Tun Mohamad Said Keruak interacting with the Bajau community of Kota Belud.

A mix of oral history and coffee-table hardcover, The Keruak Clan: Portrait Of A Bajau Patriot is a new book about a leader from Sabah (in East Malaysia) who was not only the head of state but one of the state's governors as well. Review by Stephen Tan.

During the Middle Ages, a prevalent practice among prominent European families was to engage artists and painters to highlight the exploits and greatness of a family member and, by extension, extol the virtues of said family.

That practice continues to this day in Asia with the publication of The Keruak Clan: Portrait Of A Bajau Patriot (Jeng Printedmater Editions/2004/108 pages/RM95). The central figure in the book is Tun Mohamad Said Keruak, who was the head of state (Yang Di-Pertua Negeri) of Sabah (in East Malaysia) from 1987 to 1994 and later one of the Governors of Sabah. The other person highlighted in the coffee-table book is Tun Mohamad Said's son, Salleh Said Keruak, who was Chief Minister of the state from 1994-1996.

Born in 1926, Tun Mohamad Said was from Kota Belud, a town about 48 kilometres from the state capital, Kota Kinabalu, and an important Bajau community. The Bajau is one of the three main indigenous groups in Sabah - the other major groups are the Kadazan-Dusun and the Murut respectively.

The book, professionally written by the Keruak family and friends, is divided into the following sections: The History Of Sabah; The People And Culture Of Sabah; The Bajau Of Kota Belud And The Keruak Clan; timelines of Tun Haji Mohamad Said Keruak and Datuk Haji Salleh Said Keruak respectively and a chronology of Leaders Of Sabah.

The opening chapter gives an abbreviated history of Sabah; starting with the kingdom of Brunei in the 16th century, the arrival of the British in the 18th century, right up to World War II, independence and the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Journalist Mohd Fauzi Patel's Recalling The Day Sabah Joined Malaysia is included in the book, the article's highlight being its anecdotal nature. Meanwhile, The People And Culture Of Sabah gives a brief overview of the customs, practices and livelihood of the different indigenous groups.

The full-brunt of the book's PR-spiel can be found in the chapters on the Keruak Clan and on Tun Haji Mohamad Said Keruak and Salleh Said Keruak respectively. Interestingly, the book highlights a controversial event that took place in 1994, at a time when Tun Mohamad Said Keruak was the Yang Di-Petua Negeri. In highlighting this event, it also shows up a deficiency in the book.

At the 1994 general elections, Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan's PBS (Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah) party won a narrow 25-23 victory over the Barisan Nasional (National Front, which is led by the United Malays National Organisation, UMNO). But within two weeks, three PBS MPs had changed sides to the BN, reportedly after receiving substantial financial inducements. On March 14, Sabah was thrown into political confusion with Chief Minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan announcing the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly and the Yang Di-Pertua Negeri denying he had signed such an order. The resulting weeks saw the collapse of the PBS government and, by May 4, the Barisan Nasional was running Sabah.

While it may not have been the book's aim to chronicle each and every major event, it would have been to the book's credit that a more in-depth attempt had been made to show Tun Mohamad Said's role in this instance. Interviews with people close to Tun Mohamad Said on what the latter felt and thought would have added a different dimension to the event, apart from the (press) reports and releases that were reproduced. Currently, the reader certainly does not feel the gravity of the situation - the collapse of the state government - nor have any inkling to the maneuverings and activities taking place behind-the-scene.

As the book clearly shows, The Keruak Clan comes across best as a form of oral history. Even the black-and-white pictures that adorn the book shares that feeling - many of the pictures are from family albums, either taken at family gatherings or specially-posed family photos.

But instead of oral history, which would have been highly personal and more anecdotal, the book has a heavy reliance on secondary sources such as news reports (the death of Tun Mohamad Said Keruak on November 18, 1995) and what reads like a press release (Datuk Haji Salleh Tun Said Keruak's Tenure As Chief Minister).

Academic libraries will probably stock the book because it does offer a documented account of a Bajau leader but serious Asia watchers would certainly have preferred a more lucid account and one with more historical pictures as well.

Note: The Keruak Clan: Portrait Of A Bajau Patriot is available at Select Books (Tanglin Shopping Centre) at the recommended retail price of S$45.

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