Home 2013: 4 GE13: Political awakening in Sabah?

GE13: Political awakening in Sabah?

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The electorate has become more politically aware of their democratic rights — to choose political parties that can best fight for their interests, says Arnold Puyok.


The dust from the 13th Malaysian General Election has finally settled.

As expected, BN (Barisan Nasional) returned to power winning 133 (60 per cent) out of 222 federal seats as opposed to PR (Pakatan Rakyat) 89 (40 per cent). In terms of popular votes, BN polled 46% compared to PR 54 per cent. However, as Malaysia practices first-past-the-post system, the election results gave BN the mandate to rule the country for another term. PR refused to accept the results due to what it termed “widespread abuses” in the electoral system. The alleged use of foreigners to vote, vote-buying, unprofessional conduct of the Election Commission (EC) officials, and so on, are among the examples of fraudulent practices PR accused BN of condoning.

Once again, Sabah and Sarawak helped BN win with a simple majority. In Peninsula Malaysia, BN only managed to win 86 or 39 per cent of the federal seats compared to PR 80 or 36 per cent. Sabah and Sarawak contributed 47 or 21 per cent of the federal seats to BN. The results showed that Sabah and Sarawak continued to play their kingmaker role to ensure BN’s electoral victory.

Upon announcing BN’s return to power, Najib Razak blamed BN’s poor performance on the “Chinese tsunami”. The next day, the BN-controlled newspaper Utusan Malaysia carried a front-paged news entitled “Apa Lagi Cina Mahu?” (What More Do the Chinese Want?). The Chinese factor is indeed decisive. Most of the Chinese seats – either at the state or federal level – were won by DAP (Democratic Action Party). Lim Kit Siang, the DAP supremo, who contested in Gelang Patah, managed to defeat Abdul Ghani Othman, the Johor Menteri Besar. The dramatic swing of the Chinese voters to the Opposition was also evident in most of the Chinese-majority seats in Sabah and Sarawak.


Apart from the Chinese factor, analysts also cited “urban uprising” as a major cause for BN’s dismal performance. BN continued its dominance in the rural areas while the Opposition dominated in semi-urban and urban areas.

In Sabah, the Opposition managed to increase its share of the state seats from one in 2008 to 12 in 2013. At the federal level, the opposition managed to get an additional two seats (Table 1). What accounts for the Sabah Opposition’s electoral gains in 2013? Can the Chinese tsunami and urban uprising hypotheses be used to explain the opposition’s electoral performance in Sabah? What issues shaped the electoral outcomes in Sabah. What do the election results tell us about Sabah politics in the next five years?

State results

Overall, BN won 48 state seats while the Opposition won 12 seats (PKR 7, DAP 4 and STAR [State Reform Party] 1). Most of the seats obtained by BN are from the Muslim-majority constituencies (Table 2). BN managed to increase its majorities in most of the Muslim-majority areas and thus re-affirm its influence among the Muslim Bumiputera voters. The opposition only managed to win in Klias through the former UMNO Member of Parliament Lajim Ukin but with a reduced majority.

The results reflected the electoral outcomes in the Peninsular Malaysia. The rural Muslim Bumiputera voters reaffirmed their support for BN. BN’s politics of development once again worked. The various financial assistance distributed to the rural folks helped secure rural Malay support to BN. The absence of popular and credible Muslim Bumiputera leaders in PKR also kept the Malay support for BN intact.

Another factor why the rural Malays continued their support for BN was due to the absence of a strong alternative Malay-dominated party in Sabah. After the demise of USNO (United Sabah Nasional Organisation), the rural Malays remain united under UMNO (United Malays National Organisation). Talks of factionalism and of a spat between Musa Aman and Shafie Afdal had no effect on UMNO’s position in Sabah. Combined with his business acumen and skilful political manoeuvring, Musa was able to appease many of his political opponents.

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PKR did not win any seat in 2008 but managed to win seven seats mostly in the Kadazandusun-majority and mixed areas (Table 2). In the Kadazandusun areas, PKR performed slightly better than STAR, winning four seats out of 17. If the electoral outcomes in the Kadazandusun areas are any indication, they showed that the Kadazandusun voters had begun to see beyond Jeffrey and his Borneo Agenda struggle.


The results also showed that some Kadazandusun voters were not easily hoodwinked by promises of development aid or cash-for-votes practised by BN. In Matunggong, for instance, in which BN lost to PKR, Maximus Ongkili’s federal influence and access to development funds failed to sway the voters. Despite threats, intimidation, and promises of development aid, the voters threw their weight behind PKR’s Jelani Hamdan, the popular former UMNO divisional chief.

