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Sabah: All Quiet On The Eastern Front?

by G Lim
Aliran Monthly 23:7

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sabah (19K)
Sabah: Not plain-sailing for govt
The forthcoming state and federal elections in Sabah are likely to be a tame affair, more akin to the tawdry predictability of neighbouring Sarawak than the raging battles, ‘midnight coups’ and party-hopping of Sabah’s not-too-distant past. Parti Bersatu Sabah’s return to the Barisan Nasional fold at the end of last year has removed the last vestiges of well-established opposition in the state, and a clean sweep is more than likely.

The redelineation of seat boundaries giving Sabah five more parliamentary seats demonstrates the BN’s conviction that Sabah will stay in line at the next election.

That said, all is not plain sailing for the government, and the BN faces a number of internal challenges. Moreover, Sabah being Sabah, it is impossible to write off any eventuality.

The BN

For the BN, the main challenge will probably come before the election, in the process of seat allocation. In West Malaysia, this process is fractious enough; in Sabah it is confounded by two main factors:

First, the diverse ethnic make-up of Sabah means that there are few seats where one or other community has an absolute majority and, thus, there are few seats which ‘naturally belong’ to any BN party as, for instance, Malay-majority seats in Semenanjung are automatically alloted to UMNO.

Second, this problem is further compounded by the number of overlapping parties in the Sabah BN. With PBS’ return, there are now three parties representing the non-Muslim bumiputeras, including Bernard Dompok’s UPKO (United Pasok-Momogun Kada-zandusun Organisation) and Joseph Kurup’s PBRS (Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah). For the Chinese community, there are three parties - the SAPP (Sabah Progressive Party), the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and the MCA. Only the Malay-Muslim community, not coincidentally, has a single representative party in the Sabah BN: UMNO.

Of course, such overlapping interests are also present between the West Malaysia BN parties, most notably between Gerakan and the MCA, but there, at least, there are enough seats to keep all parties relatively satisfied. If you don’t get any seats allocated, like the PPP, there’s always a senatorship or two up for grabs. In contrast, the Sabah BN has seven parties all eyeing essentially the same set of seats.

The other major issue facing the Sabah BN is what to do after the elections, specifically the fate of the chief ministership after the state election. Since the BN wrested control of the state from the PBS in 1994, it has implemented a policy of rotating the post every two years. This rotation policy, which had some popularity, allowed the BN to reward two prominent defectors from the PBS - Yong Teck Lee and Bernard Dompok - with a stint as CM.

However, voices within UMNO are urging the prime minister to scrap the rotation system and keep all the goodies for UMNO. After the end of UMNO’s last turn in 2001, the system was changed to favour UMNO. Instead of a six year cycle of Malay-Muslim, then Chinese, then non-Muslim bumi, an eight year rotation was introduced with two periods of UMNO control alternating with one each for the Chinese and non-Malay bumis. There are still calls for the system to be scrapped altogether, but such a move would risk a backlash from the other communities.

Let’s now have a look at the individual parties within the Sabah BN:


umno_logo (12K)At the last state election in March 1999, UMNO emerged as the largest party in the Sabah assembly, a pretty impressive result considering that Sabah, like Sarawak, has tended towards parochial sentiments which eschew the peninsula-based parties. UMNO success is largely due to a cunning strategy of divide and rule. By splitting the non-Muslim votes even within the BN block, UMNO has emerged as the dominant party. Is this why there are so many different parties in the Sabah BN ?

start_quote (1K) Pairin and the PBS are a real problem for the Sabah BN. end_quote (1K)
UMNO’s ambitions to take the chief ministership all for itself will largely depend on its performance at the state level. If it manages to capture a sufficient proportion of the votes, it will have a case. But with the return of the PBS to the fold, UMNO also runs the risk of playing second fiddle in the state BN. It seems likely, however, that with UMNO calling the shots at the centre, the party will be allocated more than its ‘fair share’ of seats and will, most probably, win them all.

