Sabah will be a focal point in the coming general election, especially after the defections of two BN MPs. If the opposition can avoid contesting three-cornered contests then Sabah’s status as a BN ‘fixed deposit’ state could hang in the balance, writes Arnold Puyok.
The upcoming 13th General Election is sure to be a hotly contested election. It will be a litmus test for Prime Minister Najib Razak who is banking on his “transformational agenda” to return the BN to power.
Indeed, to restore the BN to a two-thirds majority. For PR, the election is seen as Anwar Ibrahim’s last chance to take over Putrajaya after the alleged September 16 coup failed. Even though many of the seats contested come from Peninsular Malaysia, the real battle will be in Sabah and Sarawak.
In the 2008 General Election, the 54 seats from East Malaysia ensured BN a simple majority win. Without the 54 seats, BN would have lost power to the opposition, in the event of party crossovers. Consequently Sabah and Sarawak are considered as BN’s “fixed deposits”.
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This article is an attempt to look into the prospects and challenges of the 13th General Election in Sabah especially in light of the withdrawal of two Sabah leaders from BN – Wilfred Bumburing of UPKO (United Pasok Momogun Kadazandusun Association) and Lajim Ukin of Sabah UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).
With the persistent attacks on Sabah Chief Minister, Musa Aman for his alleged involvement in an international money laundering scandal and the Wilfred-Lajim factor, BN is expected to face a tough challenge from the opposition to retain Sabah. The article argues that if the opposition is able to form a strong alliance and avoid contesting against each other, it could affect Sabah’s fixed deposit status. Similarly, failure on BN’s part to address the perennial Sabah issues such as the illegal immigrant problems and state autonomy will affect its chances of returning to power.
Categorising the seats contested
For analytical purposes, all the 60 state and 25 parliamentary seats contested in Sabah will be divided into three categories: “safe” BN seats (where BN has more than an 80 percent chance of winning), “marginal” or “50-50” seats (where electoral support can go either to BN or the opposition) and “opposition” seats (where the opposition has more than an 80 percent chance of winning). This prospect is based on the following two factors: 1) Changes in the number of registered voters according to age and ethnicity and 2) Less multi-cornered but more one-to-one contests in the “marginal” areas. The opposition here refers to PR comprising PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), DAP (Democratic Action Party), and PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia). The other local-based opposition parties are STAR (State Reform Party) Sabah and SAPP (Sabah People’s Progressive Party).
The safe BN seats
There are 42 safe BN state seats and most are Muslim-majority. At the parliamentary level, there are nine safe BN seats with a large number of Muslim Bumiputera voters and they all belong to UMNO. (See Table 1 & 2) With the absence of alternative Muslim-based parties, the majority of the Muslim electorate will remain in UMNO. Among the weapons used by UMNO to maintain Muslim support are the persistent championing of Islam as a religion that unites the Muslims and the practice of on-the-spot development funds allocation.
The Muslim-majority areas will be BN’s key seats that will help maintain the party’s grip on power. PKR appears to fail to take the Muslim support from UMNO. One of the reasons is the lack of credible and popular Muslim leaders in the party. The present Sabah PKR chief, Ahmad Thamrin is not popular among the Muslim electorate while another well-known Muslim leader, Ansari Abdullah, does not have strong Muslim support beyond his base in Tuaran.
There is also the assumption that UMNO is falling apart due to the factions formed by supporters of Musa Aman and Federal Minister, Shafie Afdal. However, the so-called factions do not affect UMNO that much. So far, Musa has been able to keep the Muslim support in UMNO intact. Musa has also successfully defused the Bajau challenge led by Salleh Said, a former Chief Minister and currently Sabah UMNO deputy chief.
