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Sabah – continuity or change?

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The raw percentage electoral gains may seem promising to those seeking greater change but the internal damage done by opposition political strategies may prove costly, says Regina Lim.


The Malaysian Federation ushered the politics of federalism and moulded local politics in Sabah into one that mirrored a similar pattern of inter-ethnic alliances in West Malaysia.

Interspersing the politics of identity representation is the dynamics of federal-state tensions: the contest over executive control of the state’s resources and development constitutes the main element in the emergent debates on autonomy for Sabah.

Other recurring factors to the federal-state tensions include local dissatisfaction about access to state resources (funds, jobs, and investments) and religious issues.

Federalisation of Sabah politics

As early as the 1960s, an inter-ethnic alliance was adopted by the main political parties in Sabah, i.e.the dominant Muslim party the United Sabah Nasional Organisation (Usno) with the majority non-Muslim parties the Sabah Chinese Alliance (SCA) and the United Pasokmomogun Kadazan Organisation (Upko, previously Unko).

The pattern of inter-ethnic alliances gradually came to define the context as well the content of bargaining and political participation in the wider narrative of the politics of federalism, thus putting in place a somewhat dominant discourse of identity politics in Sabah.

Prior to Umno’s entry into Sabah politics in 1994, a sense of local ownership prevailed over the ways politics was conducted. The local electorate played a critical role in contributing to the political fortunes of Usno, Berjaya and the PBS governments.

During that period, federal intervention was somewhat inconspicuous and mostly confined to elite bargaining. Tacit support from Kuala Lumpur was instrumental to the political survival of the local party; such support could easily be disrupted by big personality clashes as well as conflict over the control of the state’s resources.

The fall of Usno was a combination of a leadership clash with Kuala Lumpur, over-zealous Islamisation policies and the refusal of Tun Mustapha to sign the Petroleum Agreement in the early 1970s.

With the implicit support of Kuala Lumpur, Berjaya succeeded Usno in 1976 on the back of a multiracial campaign. It successfully maintained good relations with Kuala Lumpur until it was brought down by a populist movement (PBS), which was established less than a year before the state election in 1985.

Decline of local identity and powers

Put simply, Berjaya’s agenda for development disregarded the values of local diversity: it unwittingly imposed an extended version of the federal government’s vision and values that prioritised the socio-economic well-being of the Muslim community through mass Islamic conversion.

Harris Salleh, the Berjaya leader, also failed to assess the impact of simplifying the census demographics of Sabah population from a culturally and ethnically diverse make-up into only three simplistic categories normally, Pribumi, Cina and Others. This census manipulation was carried out during a period of large-scale immigrant settlement in Sabah from the Southern Philippines and without being publicly transparent in its deliberation on the issues of immigrant settlement in Sabah. As a result, it generated distrust among existing non-Muslim leaders in Berjaya as well as the general public as to the intent and purpose of such a political exercise.

This led to an internal split in Berjaya causing some of its leaders, in particular Joseph Pairin Kitingan, to challenge the gradual loss of Sabah’s local identity and to politically reassert what was understood as the collective rights of Sabah contained in the Twenty Points.

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When PBS succeeded Berjaya as the Sabah opposition government, the nature of federal-state relations and the public perception thereof, became defined on the contested dynamics of rights. These were understood, on the one hand, as the undisputed authority of the federal government to make political decisions for Sabah, and, on the other, as the steady growth of local awareness in Sabah to fight for the political right to decide local issues for the state.

Umno and political ferment

In 1991, the federal government introduced the Sabah Federal Development Department (JPPS). This took away the fiscal powers of the state government, thus giving the popular impression that the state government had failed to transform the economy of Sabah.

It was a heavy blow to the PBS government and following the 1994 Sabah state election, many elected PBS assemblymen defected to the BN. This mass defection subsequently crippled the PBS, paving the way for Umno to rule Sabah for almost two decades.

Whilst Umno’s presence had the effect of stabilising the dynamics of federal-state relations, the politics of identity resulted in a fragmentation of the ethnic groups’ personalities.