STAR only managed to win in Bingkor but with a small majority of 456.

STAR’s unique campaign style such as the chant of “ini kali lah”, dancing and singing to the party’s theme song, and the effective use of parochial issues such as race, religion and Sabah’s rights were among the factors contributing to Jeffrey’s victory. The Kadazandusun voters supporting PKR also meant that they were willing to support non-Sabahan parties to fight for the Sabah issues.

Following the trend in Peninsula Malaysia, DAP won in most of the Chinese constituencies in the semi-urban and urban areas (Table 2). The Chinese and urban tsunami in Peninsular Malaysia can also be felt in Sabah. DAP managed to wrest Likas and Luyang from SAPP. This reaffirmed the contention that much of the Chinese support had shifted from SAPP to DAP.

By painting the SAPP president Yong Teck Lee as an opportunist, DAP managed to draw Chinese support away from SAPP. SAPP claimed itself to be a multi-racial party but its multi-racial support was not extensive. SAPP had never stated committedly that it was willing to be part of either Pakatan Rakyat or United Borneo Front. SAPP’s “neither there nor here stance” had affected its credibility.

DAP also won in Kapayan, a mixed area with a large number of Chinese voters and retained Sri Tanjong through a newcomer Foong Chin Chan. Despite the significant swing in the Chinese support from BN to the Opposition, the Chinese tsunami alone cannot explain the electoral outcomes in Chinese areas. BN managed to retain Chinese-majority seats in the rural areas such as Tg. Kapor, Karamunting, Elopura and Tg. Papat, but with reduced majorities.

All of these areas are situated in the rural vicinity with limited basic infrastructure. So even though most of the Chinese rejected BN’s politics of development, the rural Chinese in Sabah embraced it. However, the help of the non-Chinese voters in these areas cannot be discounted as they formed a substantial number of the registered voters there.

With the Opposition’s significant electoral gains from only one seat in 2008 to 12 seats in 2013, the state assembly would never be the same again. BN is expected to face the onslaught of a stronger opposition led by a combination of seasoned and new leaders such as Junz Wong, Edwin Bosi, Wilfred Bumburing, Lajim Ukin and Jeffrey Kitingan. This bodes well for Sabah that has seen UMNO’s dominance since the party’s entry into Sabah in 1991.

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Federal results

At the parliament level, BN won 22 seats while the Opposition three (Table 3). The three seats where the Opposition won were Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Penampang. Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan are both urban and semi-urban areas respectively with a large number of Chinese voters. Penampang is a semi-urban area with the Kadazandusun voters forming the majority followed by the Chinese voters.

BN continued its dominance in the rural Malay and Kadazandusun constituencies (Table 3). As in the case at the state level, the Opposition also managed to make inroads at the federal level. Despite BN’s win in Kota Marudu, Ranau, and Tenom, its majorities saw a marked decline. In Penampang, a young PKR leader Darell Leiking trounced UPKO president Bernard Dompok in a closely-watched contest. Dompok had seen the writing on the wall during campaigning when support for Darell swelled throughout Penampang.


Dompok’s persistent call for the re-issuance of Malaysian ICs and his defending of Christians using the word Allah failed to convince Penampang voters. While many held Dompok in high regard for his outspokenness, UPKO was accused of being subservient to UMNO.

During campaigning, the media focused a lot of attention on Jeffrey, Lajim and Bumburing who contested in Keningau, Beaufort and Tuaran respectively. However, all of the three former PBS leaders failed to defeat BN. In Keningau, a combination of Pairin’s status as Huguan Siou (paramount or brave leader of the Kadazandusun community) and strong federal support contributed to his victory.

The fact that the Opposition failed to form a united pact also contributed to BN’s win.

Indeed if the Opposition had agreed to form a united pact in Keningau, they could have easily ended Pairin’s political career. In Beaufort, Lajim’s personal touch alone was not enough for the Janang Gayuh (paramount leader of the Bisaya community) to retain his seat. BN’s politics of development, cash-for-votes, and promises of development aid superseded Lajim’s popularity as a grassroots leader. In Tuaran, most of the Muslim voters switched their support to BN. Here, the role of Tuaran PKR chief Ansari Abdullah was also crucial. Observers noted that Ansari refused to let his supporters help Wilfred Bumburing during campaigning. He was considered a “photocopied” and not an “original” member of PKR by Ansari’s supporters. And the fact that Ansari endorsed his daughter to contest as an independent in Tuaran made it clear that he was all out to ensure Wilfred’s defeat.