Despite the attacks on Musa for his alleged involvement in a financial scandal, Najib seems to be mindful not to pursue the case with intensive investigations. Najib knows that Musa has the clout to decide the fate of BN in Sabah. Asking Musa to resign before the election would put Sabah BN at great risk. The question is, if Musa resigned, who will be the most likely candidate to replace him? Many people believe that Najib has an eye on Shafie, his loyal ally from Semporna, Sabah. But others have mentioned Salleh Said, Musa’s number two in Sabah UMNO. Salleh is considered more liberal, in tune with the times and therefore, potentially, acceptable to Najib. Another possible candidate is Hajiji Noor, a senior UMNO member in the Sabah Cabinet.
The marginal or 50-50 seats
There are 10 marginal or 50-50 seats at the state level. Of the 10 seats, three are currently held by Gerakan (Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia), two each by LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah), and SAPP respectively, and one by UPKO. The three seats currently held by Gerakan previously belonged to LDP (1) and SAPP (2) previously. After an internal party conflict, Peter Pang, Au Kam Wah and Raymond Tan left their parties and joined the Gerakan. The three seats are considered as marginal as they were won under LDP and SAPP tickets. There is a high possibility that the voters might change their support to the opposition as a mark of protest over the decision of their leaders to join the peninsular-based Gerakan. The two state seats currently held by LDP, Tg. Kapor and Merotai, were won by Teo Chee Kang and Pang Yuk Ming after the opposition failed to agree on a one-to-one contest in 2008. The opposition’s chances of winning the two seats from BN are high in the upcoming election if it can avoid multi-cornered fights.
The other two marginal seats are in Tandek and Kadamaian. The PBS won the two seats in 2008 by marginal majorities. Grassroots sentiments in the two areas seem to indicate that the voters are unhappy with BN over its failure to address a number of local issues such as Native Customary Rights (NCR) land and poverty. The BN’s handling of the Tambatuon dam in Kadamaian has also been strongly criticised. Many people are also calling for the incumbent BN representatives to step down and to allow “winnable” candidates to take over. There are several lobby groups in Kadamaian that call for the incumbent Herbert Timbun Lagadan to make way for a younger candidate.
Likas and Luyang are regarded as marginal seats simply because both were won under SAPP when the party was still with BN. With SAPP now outside the ruling party, the opposition has raised its stakes in the two areas. The SAPP’s victory in the two areas in 2008 with marginal majorities shows that the opposition is highly popular there. In fact, had the DAP and PKR agreed to co-operate, SAPP would have lost in the 2008 election. The voters’ mood in the upcoming election will depend on SAPP’s next course of action.
So far, SAPP has not made any decision as to whether it would re-join BN or remain with the opposition. SAPP appears to have a “game” of its own. SAPP’s neither “here-nor-there” stance has not been well received by other local-based opposition parties even though its leaders could be seen attending political rallies organised by other opposition parties. SAPP’s future will depend on how well it can lobby to contest in Chinese and mixed areas. But again this will be difficult as DAP has strongly indicated its desire to contest in Chinese-majority areas. Unless SAPP and STAR Sabah are willing to compromise, they will have to contest against each other in mixed areas.
There are 13 marginal seats at the parliamentary level. Four of the seats are currently held by UPKO and UMNO, three by PBS, and two by SAPP. Most of the marginal parliamentary seats are non-Muslim Bumiputera-majority. The prospect of all 12 seats remaining with BN is dependent upon the reaction of the voters to the RCI (Royal Commission of Inquiry) to investigate the presence of illegal immigrants in Sabah and leadership issues.
Three of the main parties representing the Kadazandusuns are PBS, UPKO and PBRS (Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah). Joseph Pairin Kitingan, the president of PBS, is now regarded by the Kadazandusuns as an ineffective leader who is not as aggressive as before in fighting for state rights and autonomy. Pairin has defended PBS’ “accommodative” and “census-building” approach but the Kadazandusuns see it as a sign of weak leadership.
Bernard Dompok, the president of UPKO is also in a dilemma after the withdrawal of his deputy, Wilfred Bumburing from BN. It is believed that more UPKO members will leave the party, if not sooner, then later. Dompok, who was previously praised for speaking against the banning of the word “Allah” in Catholic churches, is now slowly losing influence in Penampang. Joseph Kurup who leads another Kadazandusun-based party, PBRS, could lose his seat in Pensiangan if he fails to address local sentiments there. He won the seat uncontested in 2008 after the candidacy of the opposition candidate was rejected on “technical grounds”.
