February 17, 2002 (Source : The Star)
Huguan Siou still holds sway
Datuk Seri Joseph
Pairin Kitingan has come full circle – from the days when he rose
against the powerful Berjaya government to his break from the
Barisan Nasional. JOCELINE TAN who has long been intrigued by
the controversial career path of this Sabah politician, sees a
side of him rarely glimpsed by outsiders.
My taxi crunched to
a stop outside the Kitingan family home. A sign at the gate announced
it Pagok Tokou – it means “Our Home” in Kadazandusun. It is probably
the grandest house in the Tambunan valley, the home base of Datuk
Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
LEADER ... Pairin, the paramount leader of the Kadazandusuns
is still a magnetic force and enjoys the adulation of
both men and women, young and old.
was already waiting in the spacious living room, wearing his
trademark grey bush-suit and sipping his second cup of kopi-O.
The deep green jade
stone on his ring finger gleamed as he introduced the other
men in the room – Datuk Bullah Ganggal, a vice-president of
Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and Wilfred Jakil, his right hand
man in Tambunan, and his brothers Philip and Victor (third and
youngest in the 15-member Kitingan brood).
The atmosphere was
formal as Pairin settled into a cane sofa, poker-faced, his
back straight and his voice as solemn as though he was speaking
in a church. As usual, the media has a way of making people
bigger than they really are, and I am struck by how much smaller
he is in the flesh.
He will be 62 this
year and despite his roller-coaster political career, he seemed
none the worst for wear. Only his eyes looked weary, as though
he had seen much sadness and disappointment.
This is the man whom
many Kadazandusuns regard as their folk hero and whom they look
up to as their Huguan Siou or Paramount Leader.
Pairin had catapulted
into the national consciousness in the early 1980s when he stood
up against the might of Datuk Harris Salleh and the ruling Berjaya
party and formed PBS which he led to victory in the state in
He went on to become
Chief Minister for two terms – first, as part of the BN and
later, outside the BN. It was a bittersweet stint in power that
came to an end in 1994, when the BN regained control of the
The half dozen or
more years spent out of power and in the opposition have been
far from easy. Late last year, PBS applied to rejoin the BN
and the formal approval came last month. Pairin had come full
Pairin is hardly
the easiest of persons to read. He does not wear his heart on
his sleeve and, as many journalists would testify, he likes
to mull over questions and pick his words.
As we chatted, his
mother walked through the door. The Kitingan matriarch is a
pint-sized lady, with smiling eyes. She shook hands with everyone
in the room, including her famous son and insisted we eat the
rather elaborate lunch that had been prepared by Victor’s wife.
It was a good thing
that I did not immediately plonk myself down at the table as
I suddenly realised that everyone was standing behind their
chairs, palms clasped and ready to say grace led by the matriarch.
The lady of the house
is a devout Roman Catholic and rises at 4am everyday to pray
till about 7am. She is obviously devoted to her first-born and
spoke about how as a young boy, Pairin would help her look after
his younger brothers, do the laundry, feed the chickens and
pigs, harvest the padi.
Her late husband
was a policeman whose constant transfers from town to town resulted
in Pairin spending most of his school years in boarding school.
It was probably a blessing in disguise for boarding school instilled
in him a discipline and routine that would not otherwise have
Pairin went on to
win a Colombo Plan scholarship to study law in Australia and
became the first Kadazandusun lawyer.
He returned in 1971
to join the Attorney-General’s Chambers, set up his own legal
practice in 1974, stood for elections under the Berjaya ticket
in 1976, fell out of grace with Datuk Harris Salleh in 1984,
won the historical by-election in Tambunan in 1984, formed PBS
in 1985, won control of the state in 1986 and the rest is history.
With lunch over,
we left in two cars for Paula Damianus’ house. Paula is the
deputy head of the women’s wing of the Tambunan division and
the occasion was the first year anniversary of her father’s
She is a jovial woman
and quite without vanity for she greeted us wearing a pair of
baggy shorts and a grubby t-shirt.
We sat down to another
lunch – wild boar cooked in a variety of ways. By then Pairin
had shed a bit of his reserve. He was definitely on home ground
as the village folk came in to greet him, hug him and shake
One of them was a
really elderly lady with skin like crepe paper. She sat close
to Pairin, talking to him with great familiarity and even buried
her face in the nape of his neck when I tried to take their
picture. Pairin hugged her close, as tenderly as he would a
That is a side of
Pairin that few people outside of Tambunan see – his kindness
and reverence for the elderly and his affection for children.
His face softens when he sees children and he makes clucking
sounds, pats their head and goes: “Hellooo … sooo cute!”
Lunch was hardly
over when the rice wine was brought out.
The Huguan Siou,
as the guest of honour, was offered the first glass.
A tiny cup about
the size of a sherry glass is filled to the brim and the person
offering the drink hovers over you until you down the last drop.
Then the cup is rinsed in a shallow basin of water, refilled
and offered to the next person. Yes, I did entertain some thought
to the aspect of hygiene but after a few cups, you sort of cease
And after a few cups,
Pairin grew even more relaxed. He laughed at all of Paula’s
jokes, teased the children who had come with their mothers,
told stories about climbing Sabah’s second highest peak Mt Trusmadi,
talked about the types of bamboo and ginger found in the Tambunan
valley and even tried to teach me a bit of Kadazandusun.
