Kota Marudu Member of Parliament

Max, a realist scion of Sabah (The Star, 31 May 2009)


Dr Maximus Ongkili, a loyal nephew of PBS leader and Kadazan-Dusun paramount chief Pairin Kitingan, believes in the politics of consensus as the way forward for the community.

HIS easy charm today belies his tough start in life. Young Maximus was born in a police barracks. It was 1953. When he was only three, his father took optional retirement from the police force, applied for land and turned to farming, growing rubber and padi and raising buffalo, pigs and chicken.

“Times were tough,” says Datuk Dr Maximus Johnity Ongkili. And there were 10 hungry boys to feed. “The best food was in school,” he recalls.

PIX : Faithful No. 2: Dr Maximus (left) pledges to remain a loyal deputy to Pairin (right) until the PBS president hands over the baton to any of the party’s talented leaders.

Like many others of that generation from Sabah and Sarawak, he and his brothers survived on very simple fare – rice and salt or alternatively, dark soya sauce.

Retired sergeant-major Ongkili could only afford to send young Maximus to school when he had already turned 10. He remembers it was 1963, as it marked the auspicious formation of Malaysia and his father speaking about “this new nation”.

Despite his wispy frame resulting from poor nutrition, the young Maximus studied hard and played hard and soon caught up with his peers.

These days, the Ongkili siblings, like the Kitingans, stand among Sabah’s Kadazan-Dusun community’s political elite.

Dr Maximus says Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) president Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan who was born in Papar in 1940 was a role model for his people at a very early age.

He was the first Kadazan-Dusun to graduate in law, after having completed his studies at Adelaide University, Australia.The two families share a family tree and once even lived in the same longhouse in Kg Karanaan – literally Kadazan for “mud” – referring to the padi fields of Tambunan.

Pairin and Dr Maximus’ mother are first cousins. And the destinies of uncle and nephew were set to be entwined.

The elders of the families were community leaders. Dr Maximus remembers Pairin’s father, Kitingan Sabanau, as a “very good ketua kampung” (village headman).

Whenever Kitingan turned up to arbitrate at the native court, he knew by instinct that his famished sons and nephews were up in their favourite guava tree, even after the school bell had rung.

He would come with a long bamboo stick and prod the boys down, with a stern lecture about doing the family proud.

“We were all such rascals,” Dr Maximus recalls with a laugh, adding that he and the others were supposed to herd the buffalo home by 1pm but detours for boisterous swims in the river and scrambling up fruit trees would usually result in their dawdling home only by 4pm.

Their father often wasted no time in cuffing them, using his bare hands or a rotan to mete out punishment.

“Father was the disciplinarian. Mother was a gentle and very loving lady. She understood the importance of us not being hit in the head and always pleaded with father not to box our ears,” reminisces Dr Maximus.

Being the seventh of 10 boys meant that he had to take his turn to help his mother in the kitchen, at the expense of football.

“None of us ended up being good in football,” he says ruefully, adding that he could still hear his mother’s voice: “Johnity, balik masak! (Johnity, come back and cook),” ringing in his ears.

The price of having no sisters also meant that he and his teenaged brothers suffered the ignominy of having to fetch water and firewood – traditionally regarded as “women’s work”.

But there were funny upsides. Among the local customs of the Kadazan-Dusun community is “mitatabang” – a form of gotong royong – during which different families would take turns to help each other.

The number of able-bodied help had to be reciprocated in muscle, as the families moved from padi field to padi field and hosts were required to feed the volunteer help.

Eventually, such talk got back to them: “These Ongkilis, there are so many of them and they eat so much.” The complaining neighbours, eventually asked the family to send only three instead of all 10 brothers.

Others paid for the help they were unable to reciprocate, by giving the family RM5 or RM10 per man, big money in the 1960s.

In spite of his boyhood hardship, Maximus won a Colombo Plan scholarship at the age of 21.

Upon his return, armed with a La Trobe University degree in agricultural science and a PhD in agricultural economics, he lectured at the then Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (1985-86) (now Universiti Putra Malaysia) and became a senior researcher at the KL-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies (1985-87).

In 1987 he returned to his home state and joined the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), a Sabah think-tank headed by Pairin’s brother, Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan.

But soon, Dr Jeffrey, who was accused of plotting to bring Sabah out of Malaysia, was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and held in the Kamunting detention centre for 30 months.