UMNO’s success in the state is largely dependent upon its ability to bring development funds - as epitomised by its slogan of “Sabah Baru”. Yet whilst money is now pouring in to the state, with new highways sprouting left, right and centre, Sabah remains in the development doldrums, with GDP growth projected at around half the national level for the period of the Eighth Malaysia Plan. Although it is not likely to be a major factor in the forthcoming elections, economic woes may increasingly eat into the party’s support levels.


pbs logo (27K) The PBS’ eventual return to the BN fold late last year was hardly unexpected: party leader Joseph Pairin Kitingan had been knocking at the coalition’s door since virtually the day after his ill-advised decision to pull out of the BN on the eve of the 1990 general election. It has, however, deprived Sabah of its most established opposition party.

At the 1999 state and general elections, when it was still in the opposition, PBS performed badly, but this was not reflective of its level of support. At the federal elections, for instance, the PBS won only three out of sixteen seats it contested, compared with UMNO which won all twelve of the seats it contested. As a proportion of the votes cast, however, PBS and UMNO came remarkably close, garnering around 32% and 35% respectively.

PBS remains popular, as does Pairin. As Huguan Siou (paramount leader) of the Kada-zandusun community, Pairin retains a great detail of personal respect. Moreover, much of the support for him appears to be irrespective of whether or not PBS is in opposition or not.

Pairin and the PBS are a real problem for the Sabah BN. Their contunuing popularity means that the coalition can ill-afford to refuse them a share of the electoral booty, but there is clearly a deep mistrust of Pairin, who also has the annoying habit of raising irksome issues like the presence of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants in the state, many of whom are believed to have managed to vote in past elections.

The real crunch will come in seats like Papar and Beaufort, a strongly Kadazan region south of Kota Kinabalu where UMNO contested (and won) against the PBS last time round. Will UMNO make room for the PBS here and, if not, how long will it be before the PBS decides again that it may be better off outside the coalition.

One likely outcome is a typical piece of BN shennanigans - the PBS will be denied major representation at the state and federal levels, but Pairin, who will most likely win his federal seat uncontested, will be offered a junior ministership at the federal level. Such a strategy has been employed in the past with popular but (for the federal BN) untrustworthy politicians, such as Leo Moggie and Tun Mustapha Harun (who, however, refused the offer).

Other BN Parties

With a potentially devasting duumvirate of UMNO and PBS at the helm, the other non-Muslim bumiputera parties in the BN face the squeeze, although UMNO is likely to keep them in to counterbalance the PBS.

At the 1999 federal election, the PBRS’ leader Joseph Kurup came within a whisker of defeating Pairin in the latter’s stronghold of Keningau. Since then, however, the PBRS has been involved in a fractious leadership challenge by Pairin’s own brother Jeffrey Kitingan, who, in the wonderful intricacies of Sabah politics, had beaten Kurup soundly as a PBS candidate in the state elections, before jumping ship to join Kurup in the PBRS. Kurup himself formed the PBRS after defecting from the PBS in the run-up to the 1994 state elections.

Although Kurup remains in control of the PBRS, the infighting has damaged the party’s standing and it is increasingly seen as a vehicle for personal ambitions, rather than a party in itself. This is likely to be reflected at the elections, with PBRS probably not being allotted any federal seats at all, and will also damage the party at the state level.

UPKO, another remnant of the 1994 debacle, is proving more resilient. UPKO won convincingly in 1999 in core Kadazandusun regions like Panampang, although Dompok lost his Moyog state seat and, with it, the chief ministership.

Nonetheless, UPKO is growing in popularity, and its ability to avoid the factionalism that has plagued much of the Sabah BN may see it rewarded with more seats to contest, and a higher vote.

The farrago over Yong Teck Lee’s disqualification from and subsequent re-winning of the Likas state seat appears to have done little damage to the SAPP, as witnessed by Yong’s increased majority at the by-election. Along with the LDP, these two Chinese-based parties appear to have slender but confident majority support in the community. The LDP leader Chong Kah Kiat’s recently concluded term as CM was notable for its lack of controversy, and Chong built something of a personal reputation as the clean and friendly face of the BN, which may see the party improve its standing.

