KOTA KINABALU: For more than two decades, it was normal to see the Huguan Siou (paramount leader) of the Kadazandusun Murut (KDM) people, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, joining in to celebrate the annual Harvest Festival in the Hongkod Koisaan (Unity Hall) in Penampang, about 10km from here.
This year, however, Pairin was nowhere to be seen. Normally, he would be easily found mingling with the people even from the first week of the celebration in the Hongkod.
“It is understandable because it seems that some people do not welcome him there this year.
“From what I understand, he is overseas and may not make it in time for the Kaamatan,” a source close to him said yesterday.
Pairin was given the Huguan Siou title at the height of his influence as KDM leader in 1984. The title is an institution or an office awarded to an individual who has shown bravery and passion in fighting for the KDM people.
Although there were at least three others who had laid claim to the title over the years, Pairin remained the undisputed primary Huguan Siou for the KDM and had always represented the people at the Kaamatan festival in the Hongkod.
In Pairin’s place now is KDM Malaysia president Peter Anthony, who was recently appointed as infrastructure development minister under the Warisan-Pakatan Harapan (PH) state government.
Pairin, who is the president of Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), lost his Tambunan state seat to his brother Jeffrey Kitingan of Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR) in the recently concluded general election.
Immediately after being appointed to the ministry, Anthony appointed himself the chairman of the state level Kaamatan festival in place of Pairin, on the grounds that the festival was subsidised by the state government even if the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association (KDCA) was the main organiser.
Pairin was the chairman of the main organising committee in his capacity as president of KDCA, a non-political association of 40 indigenous ethnic communities in Sabah.
The manner of his removal as the chairman of the committee is viewed as an attempt by Anthony, who is not a member of the KDCA central committee, to assert himself as Pairin’s potential replacement.
Many KDM people are unhappy and view this as disrespectful towards the elderly Huguan Siou.
Anthony was among a dozen individuals, including current Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, who were investigated last year by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission over corruption allegations involving RM1.5 billion in federal funds meant for Sabah rural projects.
However, Anthony’s KDM Malaysia, an NGO which he set up in 2011 “to direct KDM support to Umno”, has been quite a hit among the younger KDM.
Prior to Shafie quitting Umno in 2016, the NGO attracted generous aid from Barisan Nasional for distribution to the community, including preferential treatment for scholarship applications, which helped Anthony project himself as the next prominent KDM leader.
The removal of Pairin as the chairman of this year’s Kaamatan organising committee is seen by some observers as an early step in this direction by Anthony
However, there are strong objections to this. Immediately after photos of him chairing the committee meeting went viral on social media, netizens condemned the action and accused him of trying to usurp Pairin’s position as the community’s leader.
Anthony has since said he is neither interested nor qualified to become the Huguan Siou and assured the people that Pairin would continue to play an important role in the KDM community.
“This message went viral on social media and created a negative perception. There are those who will try to sabotage us and make us look bad, but we have always been inclusive.
“Politics is politics, culture is culture. There is no reason for us to sideline Pairin, what more as he is the Huguan Siou,” Anthony said in a statement.
Some KDM members said the fact that Pairin chose to travel overseas on the dates coinciding with the Kaamatan which he had hosted for more than two decades spoke volumes about his feelings on the situation.
But with or without their Huguan Siou, the KDM community who came for this year’s festival in the Hongkod Koisaan will still revel in the party atmosphere that is the Tadau Tagazo do Kaamatan.