As the anniversary of the tragic plane crash approaches, family and friends ponder its impact on Sabah’s history
By PHILIP GOLINGAI
COMMENT: Five-year-old Iskandar Salleh was playing in his Signal Hill house in Kota Kinabalu when he was told of a tragedy that changed his life and Sabah’s history. The maid told him that his dad had been in an accident.
His dad, Salleh Sulong, the 38-year-old Sabah Finance Minister, had perished in a plane crash.
“I didn’t feel sad then because I was so young and it didn’t sink in,” related Iskandar, who is now 46.
That was on June 6, 1976. It was Sabah’s Double Six tragedy.
On that afternoon, a Nomad N-22B aircraft carrying the Sabah Chief Minister, state ministers and government officials, dropped from the sky above Kota Kinabalu.
The Nomad was flying 50 minutes from Labuan island and had reached Kota Kinabalu International Airport airspace. Suddenly, the Nomad’s nose dropped.
The plane began a one-and-a-half turn spiral plummet, and crashed into shallow waters near Kampung Sembulan Baru in Kota Kinabalu.
The dead were Sabah Chief Minister Fuad Stephens, Peter Mojuntin (Local Government and Housing Minister), Chong Thain Vun (Communications and Works Minister), Darius Binion (assistant to the Chief Minister), Wahid Peter Andu (permanent secretary to the Finance Ministry), Syed Hussein Wafa (Director of the Economic Planning Unit), Johari (Fuad’s son), Captain Gandhi Nathan (the pilot), Corporal Said Mohammad (Fuad’s bodyguard) and Ishak Atan (Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s executive assistant).
The crash happened less than two months after Berjaya defeated Usno in the 1976 Sabah elections and formed the state government.
I’ve always been curious about Salleh. He must have been an important man by virtue of his position as state Finance Minister.
And yet, I don’t know much about him or what happened to his family after the crash.
Unlike Fuad and Mojuntin, it seems Salleh has been forgotten by history.
In March this year, someone appeared in my Sabah Forum WhatsApp group, pouring his heart out about the Double Six tragedy. I WhatsApp-ed that someone to ask if his dad was in the double six crash. Iskandar replied it was his dad.
Salleh, who was Berjaya acting secretary-general, was an assemblyman from Papar. He was Malay, and his wife, Fenella Joan Robertson, was Anglo-Burmese. Fenella died in 1994.
Iskandar is the youngest among three siblings. He has two older sisters, aged 48 and 50.
His father’s tragic death etched a terrible image into his memory.
“When they brought his body to the house, they made me look at him as I was the only male in the family. My sisters didn’t need to. His face was half crushed,” said the real estate broker.
“I’m very angry at the people who showed his face to me at such a young age. No child should be shown his own father’s disfigured face.”
He doesn’t remember who forced him to look at his father’s body.
Iskandar doesn’t have many memories of his dad. He remembers his politician father was always busy. He remembers his dad was kind and generous to his three children.
“He was the minister of finance then. Everyone who knew him told me he was a smart man,” he said.
According to Mohd Noor Mansoor, who was the Berjaya secretary-general in 1976, Salleh was “humble, very approachable and a nice guy”.
“He was one of the few early Malay scholars who were sent overseas to study.
“After he graduated in New Zealand, he was handpicked by then chief minister Datu Mustapha Datu Harun to be part of his Usno government.
“He was made Finance Minister,” said the 75-year-old politician, who calls Salleh a good friend. “Unfortunately, he had a short political career.”
Before Berjaya swept into power, Sabah was ruled by the United Sabah National Organisation, or Usno, from 1967 to 1976.
Obviously, the Double Six tragedy changed Iskandar’s life. As he grew up, he wondered why there was secrecy about the plane crash.
Friends of his family had other “ideas” about why it happened. The talk about the crash made him curious.
As June 6 approaches, Iskandar still wants access to files on the crash. He said he has been told that they are still classified.
Like many Sabahans, Iskandar thinks the Double Six tragedy changed Sabah’s history.
“If you look back to 1976, Tun Fuad and the members of the Cabinet refused to sign the oil rights of 5% because they wanted 20% royalty for Sabah,” he said.
“Eight days after the tragedy, the Sabah Government signed the oil rights for 5%.”
Mohd Noor agrees that the crash changed Sabah’s history.
“If the crash didn’t happen and if they didn’t die, Berjaya would have been different.
‘These were quality people and Salleh was one of them,” said the politician, who replaced Salleh as Sabah Finance Minister.
Mohd Noor was released from detention under the Internal Security Act and contested in the by-election for Salleh’s Buang Sayang seat.
On Tuesday, the 41st anniversary of the Double Six tragedy, Iskandar’s family will attend the memorial service at the crash site in Sembulan.
However, he is not well due to back pain, which doesn’t allow him to stand too long and he will not make an appearance this year.
Iskandar will be at home. And he will be wishing his father were still alive.
- Philip is a Sabahan from Penampang who works as an Editor with the Star, where he also writes a weekly column – One Man’s Meat.