Broadly, the fate of the smaller parties in the BN is hard to predict with any certainty. The prevalent politics of personality in these parties has created something of a state of flux, with factionalism and jostling for power the main feature. Should UMNO decide to end the rotating CMship, it could be that these parties will become increasingly irrelevant to the state BN.

Before turning to look at the state of the opposition, it would be charitable to mention poor old Jeffrey Kitingan. Jeffrey’s honky-tonky approach to political parties (in-out-in-out-shake it all about) reached its nadir with the rejection of both his applications (he applied twice to be on the safe side) to join UMNO. Jeffrey, it seems, has jumped party so many times there are no lily-pads left for him. As a figure of political influence, Jeffrey is probably irrelevant now, but his sad story stands as an important reminder to Sabah politicians of the perils of ranine behaviour.

The Opposition

The state of the opposition in Sabah is virtually moribund, lacking direction and popular leaders. Peninsular based opposition parties have traditionally fared badly in the state and, with the PBS gone, the local opposition ranks look weak in the extreme.

Moreover, the opposition parties in the state are chronically uncooperative with each other. As with internal BN problems, this is probably due to their overlapping interests and the state’s diverse ethnic make-up. In the BN, however, power has proved the glue that keeps its parties together. The opposition has no such glue.

A tragic display of this lack of compromise came at the Likas by-election. In 1999, Yong won the seat in a close three-way fight and, given the furore surrounding his trial, the opposition stood a good chance of ousting him if they could agree on a single candidate. No compromise was reached and, in the end, the PBS, DAP and Keadilan all fielded candidates, allowing Yong to romp home easily.

The lessons of this do not seem to have been learnt and with Keadilan-DAP ties frosty at the national level, cooperation in Sabah at the forthcoming elections is unlikely.

Of the peninsular opposition parties, the DAP at least had enjoyed some past success in Sabah. In 1986, when the PBS was in the BN coalition for the first time, the DAP won four federal seats in the urban areas of Sabah.

Many within the DAP are therefore hoping for a resurgence in its electoral fortunes and indeed base its claims to field candidates in any opposition electoral agreement on this past performance. Certainly, there is little doubt that the DAP will see an increase in its vote in the next election.

The question is whether the DAP will return to its former status as a major opposition force in the state. It seems likely not. In the mid-1980s, the DAP was riding high on a wave of popularity across the country. This time round, it has simply not managed to communicate with the voters and lacks any real sense of what it should be pushing for in Sabah.

A similar story of lack of direction can be told about Keadilan. In the past, Keadlian’s constant focus on the Anwar issue had left many voters in Sabah unmoved. Anwar is widely seen as a ‘Semenanjung issue’ and, indeed, many oppositionist leaders in the state blame Anwar for the PBS’ fall in 1994.

Despite this, Keadilan was not a complete washout in 1999, winning around a third of the vote in the three seats it contested. Keadilan activists claim that the party has since built up a good grassroots following in the state by addressing issues of local concern. As at the national level, the viability of Keadilan as a long-term political force is at test.

Of the last of the Semenanjung opposition parties, PAS, the less said the better. PAS has consistently failed to gain any substantial support in Sabah, largely because its firebrand version of Islam has little resonance even amongst Sabah’s Muslim population. With only a couple of thousand votes to its name at the last election, it may well be time for PAS to accept that, for the time being at least, it is a Semenanjung party only.

Similarly moribund is the former vehicle for ex-Chief Minister Harris Salleh, Bersekutu. After an abysmal showing in 1999 and with Harris now well and truly retired from politics, it cannot be long until Bersekutu joins Harris in retirement.

This all paints a somewhat depressing picture for the opposition parties in Sabah, and it is true that they stand little chance of making any substantial in-roads at the forthcoming elections. If they are to act as a greater check on the BN’s dominance of the state in the long run, they need to begin cooperating more and addressing the issues that matter to the people of Sabah.

In the final analysis, the BN will win all 26 Sabah seats (including Labuan) at stake: it may be that a wipe-out is what the opposition parties in Sabah need to force them to address their own short-sighted strategies.

G. Lim who recently completed his PhD in Politics for a UK university is now based in Kota Kinabalu from where he filed this story.

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