Nowadays, there are three Kadazan-Dusun political groups, each one led by Kadazan or Dusun leaders claiming to fight for the rights of the said community – Upko, Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS).

There are two Chinese parties: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP). Meanwhile, the majority of  the Muslim community and ex-members of Usno (the local Muslim party in Sabah) joined Umno.

The most impoverished state

With Umno at the helm and Mahathir executing complete control over federal-state relations, any talk of Sabah rights was obsolete. Mahathir even dictated the appointment of Sabah Chief Ministers using a two-year rotation system, rendering it as the most incredible display of political disempowerment of Sabah leaders.

The economic development under Umno has strangely left Sabah as the most impoverished state in the whole of Malaysia. The poverty rate for Sabah remained the highest in Malaysia at 19.7 per cent in 2009 (UNDP Report). A World Bank Report (2008) showed that there are 2,500 people per doctor in Sabah compared with 700 per doctor in Selangor while the real GDP per capita in Sabah was about RM17,242 in 2010, markedly lower than the national level of RM27,133.

Among states, with the exception of Sabah, the fall in child poverty was impressive – though five of the 13 states still had child poverty rates of 10 per cent or more in 2007. That year, almost half of all children living in poverty were in Sabah, up from 15 per cent in 1989. Moreover, while all other states experienced a huge decline in the absolute number of children living in poverty, Sabah saw an increase.

Children living in poverty are less likely to attend school and they are more likely to experience multiple forms of deprivations. Almost half the children of the poor who do not attend primary schools are in Sabah, which then goes on to affect educational attainment in the secondary and tertiary levels. This would then result in a high incidence of youth unemployment as many of these children suffer multiple deprivations from the start.

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The proportion of employed people living below US$1.25 a day tends to be concentrated largely in rural areas, among women, the young and the non-Muslim Bumiputera, constituting an increasing proportion of extreme low wage-earners in 2007. These low wage earners are concentrated in a few sectors that are increasingly dominated by the wholesale, retail, hotels and restaurants sectors. This concentration partly accounts for the huge increase in the non-Muslim Bumiputera share, as many of them, mainly in Sabah, are employed in this broad sector.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was built on the assumption that ethnicity played a critical factor in the functioning of the economy. Because of this assumption, the remedy for addressing poverty was formulated along ethnic terms, with the existing legislation on the Malay special position becoming the overriding priority.

Whilst Bumiputera as a terminology has been used to refer to the Malays and the indigenous people in Sabah (and Sarawak), the NEP did not actually have considerable impact upon the non-Muslim Bumiputera.

Figure 1 shows that the rest of the non-Muslim Bumiputera tends to have a relatively higher incidence of poverty compared with the Malays, in Sabah.

Figure 1: Poverty incidence by the Bumiputera groups in Sabah

Source: EPU and UNDP (2010) using Household Income Survey, World Bank Report 2010

Figure 1 is indicative of the misleading conception of the Bumiputera approach, mainly because the concept masks the real effect of the positive discrimination policy that tends to be in favour of the Malay special position whilst a large bulk of the Bumiputera remains relatively poor. The concept itself also skews the way in which issues of poverty are being addressed because the ‘ethnic’ lens to understanding poverty will undermine other critical aspects of poverty particularly among the vulnerable members of society – children, the elderly, the disabled and women.

Contestation and the decline of BN’s popularity

Public awareness of Sabah’s poverty level combined with national-based parties – the DAP and the PKR – spreading their wings to Sabah saw some changes in the voting pattern of Sabahans in the 2008 general election.

The DAP and the PKR contested in some areas in Sabah with a number of urban areas showing a significant increase in opposition votes. Where both the DAP and PKR contested together, their combined votes were higher than for the BN. These areas were the state seats of Inanam, Likas, Luyang, Tanjung Aru, and Kepayan.

