Remembering Dad, Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan (Aug 20, 1920 to March 31, 1997).
“Loving And Kind In All His Ways Upright And Just To The End Of His Days Sincere And True In Heart And Mind A Beautiful Memory Left Behind”.
Stephen Kalong Ningkan was undeniably a born leader, full of charisma with the charms of a man who could entice the deadliest of foes to be his friend.
Strong-willed and full of determination and most of all courage, none would have been so brave as to take on the Federal Government of his time to court over what he deemed as injustice — not to him alone but to the people of Sarawak.
The premature termination of his post as Chief Minister of Sarawak in 1966 did not break his spirit, but instead he marched on, though wounded, to lead his beloved Sarawak National Party (SNAP).
It was not easy to have a great man like Stephen Kalong Ningkan as a father for he was seldom around when we were growing up.
He was more like an elusive figure whom you feared but also deeply admired and respected.
Dad was a visionary who foresaw the unification of the numerous races in Sarawak through the formation of SNAP.
The power he exuded was immense and seldom was it that those who got to know him personally were not affected by his magnetic personality and then far-fetched ideas.
His downfall was partly due to this way-off mental attitude that was far too advanced for many of his time.
Dad had a colourful life from an early age with a ‘mixed family’ to match.
A son of a farmer born in Buloh Antu, Betong, Saribas (home of the late Orang Kaya Nanang), he had a diverse background — both fascinating and strange to those who have known him and his family.
Dad was only six years old in 1926 when his grandfather Mok Bak Seng took him to China for a few years.
His grandfather was born in Namhoi, Kwangtung Province, China in 1870 and wanted him to learn the culture and the way of life there.
His grandfather believed he had better opportunities in Sarawak than living in China and thus they both returned and stayed a while in Bau.
This man whom Dad admired died on Oct 20, 1963, a few months after Dad took office as the first Chief Minister of Sarawak.
Dad got his early education in St Augustine’s School, Betong where he taught part-time during his senior years.
After completing his studies, he worked as a Rubber Fund clerk from 1938 to 1939.
He resigned to join the Sarawak Constabulary from 1940 to 1946.
He said he learned discipline in the Police Force and passed his Inspector’s course in Kuala Lumpur in 1940.
He was a police inspector when the Japanese landed in Sarawak in 1942.
He was made the officer-in-charge of criminal investigations and there were Japanese working with him then, but they were unlike the ruthless ‘Kempeitai’ group.
Dad managed to learn the Japanese language from his Japanese ‘colleagues’.
He taught my youngest brother Gerald and I several Japanese songs he learnt back then.
‘Kuni No Hana’ (Flower Of The Nation) was one of his favourites.
He could be heard singing this song or his all time special ‘Terang Bulan’ during various government or family functions.
Dad loved to sing and dance and he taught this great passion of his to me.
The lyrics for ‘Terang Bulan’ are engraved on the back of Dad’s tombstone.
In 1944, he was transferred to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) on secondment for six months where he joined the underground movement, the Service Reconnaissance Department as a lieutenant.
He recalled how a group of them had to trek from Jesselton to Sibu when the Allied troops landed in Sarawak.
After the war, Dad became a teacher at his former school in Betong from 1947 to 1950.
It was during this time that Dad first became politically conscious.
He had wanted to form a Dayak Association, as during this time political activities in Sarawak were increasing.
His association did not materialise as the then District Officer discouraged the idea.
Disappointed, Dad left Betong to join Shell’s hospital in Kuala Belait, Brunei from 1950 to 1961 and he obtained a certificate of proficiency in nursing and became a hospital assistant.
During those times, Dad pursued higher education, passed his matriculation test and took up law via correspondence from Regent Institute and Metropolitan College at St Albans, London respectively.
Dad’s Dayak Association took shape during this time and he became the honorary secretary of the Shell Dayak Club from 1955 to 1956 and 1958 to 1960.
His dream was almost fulfilled when he became the founding president of the Dayak Association of Brunei from 1958 to 1960.
However, in 1961, with a law degree within his grasp (in his third year), some of the Dayak leaders had a political awakening and he was approached as the most suitable person to set up a political party.
With his knowledge and experience, Dad was prepared when his father with a group of Dayak leaders went to Kuala Belait to persuade him.
By then, the Chinese had set up their Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) in 1959 and the Malays had formed Party Negara Sarawak (Panas) in 1960.
Dad had to forgo his studies and left his job in Kuala Belait to return to Sarawak.
Dad had his regrets about not being a lawyer and used to say, “I was almost a lawyer but I had to be the first Chief Minister of Sarawak instead.
I felt politics was more important and I consulted a few British Officials — one of them was the then Governor of Sarawak, Sir Anthony Waddel.