The performance of the Kadazandusun-based BN parties will be seriously affected given the negative perception of the Kadazandusun electorate towards Kadazandusun leaders. The Kadazandusun voters have the habit of “kicking” their leaders out of office. This was evident in 1995 when many of the Kadazandusun leaders (for instance, Bernard Dompok and Jeffrey Kitingan) who left PBS in 1994 were voted out. In fact, BN lost in all the non-Muslim Bumiputera seats in 1995.
The opposition seats
There are eight state seats where the opposition could win. Presently, only one of the eight seats is held by the opposition (DAP in Sri Tanjong). The other seven seats are currently held by PBS (5) and one each by UPKO and MCA. PBS won all the five seats in 2008 by narrow majorities. Api-Api and Bingkor, for instance, were won by PBS candidates with less than 200 votes. The hugely popular Christina Liew of PKR is set to win in Api-Api if Yee Moh Chai of PBS is fielded. In 2008, Jeffrey Kitingan’s chances of winning in Bingkor were reduced after two independent candidates contested to split the votes. However, Jeffrey’s chances of winning in the upcoming election remain high, given STAR Sabah’s growing popularity in the rural areas.
The other seats such as Inanam, Tg. Aru and Kundasang were won by PBS in 2008 after the opposition failed to avoid multi-cornered fights. In Kundasang, the incumbent from PBS is said to be willing to give way to a winnable candidate. Among the names mentioned is Henrynus Amin, the PBS secretary-general. However, PBS’ chances of retaining the seat remain uncertain given STAR Sabah’s and SAPP’s rising popularity in the area.
The other two favourite state opposition seats are Kepayan and Kuala Penyu. In 2008, MCA won in Kepayan yet again after the opposition failed to form an alliance. The opposition’s votes combined (7758) could have easily defeated MCA (6162). Given the sentiments of the urban and Chinese voters, Kepayan is set to be won by the opposition in the 13th General Election.
In Kuala Penyu, the battle of the two Johns in 2008 saw John Ghani of PKR lose to John Teo of UPKO by a very narrow majority. The opposition’s chances of winning in Kuala Penyu remain intact given John Ghani’s popularity there. Kuala Penyu is one of the state seats under the Beaufort parliamentary seat. With Lajim’s withdrawal from BN, the opposition is set to make inroads there. Failure to field a strong candidate in Kuala Penyu will affect UPKO’s chances of retaining the seat.
At the parliamentary level, the opposition’s chances of winning in Kota Kinabalu, Pensiangan and Sandakan are high. In Kota Kinabalu, DAP and PKR are set to slug it out once again unless they agree not to contest against each other. In 2008, the contest between DAP and PKR saw DAP winning with just 106 votes. Even if there is a split in the opposition votes, it will not be huge enough to give the advantage to BN. Needless to say, BN only managed to secure 8420 votes in 2008, compared to the opposition’s combined votes of 18822. Sandakan will remain a favourite opposition seat given LDP’s razor thin majority of 176 votes in 2008.
It is important to look at the marginal seats in which BN and the opposition have equal chances of winning. Given the popularity of STAR Sabah and Jeffrey in the Kadazandusun areas, it is possible for the opposition to make significant inroads there. As stated, BN must do something dramatic, if not drastic in order to change the mood of the Kadazandusun electorate. Announcing the formation of the RCI might help boost BN’s popularity. Presenting an alternative or more attractive policy to address Sabah issues might help as well. It appears that the Kadazan-dusuns are frustrated with their leaders and want them to provide new strategies to develop the Kadazandusun community. Some are also questioning their leaders’ sincerity in voicing the Kadazandusuns’ concerns over the alleged domination of Sabah by UMNO. Many Kadazan-dusuns have regarded Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Maximus Ongkili and Bernard Dompok as seasoned politicians who have overstayed in power.
