A vital and seldom revealed part of Malaysian history we all need to know about.

The first bomb exploded in Kota Kinabalu on 25 May 1985. It happened just outside the hotel Lim Kit Siang was staying in during his time in Sabah. Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) had just won the election on 21 April 1985. Weeks before that, Dr Mahathir famously declared that Barisan Nasional (BN) would ‘Sink or Swim” with Parti Bersatu Rakayat Jelata Sabah (BERJAYA).

Source : http://thesilentriotdocumentary.wordpress.com

No one could have predicted that PBS would actually succeed in wrestling the state government from BERJAYA. PBS was an upstart while BERJAYA had the backing of the almighty BN, with its extensive and well-oiled machinery. I remember – in the run up to the poll – the media were relentless in their attack against PBS and its president, the then Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan. Whether it was based on founded allegations or not, the fear that went circulating in town was whether our constituency would end up like Tambunan, which was deprived of development (because of their continued support for Datuk Pairin) should the rakyat here support PBS.  The frustration against BERJAYA was boiling over but no one was sure it could be defeated, given that it had full support of the Federal government. Of course, we all know now how it went down. Sabahans gave BN a rude shock by voting in PBS despite the possibility of hardship.

BERJAYA sunk and Sabahans were punished with weeks of mayhem that resulted in deaths – because they had exercised their democratic rights.

Soon, what was merely a political issue turned into a religious one and people took to the street. Most agree (including some politicians who were directly or indirectly involved in the demonstration itself) that the majority of the rioters were non-citizens.  One rioter – a Filipino carpenter on a working-pass – was shot dead when he charged at a policeman, his machete against the latter’s revolver.

Some in recent years have suggested that the riot was a lot more sinister than it seemed. There were suggestions of an attempt to destabilize Sabah so that it would be placed under martial law. This appears plausible because, after all, the late Tun Mustapha had called for Kuala Lumpur to intervene and take over the State (a).

An excerpt from M.D Mutalib’s book:

Mutalib : Apakah insiden yang tidak dapat saudara lupakan dalam Rusuhan 1986?

Hassnar : Gerakan haram untuk mencetuskan rusuhan tidak mencapai kejayaan kerana beberapa halangan sehingga desakan agar Kerajaan Persekutuan mengishtiharkan Darurat seperti Perisitiwa 13 Mei 1969 tidak kecapaian, walaupun perintah berkurung dikuatkuasakan beberapa hari.

Saya terkejut ketika Pesuruhjaya Polis Sabah, Maulana Babjee memanggil saya dan mengarahkan saya membunuh beberapa orang Kadazan dan Cina untuk mencetuskan rusuhan kaum. Saya tergamam.

In retrospect, racial clashes were very close to taking place, had it not been for the cool-headed restraint of our leaders – notably those among the Kadazan community. A friend who was a party worker with PBS then related to me an incident where he was among a group manning a roadblock alongside the police. The road block was on one of the roads in Papar which led to Kota Kinabalu. Around midnight, they stopped two truckloads of people armed with various weapons, who identified themselves as natives from Sipitang, which is about 200 kilometres away from Kota Kinabalu in the interior of Sabah. These people said they were on their way to fight those foreigners who came and harmed ‘orang kita‘. The police of course rightly refused them passage in view of their intention and also due to the fact that a curfew had been imposed.

When they refused to obey, my friend went and reasoned with them and got a tongue lashing for this. They said to him, “Are you with your people or are you with those foreigners?!”

My friend confessed that he almost lost his composure. In other parts of the districts in Sabah, similar scenes were taking place. People were gathering arms ready to bring battle, but were advised against doing so.

Perhaps in an effort to move on and reconcile, this ugly episode was never mentioned openly during the immediate subsequent years. As far as I know, no one was prosecuted for this crime against the Sabahans. There were claims of rape but we would never know the veracity of this allegation because no investigation was carried out.

It looked like this ugly history would soon disappear and be forgotten or unknown by younger generation of Sabahans and Malaysians at large. Hence, I was pleasantly surprised and excited when a young friend of mine, Nadira Ilana, sent me a message informing me that she had received a grant to fund her documentary about the riot. A group of us had been discussing about this and exchanging notes about it in our Facebook group and I noticed that Nadira had joined in with the discussion. If memory serves me right, I think she said it would be a good idea to do a documentary about it.

Eventually we moved on to other topics and forgot about what Nadira said. For her documentary, she intended to interview some well-known politicians for their take on the riot. I must confess here that I thought she would have trouble getting these people to talk openly about it, but she proved me wrong. Never have I been more happy to be proven wrong!

A few months later, her documentary debuted and not only did it come to fruition, it won the Justin Louis Award for Most Outstanding Human Rights documentary during the 2012 Freedom Film Fest. The film was recently uploaded to YouTube on 21 January and has been viewed more than 10,000 times.

For doubting Nadira, I therefore am punishing myself by writing this piece to introduce her video to you.



Click here for the website to Silent Riot documentary.

(a) Source : The Straits time 24 March 1986

How har you do baino? I am a farmer from the Venice of the East, Beaufort, Sabah. If you find my writing to be a bit 'sot-sot' or 'mulau' (both mean crazy and quite akin to stupid), you can blame Marcus...

4 replies on “The Silent Riot”

  1. Wow. Why was I not aware of this incident before? I don't recall ever learning it in Sejarah class (though admittedly, I often lose concentration in that class). This is the first ever time I have heard mention of this 1986 riot — and I am Sabahan (born 1987)!

  2. Wow. Why was I not aware of this incident before? I don't recall ever learning it in Sejarah class (though admittedly, I often lose concentration in that class). This is the first ever time I have heard mention of this 1986 riot — and I am Sabahan (born 1987)!

    Thank you, Justin. I must watch this documentary.

    1. Seriously? Our history books are like Lance Armstrong's biographies. To be relegated to the Science Fiction section in most bookstores.

      You'd get a better account from history books not written by the victors.
      I got most of my unbiased account of Malaysia/Malayan history by spending spare hours in the Barr Smith library reading everything I could.

      Eg – http://www.histecon.magd.cam.ac.uk/tim_harper.htm

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