Book - East of Kinabalu

It was unfortunate in some ways that the acquisition of Kimansi, and the subsequent acceleration of our development operations, coincided with the Indonesian Konfrontasi. President Soekarno had taken exception to the inclusion of Sabah and Sarawak into greater Malaysia.

Armed incursions from Indonesia became frequent and eventually it was blown up into a minor war. There were casualties on both sides near the border between East Malaysia and Kalimantan. Britain came to Malaysia’s aid and the allied troops consisting of British and Malaysian forces had little trouble in repelling Indonesian attacks.  




In the Labuk, we were far away from the Indonesian border. We had a few false alarms however. Special Branch arrested one of our young Indonesian trainee overseers, a Javanese. He apparently confessed under questioning that he had been sent to Pamol to prepare for an uprising among our Indonesian workers. It was to be led, it was claimed, by a platoon of Indonesian commandos who would land on our airstrip and help take over the entire Labuk Valley.

A company of British troops was billeted on our estate for a few months to guard the airstrip. Apparently, the Indonesian plan was aborted. We learned that the entire commando platoon surrendered to the allied forces on the Indonesian border a few months later.

To me, it had sounded like a hair-brained scheme from the outset, since most of our Bugis workers had actually come to Sabah to escape from Soekarno and his regime. There was, however, a curious, typically Sabahan sequel to this.

Konfrontasi came to an abrupt halt following the anti-communist revolution in Indonesia. The new government refused to take the commandos back: “You captured them. You keep them!” The Sabah government, rather to their embarrassment, found that they had a platoon of unwanted Indonesian commando prisoners on their hands.

Tun Mustapha phoned me and suggested we should relieve the situation by offering them employment on Tungud. Anthony Wong went over to interview them and recruited them all. He reported in due course that they were some of the best workers we had!

The Filipino factor
What was to affect us much more than the military threat was the fact that the border with Indonesia was firmly shut for a few years and (apart from our commandos) all immigration from Indonesia was stopped. This was just at the time when our development was at its peak and our need for labour was at its greatest.

The situation looked serious, and we were contemplating having to cut back our programme. We were saved, surprisingly, by the drop in the price of tobacco in the Philippines. Tobacco was the main crop in Northern Luzon. Thousands of Illocano smallholders were suffering severe hardship.

I went over to Manila and through the good offices of our Unilever subsidiary, the Philippine Refining Company, we established a recruiting agency. This proved a great success and soon there was a steady flow of immigrants into Sabah.

By 1966, we had 1,800 workers of whom nearly half were Filipinos. We were told by the Philippines Ambassador when he visited the estate, that at the time, we were the largest employer of Filipinos in the country.

The advent of the Filipinos changed the entire culture of the company. Many of them brought their guitars with them; in the evenings at the club, they would get together to sing American and Filipino folk songs.

The ladies who came with them introduced us to their native dances, which were influenced by Spanish colonial days. The parties in the Labuk Club became much livelier. We all had to learn the steps of the Pasa Doble and the Tinikling, the popular bamboo-dance. By way of exchange, Bryson Middleton started a Scottish Country Dance Class, which the Filipinos took to with great enthusiasm.

The new arrivals did not only consist of agriculturalists. The standard of education in the Philippines was, at that time, by far the highest in Southeast Asia, but unemployment among educated and skilled people was running at a very high rate.

Every Filipino kumpit which came up the river brought in workers with a whole range of skills which were useful to us. They included clerical workers, research staff, mechanics, teachers, drivers, draftsmen and builders.

But since Sabah was the only place a Filipino criminal could travel to without a passport, the arrivals also included one or two bank-robbers, a sprinkling of murderers and sundry other desperadoes escaping from the Philippines police force. Strangely enough, they gave us no problems, any more than the commandos had. This was particularly surprising since there were no policemen nearer than Beluran.

I suspected that the Filipinos were very much in awe of Ibrahim who, I was told, threatened to kill anyone who stepped out of line. The newcomers were also aware of the reputation of the Bugis and the tattooed Dyaks, and were all on their very best behaviour while they were with us – just as the Balanini pirates had been.

In-house project
The last management house to be built was the general manager’s house. It was to be situated, in keeping with plantation tradition, on the highest hill in the management compound overlooking our future golf-course. It would have a glorious view to the west, with Mount Kinabalu towering up on the skyline.

One of the immigrants was a trained draftsman, a young man named Pablo. I found in a magazine, a picture of an attractive house on a beach in Hawaii. I made a few sketches of it and passed it to Pablo, who turned it into a working drawing.

It was far too big an operation for Kong Miew to undertake. However, the Filipino builders coped with the woodwork and the roof. The stonework was completed with the help of a Chinese bricklayer, Lee Mau Sang, who had come to us as an artisan and who, over the years, graduated to become a resident building contractor.

The new house was light and airy and looked rather Californian in style, with huge central merbau beams which we produced in our own sawmill. It proved to be very practical. It had a VIP suite attached, which was used over the years by many Sabah dignitaries on their visits to the Labuk.

Long after my retirement, I visited the estate, and was delighted to see that the management houses were still in as good shape as when we built them 40 years earlier. David Martin who stayed in the general manager’s house on his retirement visit, said how delighted he was that we had built it without the help of an architect!

The second part will be published in the next issue. This is an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters; email:

Datuk Leslie Davidson
Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International

The second part will be published in the next issue. This is an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters;  email:


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