Making sense of the results

So, what accounts for the Opposition’s success in increasing their electoral gains in Sabah? First, most of the seats won by the Opposition were in the Kadazandusun and Chinese areas. In these areas, the opposition parties had more chances to win due to the saliency of issues such as illegal immigrants, Islamisation, UMNO domination, ethnic marginalisation and religious freedom.

The Kadazandusun felt that they were the ones most affected by the illegal immigrant issue because foreigners with fake Malaysian ICs were allegedly registered as citizens and allowed to vote. For the Kadazandusun, the large number of foreigners from the predominantly Muslim region of Mindanao contributed to the remarkable change in Sabah’s population demography. So, despite the government’s decision to form the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to investigate the presence of illegal immigrants in Sabah, many Kadazandusun were still unhappy because it was considered a political ploy and not a serious attempt to solve the problem once and for all.

The Kadazandusun also accused their leaders, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Bernard Dompok and Joseph Kurup, of being subservient to UMNO by failing to address the issue effectively. In some Kadazandusun areas, the Allah issue also came to the forefront. The Kadazandusun were told that if BN returned to power, there would be no religious freedom as Christians would be prevented from using the word Allah. PKR and STAR were successful in promoting (and manipulating) these issues to their advantage. The Kadazandusun response to these issues indicates that the politics of development is not the solution to the problems affecting the Kadazandusun community.

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Second, BN leaders focused too much on Najib’s popularity and his transformational agenda than on issues affecting the local people especially in the Kadazandusun and Chinese areas during campaigning. The slogan “I love PM” was promoted extensively throughout Sabah. However, the failure of BN leaders to counter the Opposition’s raunchy attacks on the issues mentioned above had affected its reputation. Most of the BN leaders also relied on Najib to promote his transformational program-mes. That was why many in the rural areas had no idea what Najib was doing and how his transformational programmes could affect them personally.

The BN leaders’ over-confidence and over-reliance on Najib is illustrated in an article that appeared in The Malaysian Insider in the run up to the election: “Najib is doing all he can to engage with as many different stakeholders as possible. He is running very fast with his national transformation agenda. BN leaders in Sabah are trying to catch him up. Some stop midway and remain complacent. In the end, no one seems to be interested in running anymore and all wait for Najib who is struggling to finish the race” (themalaysianinsider.com). Here, too, the role of patronage politics is decisive. BN leaders were confident of getting electoral support through the disbursement of development funds, cash-for-votes, and goodies such as gravity water supply, water tanks, and zinc roof tiles. So, it is easy to understand why BN leaders had no interest to engage with the Opposition.

The so-called Chinese tsunami and urban uprising hypotheses can only be partially used to explain the electoral outcomes in Sabah. There is little evidence to suggest that there occurred a racial tsunami or urban uprising in Sabah. Of course, a majority of the Chinese rallied behind the Opposition but others especially in the rural areas remained with the ruling party.

Moreover, the sentiment against BN did not happen only in urban areas but also in rural and semi-rural areas such as in Matunggong, Kadamaian, Tamparuli, Moyog, and Bingkor. This pattern suggests that despite the saliency of the ethnic issue, the voting pattern in Sabah is not necessarily ethnic-driven as in Peninsula Malaysia.


The election results in Sabah indicate that the state continues to play its role as kingmaker in forming the ruling government at the federal level. Sabah’s fixed deposit status remains but it is set to be challenged in the next election due to the saliency of issues in the Kadazandusun and Chinese areas. The so-called urban and Chinese tsunami in Peninsula Malaysia is only partially reflected in Sabah, showing that the voting pattern in the state cuts across racial and geographical boundaries.

The Opposition’s increased electoral gains in Sabah also show that the electorate can no longer be influenced by the lure of development aid. Put another way, the electorate has become more politically aware of their democratic rights — to choose political parties that can best fight for their interests.

Dr Arnold Puyok is an independent political analyst based in East Malaysia.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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najib manaukau
6 Aug 2013 7.49am

From the statics given above it is so clear that BN, through gerrymandering by Umno’s lackeys the EC, remains in Putrajaya, A clear sign when they won only the minority votes, how can a minority government acts and implements policies over the majority but the rapscallions in Umno must be aware of that from day one. Consequently they nominated … the EC to (allegedly) implement policies in favour of Umno and above all gerrymandering so that such as what had happened in the last GE Umno will remain in Putrajaya. The present administration are saying that that that first pass the post system adopted from the British system legally allows them to do. Yet they are now saying the country should have the look east policy, what is this ? Or are they saying they are back to the days of Mahathir ? Don’t they know it is because of this rapscallion Mahathir Malaysia is in a … shambles to day. every woes and heart aches to day in Malaysia were started by his policies. Yet still (they) … are now saying they too want to… Read more »

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