Detention under ISA

For his association with Dr Jeffrey, Dr Maximus was detained in 1991 under the ISA for 59 days – legally one day shy of having to be sent to Kamunting. He took over the post of IDS executive director and CEO for the next three years.

Dr Jeffrey’s detention under the ISA made waves because he was then also director of Yayasan Sabah. Upon his release, Dr Jeffrey embarked on a more circuituous political route and currently represents Pakatan Rakyat’s political efforts in Sabah.

If politics did not flow early in Dr Maximus’ veins, he did have a very good role model in his second eldest brother, the late Datuk Dr James P. Ongkili.

Dr Maximus is very proud of the fact that he and his brother had held the same portfolio as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, each in their own decades.

The other great influence on Dr Maximus is of course his uncle Pairin, Sabah’s former Chief Minister during the heady decade of PBS rule (1985-1994) and Kadazan-Dusun ascendance.

But in 1990, with just days to go to the general election, Pairin pulled the PBS out of the Barisan Nasional, infuriating then Prime Minister (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his Cabinet. In 1994, Umno formally came into Sabah.

It was in those uncertain times that Dr Maximus entered politics – almost at the eleventh hour. All the other candidates for the 1994 state election had been named except for the state seat of N. 6 Langkon. Two days before nomination day, Pairin drew him aside and explained his reluctance in fielding him for the seat.

“Firstly, Langkon is a poor constituency (meaning one would need a lot of money to build up the area) and secondly, you are my nephew. But if you really want to serve the people, I will name you as the candidate for Langkon.”

But it was already the PBS’ sunset in power. When PBS members jumped ship in droves in 1994, leaving Pairin with insufficient numbers to form the state government, Dr Maximus opted to stay by his uncle’s side.

“For that, I did not become a minister until seven years later,” recalls Dr Maximus, who was rewarded for his party loyalty by being made PBS secretary-general, before his subsequent election as deputy president.

“He is a fighter when he believes in something. He believes that you are either in or you are out,” Dr Maximus says of his uncle.

Pairin’s supporters and detractors agree. Both have likened the self-effacing Pairin to a priest, for his staunch principles and intrinsic goodness.

But not all could persevere on the moral high ground and eventually caved in to political temptations, resulting in the birth of breakaway parties, many of which survive to this day.

With PBS’ return to the Barisan in 2002 and the end of an uneasy rotational system of chief ministers, Pairin, the MP for Keningau and state assemblyman for Tambunan, was named Deputy Chief Minister.

The reality, however, is that the office leaves Pairin with little clout, especially with his being overshadowed by Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman of Umno.

Pairin, who is also state Minister of Infrastructure Development, arguably holds more stature as his community’s Huguan Siao or paramount chief, particularly come kaamatan (harvest festival) each May. He is also president of the Kadazandusun Cultural Association.

Hard-working MP

Today, Dr Maximus is the Minister of Science, Technology and Innnovation and much respected as the hardworking MP for Kota Marudu.

He takes great satisfaction in knowing that on a Friday, he can fly back in his suit (he sported a dapper grey suit complete with monogrammed shirt during the interview) but “change into a casual shirt, drive out for a bumpy hour into the villages and sleep with the people”. Dr Maximus is a keen golfer who enjoys family time on his deer farm in Tambunan.

Dr Maximus says PBS has matured in its 24 years. On his part, he pledges to “remain a loyal number two until Pairin hands over the baton to any one of the talented leaders”, adding that the party had a very peaceful system and that he would defend his deputy presidency.

He says Pairin has experienced at first hand the effects of party hopping and has been a great advocate of instituting anti-hopping laws into state and federal constitutions.

Dr Maximus’ advice to the recently outmanoeuvred Pakatan Rakyat in Perak is “to follow Sabah’s example”.

“When we did not have the numbers (like the PBS in 1994), Pairin realised we had to concede to Umno. It gave us time to recompose ourselves. In 1999 (elections), 17 of us won,” he adds.

A decade later, much political water has flowed under the bridge. Despite the strong showing by Sabah politicians during the March Umno general assembly, there is no expectation that ethnic Sabahans of non-Malay stock would rise to the top of the state government.

Experience has made Dr Maximus a realist. Unlike two decades ago, when Kadazan-Dusuns spoke passionately of holding the post of Chief Minister in their own land, he himself harbours no such ambitions today.

“My brother was a moderate, a nationalist. He always reminded me that Malaysia is a permanent marriage. We can only look forward. there is no looking back,” he says.