He asked me to say,
“Er-herh” when the wine cup came around again. It means “Yes.”
By the time everybody
rose for the memorial service, my head was spinning. As everyone
was praying, I slipped out to the Range Rover where the driver
helpfully cranked up the air-conditioning. After a while, word
got around that I was mabuk, or as they put it in the
local parlance: “Joceline sudah mabook!”
When I next stumbled
into the house, Pairin was crooning his favourite song, Jinulim
di Batu Lapan. It is a romantic ballad about a village belle
named Jinulim who lives on the eighth mile.
When we asked him
about the song, he said laughingly: “Let the mystery continue.”
really know how to party!
We left at about
4pm for our next stop, the wedding of the son of Pairin’s former
driver, a rather handsome gentleman called Enos and his wife
who sported a beehive hairdo for the occasion. They embraced
Pairin like a long-lost brother.
The wine was already
flowing by the time we arrived and ushers bearing huge bamboo
containers filled with the brew went about compelling everyone
to drink up.
The bride and groom
are police officers working in KL and they made a striking pair.
The groom was tall and macho although his name is Hilary, and
the bride Jacqueline was quite a sexy babe, with doe eyes and
a Julia Roberts set of lips.
Three elderly ladies
were singing their own unique rendition of the Kadazandusun
version of Ave Maria but everyone gave them a big hand
anyway. It was a raucous wedding, so full of laughter, singing
and shouting that it made conversation excruciating.
As I ate my third
lunch of the day, I asked Donny, the Australia-educated son
of Datuk Bullah, what he thought of Pairin.
“Well, he’s our Huguan
Siou but I admire him because he’s a man who plays by the rules
Before he could go
on, Pairin’s right-hand man, Wilfred, came up to introduce his
cousin Joseph Jouti.
“I am in PBS, he
is with Bersekutu … ask him, ask him!” Fred egged me on.
I was about to have
a close-up look at the complexity of Kadazandusun politics.
Wilfred is a diehard PBS man, but Joseph is a supreme council
member of Parti Bersekutu and was in two other parties before
that. He has also contested against Pairin in three different
“Oh, we still talk
… there is only one Huguan Siou, you know,” Joseph insisted.
As we chatted, I
noticed Joseph’s wife doing a leisurely waltz with Pairin. When
they finished, Liza (pronounced Lai-za, not Lee-za) came over,
pulled me close and whispered in my ear: “My hubby is Bersekutu,
but my heart has been with PBS from day one.”
to draw my attention to a tall, stylish lady walking in just
then. She turned out to be his younger sister Zubaidah who is
married to a Muslim and deputy Wanita Umno head for Tambunan.
Wow, what a family!
At about 8pm, Pairin
went up to the makeshift stage, took the mike and began to sing.
By then, all of my preconceived notions of Pairin as a stiff
and humourless politician had evaporated into the unpolluted
air of Tambunan.
He sang a medley
of Kadazandusun ballads in a deep, melodious voice that someone
likened to Harry Belafonte.
The songs sounded
rather romantic but I was told that the first song was, “Don’t
be stingy, let’s have fun,” and the second was, “I’m in Tambunan,
don’t restrain me or my clothes will tear.”
The third was titled
“Tamparuli Bridge,” and the final song was of course his signature,
Jinulim di Batu Lapan.
Everyone knew that
Jinulim was the signal that Pairin was about to take
his leave, and as he neared the end of the song, people began
milling up along the narrow aisle.
He must have taken
a good 20 minutes to negotiate that short aisle from the stage
as men and women threw their arms around him, hugged him in
rocking motions, squeezed his shoulders. An elderly man almost
burst into tears and from the way they went on, you’d think
he was leaving for a pilgrimage to Rome instead of just going
We drove off with
the driver hooting the horn as though Pairin was the groom himself.
“Let’s go to my mother’s house to wash up,” he said.
The man can really
hold his drink. He walked up the garden path to his mother’s
house as steady as though he had been drinking black coffee
the entire day.
After a wash, coffee
and banana cake, we left for Kota Kinabalu. His head was still
clear for he started to explain why PBS had returned to the
“We felt we had to
rally behind the government in fighting the terrorist threat,”
Moreover, he added,
the BN’s policies had, over the years, come to dovetail the
concerns of PBS, chief among which was the government’s stand
on illegal immigrants and foreign workers, issues which the
PBS had highlighted since the 1980s.
What he seemed less
ready to admit was that the PBS, on its own, has little chance
of another shot at power given the redelineated constituencies
– the ethnically-mixed seats now outnumber the Kadazandusun-majority
The last two state
elections saw young Kadazandusuns swaying towards the other
Kadazandusun-based parties in the BN, and Pairin is too seasoned
and shrewd a politician not to have noticed the writing on the
PBS has lost quite
a bit of its early Oomph! but Pairin as a personality is still
a magnetic force if the kind of adulation he draws from both
men and women, old and young, is any indication.
Or as so many Kadazandusuns
articulated that day in Tambunan, there is only one Huguan Siou.
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