He told me that it was high time and the British encouraged us.
“In fact they were the ones who wanted us to form a political party.”
SNAP came into existence on April 10, 1961 and Dad was the prime mover, secretary-general from 1961 to 1964, and its president from 1964 to 1975.
Dad insisted that the party formed be multi-racial (his background helped in him making this decision having had a Chinese grandfather and many friends of various races).
He said: “I do not want the party to be racial. I wanted a multi-racial party. After all, this is a multi-racial country and it is better if we could mix every Tom, Dick and Harry.”
My Grandmother My grandmother, Kuni Karong, was the light in my father’s life.
He stayed close to his mother after his parent’s divorce.
Unfortunately, the mother whom he loved very dearly died of stomach complications on June 14, 1969 at the age of 68.
For years after her death, Dad would be teary whenever he recalled memories of his dear departed mother.
His fondness for her was immeasurable — he visited her grave at St Augustine’s churchyard often whenever he was in Betong.
I believe there was a happy reunion in heaven the day my father passed away.
An aeroplane passed through the clouds the day we buried this great man and I could have sworn that I saw my father dancing in the clouds.
At last he is free and happy to be reunited with his beloved mother.
Nowadays, whenever I get the chance to return to my hometown, I would visit Grandma’s grave and place flowers there since I was her favourite and the one whom she took care of when Mum was involved in an auto accident the year I was born.
This is the only way I could pay tribute to a great lady who loved to sing and play the accordion (maybe that is where I got my musical talent from).
My Grandfather On June 27, 1965, Indonesian infiltrators with the help of internal communists attacked the Mile 18 police station killing six civilians and two police officers.
One of the police officers was a Sergeant Simon Peter Ningkan, my father’s youngest brother.
It was later revealed that the main target was Stephen Kalong Ningkan, who was supposed to be at that location.
My father however did not keep his appointment on this fateful day and changed his plans at the last hour due to his father’s (Ningkan Igam) dream.
My grandfather had a terrible dream the night before and forbade him to go anywhere that day.
My grandfather’s ailing health decided my father’s fate for he stayed by his father’s bedside most of the day.
Indeed, Dad believed that he was saved from this unfortunate incident due to his father’s dream and told this story many times to those who knew him.
My grandfather was an exceptional man who had managed to finish his high school education at St Thomas’ Secondary School in Kuching, which at that time was a great accomplishment.
He was the man who helped push Dad to take up politics when initially all Dad wanted was to be a lawyer.
A wise move on the part of a wise father.
In the excerpt of Dad’s message broadcasted over Radio Malaysia (Sarawak) on the following night, he said: “We shall seek out and destroy our enemy where we find him and we will mete out to those few disloyal people in our community the punishment they deserve.
Acts of terrorism belong to uncivilised people: they have no place in the life of Sarawak and Malaysia”.
Fascination with P Ramlee In Dad’s diary dated Thursday, Jan 1, 1959, he went to see ‘Sgt Hassan’ from 6.30pm to 8.30pm at the Kuala Belait Theatre.
His fascination for P Ramlee began then.
‘Sgt Hassan’ was one of his favourite movies.
When he became Chief Minister, Ahmad Nawab told me in 1987 that Dad sometimes invited Saloma, P Ramlee himself, and other ‘stars’ to have dinner with him when he was in Kuala Lumpur.
These two great men were famous in their own arena — one on screen and one in politics.
Though gone, these two Tan Sris will forever be remembered by those who have been touched by them — their charisma and their magnetism.
Dad’s Final Days Dad was already at peace with his past and the family could see after several stays at Normah Medical Specialist Centre (NMSC) during his final days.
The knowledge that the end was near did not soften the pain when Dad died on the evening of March 31, 1997.
It was like an epiphany, on the Good Friday before Dad died, the roof of his VIP bedroom at NMSC leaked and his forehead was soaked with rain water, like a second baptism.
Dad died peacefully on Easter Monday and his funeral was held at St Thomas’ Cathedral, with friends from overseas and all over Malaysia who came to pay their last respects.
His gravesite at the Anglican Cemetery, Jalan Batu Kitang was covered with hundreds of beautiful wreaths that flooded to the other graves.
A beautiful tribute indeed! Dad is missed so much and these past 13 years, not a day goes by when he is not on my family’s mind and his memory will be cherished forever.
We miss his jokes and his infectious laughter.
May his soul rest in peace.
In conclusion, let me quote from Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Ming, one of Dad’s closest comrades and friends, who was later to succeed Dad as president of SNAP.
“There can be no future without a past and without the great contribution of people like Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan, leaving their footsteps in the sands of time — Sarawak will not be the happy and prosperous country that it is today.” — Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min (Dec 2, 1992).