AN eerie stillness sweeps through the rural area of Silimpopon in Kalabakan, Sabah. Flanked by oil palm like any other place in Tawau, the dusty dirt road will lead you to a site which looks like it belongs in a lost world —long, overgrown vines claw the ruins of old structures and wild ferns form a blanket around broken wooden train tracks. With the exception of the gush of flowing waters, buzzing bees and the occasional squawk of the birds, there’s dead silence in the area.


The very first train in North Borneo (Sabah), 1898. Picture by North Borneo Historical Society

Once a thriving coal mining town, Silimpopon was abandoned over 80 years ago when the demand for coal dipped.

But from 1905 till 1937, scores of people — locals, coolies from China and economic migrants from all over the region, including Japan — made their way to this interior part of Sabah’s sprawling eastcoast area to earn a living.

And why wouldn’t they? The mine, operated by London-based Cowie Harbour Coal Company was, after all, the biggest coal mine in the world.

Sabah, then known as North Borneo, was a treasure trove of wealth for the British North Borneo Chartered Company. “The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. The surprises when researching Sabah’s history are unending!” says a smiling Richard Ker, who’s more than happy to reveal more about Silimpopon, a place which even most Sabahans don’t know about. Ker, an IT specialist, is the founder of the North Borneo Historical Society (NBHS). The non-governmental organisation has been leading the pack to promote the state’s rich and relatively unknown past. “There’s still so much to discover,” he adds.

From May 5 to May 7, NBHS will have its very first photo exhibition at GREAT 2017 in Kota Kinabalu, an event organised by the Ministry of Finance as well as government initiative, the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre.

Considered the largest entrepreneurship conference in Sabah, Ker feels this may be the best opportunity to give Sabah’s history the exposure it deserves.


Richard Ker, an IT specialist, is the founder of the North Borneo Historical Society. Picture by Mohd Fadli Hamzah

SETTING A STAGE

“When I found out that Kota Kinabalu was chosen to host GREAT 2017, I secured a space immediately,” says Ker, sharing that an estimated 5,000 people from all over the country will turn up for the event. “I won’t be getting a big space for the exhibition but at least, there’s some visibility,” he says, adding there’ll be more than 50 rare images of pre-war Sabah on display.

The booth, he discloses, is there to incite an interest in the state’s history as well as push NBHS as a platform for preserving heritage.

For now, the society is a pretty small outfit with only Ker in the driving seat. He admits that he was never a history buff to begin with but a desire to promote his hometown Tawau led him on a different path. Ker built and maintained a website called Info Tawau in 1997 and later, started a Facebook page under the same name.

“I was doing some research on Tawau’s history but I later discovered plenty of interesting aspects of Sabah’s history. That was the turning point when I started to immerse myself in the state’s history.”

But his interest was met with frustration. Ker realised that there was no central platform to share, discuss or debate anything related to Sabah’s heritage, so he kick-started NBHS in 2011 while in Beijing, where he was based for over a decade. “Despite being far away from home and facing challenges in accessing Facebook, I still did research and updated the content,” he says, noting that a few Sabahans volunteered to help manage the Facebook page while he was away.


A British North Borneo police contingent at Chelsea Barracks, London in 1897. Picture by North Borneo Historical Society

FORWARD FUTURE

NBHS’s Facebook page, as Ker shares, has a following of more than 46,000 people. Refreshingly, a majority of them are aged 24 to 35. “It shows that Sabahans are proud and appreciative of the state’s history,” he observes.

History, Ker points out, tends to be very dry and most put it down to being plain dull. “You have to be really creative and innovative when it comes to the subject. People are bombarded with huge chunks of information on a daily basis so ideally, the content should be bite-sized,” he says, explaining that he wants to use technology and his background in IT to alter the way Malaysians view history.

But technology has already helped catapult history into a different realm — Ker cites the restoration of the Melalap train station in Tenom as an example. “The rail service was terminated due to economic changes in Melalap and, eventually, the station was abandoned in 1970. The station started to deteriorate badly,” he says, with overgrown shrubs and termite-infested wood structures.

Ker recalls early efforts to save the station which was built in 1906 but due to lack of funding, support and awareness, plans for restoration never materialised. “Last year, we informed everyone on the NBHS page that we would drive the effort to save the station. Slightly more than a year later, it was announced that the station would be designated a heritage building,” he says proudly.


The main boiler house in Silimpopon’s mines. The photo was taken in the 1920s. Picture by ROSS IBBOTSON: Silimpopon — A Borneo Coal Mine; Opus Publications /Wikipedia

The key to getting things going, he observes, is the spirit of collaboration. Ker feels that NBHS’ role is to connect people or act as a catalyst for heritage initiatives, but the power to change things however, comes from the people. “The government has a limited number of resources so it’s a challenge to rely on them all the time. But there must be enough push to help protect Sabah’s heritage,” he adds.

FRAMING HISTORY

With only a week to go before the exhibition, Ker, who’s based in Kuala Lumpur, is putting in extra hours to make sure everything is in place. Between his full-time job and managing the NGO, Ker spent a month carefully selecting and digitising the images for the exhibition.

“We should care about our history because Sabah has one of the most unique and interesting histories in the region,” says Ker, before elaborating that the exhibition will feature photos from the 1920s till the early 1940s before World War II broke out. “It was North Borneo’s most prosperous time mostly due to its booming agricultural industries, especially rubber.”


William Cowie, chairman of the British North Borneo Company is seen threading through the jungles with coolies in 1898. Picture by North Borneo Historical Society

The extensive collection of photos he has on the NBHS website and Facebook page is courtesy of the people who visited North Borneo then.

At its height, the Silimpopon mine housed a community of more than 3,000, greater than the population of Tawau at that time. It was a multicultural, self-contained community with its own shops, hospital and police, as well as workshops. Ker equates that harmonious living to the way Sabah is now.

Beaming, he concludes: “The one thing Sabah is known for is how so many people of different races, religions and beliefs live together so harmoniously. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. It has become one of our biggest strengths.”

For him, these photos of Sabah’s past mirror the present and to a certain extent, the future.

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