Kota Marudu Member of Parliament

It pays to be loyal to the max (The Star, 22 November 2002)

Sabah, the Land Below the Wind, has seen its politicians switching loyalties like the breeze. But one man who has not done so is PBS
deputy president Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, who seems to be heading for better times following his party's return to Barisan Nasional,
writes FOO YEE PING

For years, the road leading to Dr. Maximus Ongkili's house in rural Bandau was tarred except the last 1km stretch nearest his place. Motorists passing the route, which leads to the town, had to contend with a bumpy ride. But in August, that 1km stretch was "miraculously" tarred. This was eight months after Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) rejoined Barisan Nasional in January.

But Ongkili, who is second term MP for Bandau, is now Datuk Ongkili.

He was bestowed the title in September by the Sabah Yang di-Pertua Negeri. Such are the changing fortunes in politics.

Ongkili, fondly known as Dr. Max, laughed when he was asked about the road during an interview recently.

"We were told last time that there were no allocations to tar that part," he said.

A likeable man, he spoke about his political career in a matter-of-fact way. His replies were thoughtful, politically correct, even dry.

"If I had opted to join other parties and become a member of the 'frog brotherhood', I might have become a state minister a long time ago," he said.

(supporters of Upko, helmed by Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, may question his interpretation of events.) They claimed that Ongkili was the architect of the party constitution, then known as Parti Democratic Sabah (PDS).

But in a sense, Ongkili is still among the least tainted Kadazandusun leaders. He is one of the few politicians in Sabah who is respected for not abandoning PBS, when most of the party big guns jumped ship shortly after the 1994 state election.

Once, he was offered the secretary general's post in PDS. The person who eventually took over that position went on to become a state minister.

"I have no regrets, though," said Ongkili, who paid tribute to two men who he says have shaped much of his political beliefs.

One is his second oldest brother, Datuk Dr James Ongkili, who was a federal minister and former Deputy Chief Minister during Berjaya's reign in the 1980s.

"I learned form him the importance of being a moderate person," he said. There are 10 boys in the Ongkili family, with him as the seventh.

The other figure of influence is PBS president Datuk Seri Panglima Joseph Pairin Kitingan, who is related to him Ongkili's maternal grandmother is the sister of Pairin's father.

Or to put it simply, Pairin is his uncle.

"I have seen in him patience, consistency, persistence and resilience," he said of the man he calls "Datuk" or "boss" in public but "maman" (Kadazandusun for uncle) in private.

"I learned that you cannot be a proud man in politics. You have got to be a grassroots person. Put on a T-shirt and mingle with the people," he said.

He recalled Pairin's word to him two days before nomination day for the 1994 Sabah elections, when his party boss passed him a letter endorsing him as a PBS candidate.

"It was 1am. He told me 'Max, I have decided to send you to contest in Langkon to serve the people there. Please take care of the name of PBS and Tambunan (Ongkili's hometown). Use all the professional skills that you have to leave your footprints there."

A former lecturer with Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (now Universiti Putra Malaysia), DR Ongkili, who has a PhD in agriculture, became a full-time politician in 1994, remaining with PBS all this while.

His experiences had not been easy. He saw how Pairin had to wait for more than 36 hours at the gate of the state place before he was sworn in as Sabah chief minister after the 1994 election.

He remembered how Pairin had then appealed to a group of PBS leaders to stick together for "this is your party. Use it to build bridges with the Federal Government."

Ongkili himself has stormy ties with Kuala Lumpur at one time. In 1991, he was detained for 59 days under the Internal Security Act.

According to news reports, Ongkili was investigated for "actions prejudicial to the country's security."

Throughout the detention, he maintained his innocence and was confident that he would be released.

"I did much soul-searching. It made me more committed to my Christian faith. Under those circumstances, no one can help you except God," said Ongkili, who still acts as a lay preacher at the Sidang Injil Borneo church in Likas.

The experience also made him realise how precious his family was to him - his daughter is now 18 and his son, five.

Ongkili stressed that there were not many differences about being with PBS in the opposition since 1994, and now with the party in the ruling coalition.

"There are no changes in the political struggles. We are working together towards national development."

"We have always stood by what we said. No words need swallowing," he said, adding that the party's return to Barisan had been planned with the support of the members.

"Besides, I have never hentam-keromok (hit out carelessly). My brother (DR James) had always told me to talk based on facts.

In a way, he is not entirely wrong. Ongkili is largely viewed as a moderate, a Sabah politician whom the Federal Government finds agreeable.

He declined to comment if he has what it takes to be the future Huguan Siou, the paramount leader of the Kadazandusuns.

But politically, PBS watchers think he is likely the next Number One man in PBS.

Ongkili, who is the party strategist, merely replied that Pairin's time to quit was still far off.

"But he will be looking at the group of '94 which rebuilt the party after its collapse. These are the people who invested a lot of time and effort to reposition the party."

"It may not be me," he said, naming a host of possible leaders like PBS secretary-general Datuk Radin Malleh, vice-president Datuk Michael Asang and deputy president Dr Yee Moh Chai.

Ongkili also spoke on the need to work harder for PBS, which he said was the oldest existing political party in Sabah.

"We have to institutionalise the party even further. We must have that commitment," he said.

With PBS' homecoming to Barisan, the 49-year-old Ongkili's future looks as smooth as the tarred road in front of his Bandau house.