Air crash that altered Sabah’s history

IT was the first day of Hari Raya but Iskandar Salleh was not in a celebratory mood. The 48-year-old Sabahan had his late dad on his mind.

The second day of Hari Raya was the 43rd anniversary of the Double Six air crash that killed his father, Datuk Salleh Sulong, the state Finance Minister. At that time, Iskandar was five years old and his father was 38.

On Thursday, during the memorial service at the Double Six monument where the plane crashed in Sembulan near Kota Kinabalu, Iskandar wished that he could turn back time and that the crash had never happened.

“It would be good to know my father as I was growing up. I never knew him,” he said.

On June 6, 1976, a twin-engine turboprop Nomad N-22B aircraft carrying the Sabah Chief Minister and several state ministers, assemblymen and senior government officials, dropped from the sky above Kota Kinabalu.

Apart from Salleh, the dead were Sabah Chief Minister Tun Fuad Stephens, Datuk Peter Mojuntin (Local Government and Housing Minister), Chong Thain Vun (Communications and Works Minister), Darius Binion (assistant to the Chief Minister), Datuk 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).

Iskandar (left), his sister Kartina and her husband at the Double Six monument in Kota Kinabalu.

As a Sabahan, I have many unanswered questions about the Double Six tragedy.

What caused the crash?

Was it faulty design, as the aircraft was sometimes known as the widow maker?

Was it pilot error and aircraft overload?

Did an air traffic control officer tell the pilot of the plane, flying 50 minutes from Labuan island, to hover above the Kota Kinabalu International Airport until he was permitted to land?

Why were a few passengers asked to change planes at the last minute?

Was it sabotage because the Sabah chief minister was negotiating the state’s oil rights with the Federal Government?

And there were also the what-ifs.

If the crash had not happened, would Sabah’s political history be different? The politicians who perished were the crème de la crème of the Berjaya government that had been formed less than two months after the party defeated Usno in the 1976 state polls.

If the crash had not happened, would Sabah have gotten 20% oil royalty instead of 5%? If so, would Sabah be as prosperous as its oil-producing neighbour, Brunei, whose currency is $1.35 to US$1 whereas it is RM4.15 to the US dollar?

Iskandar too has many unanswered questions.

“Until now, my family does not know why the plane crashed. We will never get the truth until the Australian government releases its investigation paper on the crash. The Australian government will only release it if the Malaysian government asks for the release,” said Iskandar, who works at Gomez Curry House in Kota Kinabalu.

(The Nomad was designed and built by Australia’s Government Aircraft Factories.)

At the end of 2014, Iskandar visited the National Archives in Canberra to read a 43-page report on the crash. He was only allowed to see the first few pages, which contained introductory facts.

“I asked why they couldn’t release the rest of the paper as I am the son (of one of those killed in the crash). They told me only the Malaysian government could request for it,” he said.

Iskandar is among those who believe that there was a sinister plot behind the Double Six tragedy, linked to the negotiations on the state’s oil royalty.

With the victory of Pakatan Harapan/Parti Warisan Sabah in GE14, Iskandar thought that the new government would get fresh answers relating to the crash. However, he was disappointed that in new Malaysia, his questions remain unanswered.

“I thought that since it is no longer the Barisan Nasional government, the new government will find out the truth so that many families can rest as they finally know what really happened. We need closure,” he said.

Iskandar’s daughters, aged 13 and 15, want to know what happened to their grandfather as well. But their father has no answers for them.

Many Sabahans – some who were not born before 1976 – are also curious about one of the most tragic incidents in the state’s history since the formation of Malaysia.

By Philip Golingai
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