The story of Tawau and its people is only around 130 years old. People alive today, including this author, have known those who were present at the very start of a recognisable settlement at the mouth of the Tawau River. Ken Goodlet’s interviews cover around 21 linguistic groups in those early days, making this record of Tawau rainbow-coloured in its diversity.
The book shows that Tawau has had at least two natural advantages: its location and its natural wealth. Situated at the meeting point of three states that were formerly very different (and competing) colonies, Tawau has been a haven of prosperity and peace, first under the British and then as part of Malaysia. This has attracted trade and immigration (and, at times, envy) not only from far distant Japan and China, but from the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia) to its immediate south and from the Spanish and American and, later, independent Philippines to its east.
Tawau’s natural wealth, evidenced in a favourable climate, large pockets of excellent soil and coal deposits, has provided residents with jungle produce, then mining and timber, then rubber and hemp and cocoa, and finally oil palm prosperity, augmented by a host of less important agricultural products. The book shows how this has led to extensive migration and capital investment ab=nd to the growth of a diverse agriculture-based economy with a complex infrastucture. While previously unimagined wealth has brought better health and a higher standard of living, inevitably it has brought problems-unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, illegal immigration, wealth inequity and loss of some community values. But the final chapters make clear the present is a better world for most than it was at any time in the past.
Ken Goodlet, an Australian, lived with his wife Jan and four sons in Tawau for eight years in the late 1960’s and early a 1970’s and has kept in touch with the town and its people. He has always been interested in helping people find their place in the world through understanding of their history. This interest has led to his writing four published community histories, two on communities in his native Australia. In 2007 he received an Energy Australia National Trust award for his local history, Hazelbrook and Woodford: A Story of Two Blue Mountains Towns.
Out of his interest in people’s past, he began over forty years ago setting his Tawau students the task of researching and writing about their family history, which he followed up visits to his student’s older family members. He soon realized that he had a rich historical resource on Tawau and, after authenticating the interviews where possible with archival material, wrote a University of Sydney Master’s thesis which appeared in print in Sabah in 2002 as The Origin and Early Development of the Tawau Community, 1880-1942. He then wrote a more complete and user-friendly story of Tawau to 2008, a task that involved a number of visits to Tawau in the last few years to conduct further interviews and research, some with former students who had participated in this work forty years ago.
This story of Tawau has been a labour of love for the author. Tawau and its people continue to exercise their magic over him and in that spirit he offers this book to the people of Tawau and those beyond.