Najib’s recent visit to the interior town of Keningau brought cheers to local people who have been deprived of development for many years. Najib announced close to half a billion ringgit in federal loans to develop the integrated livestock farming in Sook and water supply in Keningau. Earlier, Najib also announced the establishment of the Kadazan-dusun college in Tambunan, Pairin’s hometown. However, whether all of these are capable of bolstering the Kadazandusun support behind the BN remains to be seen.
Even though it is said that BN could win comfortably in 42 state and nine parliamentary seats, it must not underestimate the influence of PKR in these areas. Without a strong and credible party to represent BN in the Chinese areas, it would be difficult for BN to provide a strong challenge to the opposition. The LDP is no longer regarded as a strong Chinese-based party in BN. It is not in good shape particularly after the departure of Chong Kah Kiat. The party is also divided between those who support Chong and those who are aligned to Liew Vui Keong, the present president.
The opposition has a lot of chances of winning a considerable number of state and parliamentary seats in the 13th General Election – provided opposition candidates avoid contesting against each other. The PKR has indicated that it would focus on parliamentary seats and would leave the local-based parties to contest at state level. The onus is now on the state-based local parties. The DAP and LDP cannot go beyond the Chinese areas. It would be highly likely that STAR Sabah will contest in all the Kadazandusun areas, in particular, those seats currently held by PBS, UPKO and PBRS. The SAPP might contest in areas it currently holds and might ask for some concession to contest in mixed constituencies. The PKR might contest in all the Malay-based areas. However, without credible and popular Malay leaders in PKR, it will be difficult for the party to penetrate into the Malay-Muslim territories.
On 29 July, two BN leaders – Wilfred Bumburing and Lajim Ukin – decided to leave BN and pledged their support for PR. Interestingly, both did not indicate their desire to become members of any of the opposition parties in Sabah. Wilfred formed a coalition called Angkatan Perubahan Sabah (APS) as his new platform while Lajim introduced the Pakatan Perubahan Sabah (PPS). PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim was present at the launching of the two coalitions. Wilfred and Lajim said they could no longer work with BN as it has failed to address Sabah issues.
Looking closely, APS’ and PPS’ manifestos are a repeat of the campaign issues championed by STAR Sabah and SAPP. It is likely that Anwar has a “job” for Wilfred i.e. to spearhead PR’s influence in the Kadazandusun areas where electoral support is split between the Kitingan brothers. Lajim will be Anwar’s “torchbearer” in the Muslim areas. It is too early to tell the impact of the Wilfred-Lajim factor. Wilfred’s withdrawal has jolted UPKO a bit as more of its members are said to be leaving. Lajim who is popular among the Bisaya community is expected to weaken BN’s stronghold in the southern part of Sabah.
In the 13th General Election, BN will return to power with at least 42 state seats in Sabah. It will also win comfortably in nine parliamentary seats. The BN, however, is weak in the Kadazandusun and Chinese areas. Due to STAR Sabah’s growing popularity and the inability of BN leaders to address Sabah issues effectively, a considerable number of the Kadazandusun BN supporters have ditched the party and joined the opposition. Failure to provide a clear and new vision to develop the Kadazandusun community could spell trouble for BN Kadazandusun-based parties.
Apart from the Kadazandusun areas, the opposition has the upper hand to retain a sizeable number of Chinese-based areas. Lack of credible Chinese leaders to represent BN is one of the factors. The LDP is perceived as a weak Chinese party as it only controls a marginal number of seats in the state and national parliaments.
The BN has to do more than channelling development funds to retain its electorate support in Sabah. It has to address issues such as illegal immigrants, customary lands, uneven development, to name a few local issues. In the same way, the opposition has to provide alternative policies to address these issues. Promoting the “Borneo Agenda” alone without offering practical solutions will not convince the electorate to abandon BN. The opposition’s chances of taking over from BN will also be significantly reduced if it fails to form a strong alliance, and to avoid contesting against each other in the marginal areas.
Dr Arnold Puyok is a lecturer in the Faculty of Administrative Science and Policy Studies, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Sabah.