The other two seats were the semi-urban seats of Kuala Penyu and Merotai where the combined votes for PKR and independents could have resulted in the defeat of the BN there. While the BN continued to dominate in terms of seats, the 2008 election in Sabah witnessed an emerging voting trend in favour of political change, at least in the urban areas.

For the BN, the 2013 election in Sabah was politics ‘as usual’: promises of development, heralding the coalition’s track record and electoral manipulation. What marks out the 2013 election, both in terms of its successes and failures, was the strategy of the opposition parties – in particular the PKR – for failing to appreciate developed strengths of local grassroots support in the rural areas.

One year before the 2013 election, Lajim Haji Ukin and Wilfred Bumburing left the BN to set up their independent movements. Lajim established a Muslim movement called the Pertubuhan Pakatan Perubahan Sabah (PPPS) and Wilfred Bumburing formed Angkatan Perubahan Sabah (APS or Sabah Reform Alliance) focusing mainly on the Kadazan-Dusun community. Both claimed to be Pakatan Rakyat (PR) friendly groups.

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These groups successfully convinced and lobbied the national PKR leadership to contest in the 2013 election. Hence, both APS and PPPS were given seats to contest despite most of their members not being official PKR members.

Subsequently, several PKR division chiefs quit the party, claiming that the party did not respect the promised autonomy of its state leaders. The division chiefs from Sandakan Mazhry Nasir, Saidil Simoi (Kota Belud), Irianshah Yunus of Kalabakan, Abdul Zainal Atin of Putatan and deputy division chief Zainuddin Hassan of Putatan joined Sabah Umno.

Other PKR chiefs who quit but didn’t join BN or Umno included Tenom chief Halik Zaman and Tuaran division chief Ansari Abdullah.  However,  Ansari then quit PKR a month after receiving a suspension letter from the national PKR, apparently for supporting an independent candidate.

Continuity and change

Despite the disunity and fractiousness within opposition ranks, the PR as a whole secured a significant swing in the popular vote.

Unfortunately that did not translate into an equivalent increase in seats. The BN remained the clear victors in Sabah, retaining their dominance of the parliamentary seats and in the state assembly alike, although the opposition did make some inroads (see Table 1).

As Table 1 shows, the modest increase in the opposition seats at the parliamentary level was not reflective of the significant swing in overall voting, with the BN share of the vote plummeting from just over three quarters in 2008 to just over a half in 2013.

Table 1: Election results in Sabah, 2008 and 2013



State Assembly






















































The 2013 election results in Sabah represented a significant swing towards the opposition, albeit one that did not translate into strong gains in terms of seats.

Yet the conduct of the election created significant tensions within opposition ranks over candidate selection and broader electoral strategy between local grassroots leaders who championed issues of autonomy and rural development, and federally-selected candidates who championed a more ethnically-oriented agenda.

The results, in many ways, reflect this paradox. On the one hand, the evidence clearly shows that Sabahans did indeed vote along ethnic lines. On the other hand, the orientation of individual candidates evidently did not affect voter sentiments at the local level, suggesting that party agenda and party affiliation may indeed have been the primary driver in voting patterns.

Although the results of the election in raw percentages may seem promising to those seeking greater change in Sabah, the internal damage done by the political strategies adopted within opposition ranks may well outweigh these gains in the longer run.

Regina Lim is a critical thinking feminist and paralegal researcher in Sabah.  She holds a Ph.D in politics from the University of Birmingham.

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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11 Jul 2014 7.55am

The detailed explanations given herein sound a bit too complicated and to shorten it all the actions taken by the by the past politicians were, at the end of the day there were all taken for the politicians’ own benefits. Above all they were accepted by the Umno schmucks in exchange for their support for the Umno schmucks policies. Besides the Umno schmucks are not really interested in what will happen in that part of the world as long as they are able to enrich themselves with whatever wealths that come from there.

… Without corruption at all levels and with competent managements (our neighbouring countries such as Brunei and Singapore are) now the envy of many nations in this part of the world….

All your politicians in Putrajaya are there, in unimportant roles, from day one will never ever do anything good for East Malaysia!

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