independence and would denounce Malayan politicians as greedy and domineering. They were confident of their harmony and unity and ability to see off any challenge hurled at them.
The report in the Borneo Mail that Benjamin had gone missing relegated the Barisan Nasional to a footnote in the election and the Christian-dominated PBS emerged victorious much to the fury of then PBS-hating prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his Umno-led BN coalition government in Kuala Lumpur.
Mahathir had himself only just survived a bitter political battle during the nasty campaign period against his former colleague Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and his Semangat 46 faction of Umno.
Though unsurprising, the slap-down delivered by voters in the state resulted in Mahathir unleashing a series of outrageous, ham-fisted measures that eventually brought Sabahans to their knees and toppled the PBS state government four years later.
But Benjamin’s fight for justice for his people was a rare victory for the opposition in a time known as Mahathir’s era. The people of Sabah along with those in Kelantan had shown that they were unafraid to say “enough” and “no” to bad governance and misrule.
Benjamin, a young man then, influenced by liberation theology and eager to promote equality along with other reform-minded individuals, encouraged his parishioners and others to question both state and national leaders and what they were delivering.
He was then the rector of a church in Beaufort, a quiet provincial town about 90 kilometres south of here. He was not reticent about speaking his mind, much to the discomfort of his superiors in the Catholic church as well as politicians who sought him out.
He continued to speak his mind after he returned from the US with a degree in journalism and political science. He left the priesthood shortly after and devoted himself to teaching till his death on March 3.
In the 2008 general election he stood as an independent candidate against the Barisan Nasional’s Anifah Aman in Kimanis after he saw that the younger brother of the chief minister Musa Aman was ineffectual in improving the quality of life of the people in his constituency. As expected, he lost, polling just 205 votes but still left his mark.
“Anifah was scared of his outspokenness. He felt threatened by Benjamin’s knowledge and grasp of issues. My brother would tell me he had been approached and told by people close to Anifah not to write or say such things,” said Francis.
In several musings made both in the newspapers and in blog postings Benjamin made in 2008, he spoke of the divisiveness and greed within his own community.
The majority of Kadazans, Dusuns, Muruts and Rungus (KDRM), he lamented in one posting, don’t feel they are united as one community. “Brother (is) fighting against brother. They see people who are greedy for positions to a point where they have to fight their own fellow brothers to get the social status and positions. ”
Pairin ‘motivated by greed’
He was also unabashed about criticising the community’s revered Huguan Siou Joseph Pairin Kitingan who he charged was not capable of leading anybody as he was “motivated by greed and positions … instead of being an agent and force of unity of the KDMR he is a destroyer of that unity and force”.
Benjamin urged his parishioners to free themselves and not be mere followers, saying: “Ducks are wonderful birds but I prefer the eagle as a symbol. Ducks are guided by sounds and influenced by immediate noises and tend to be followers most of the time. Be like the eagle. Be independent-minded, fly high and determine your own destiny.”
“If our actions do not promote justice and if we are not involved in changing the unjust system of society our work will be destitute of positive effects, that is, they are in vain and useless.
“This is the age of participation and the highest level of participation in transforming society is that of the promotion of social justice wherein the poor and oppressed are genuinely liberated from the cycle of economic and social poverty.”
The way Benjamin saw it, Sabah with its abundant natural resources on one side and many of its people abjectly poor on the other side was a gapping wound. The state’s wealth that could help lift them out of the poverty trap was instead paying for vanity projects elsewhere in Malaysia and this was an affront to him.
“Let us fix a collapsing Malaysia once and for all and let’s begin now,” he once said in a blog posting.
The first time Benjamin disappeared, he influenced an election. His passing may do just that again if only people pause to remember what he stood for – social justice