The Sabah Elections 1999: Respect the People's Mandate

Sabah goes to the polls on 12-13 March 1999. It will be a keenly contested election and the ultimate winner will squeeze through with a slim majority, Dr Francis Loh writes.

Hopefully, this time around the people's mandate in the 1999 Sabah elections will be respected.

Unfortunately this was not the case the last time. For although the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) won the 18-19 February 1994 elections through the ballot box, within a month, the majority of the elected PBS assemblymen had switched sides. Then, Pairin Kitingan, the PBS leader, claimed that the assemblymen had been offered hard cash, cabinet positions and various other kinds of inducements to crossover.

The Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad denied this. He argued that the erstwhile PBS assemblymen had done so to facilitate development for the people. It was further argued that the PBS, with its slim majority of two seats would not have been able to govern effectively; political instability would have resulted.

In the event, many of these assemblymen gained cabinet and various positions for themselves subsequently. They had shamelessly put their own individual interests ahead of the people's trust.

The Importance of Elections in our Restricted Democracy

This betrayal of the people's mandate is all the more shameful since the holding of elections is the remaining single measure of our democracy.

For unlike democracies elsewhere, there exist numerous curbs on the people's right to express themselves, to associate and to assemble peacefully. Checks and balances of the executive by the legislature and the judiciary have been seriously eroded, especially evident in recent times. The conduct of the judiciary, the attorney-general's chambers and the Police, the guardians of law and order, have come under questioning too. Also evident is the transformation of the mainstream mass media into mouthpieces of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

In fact, even the electoral process is not without undemocratic features. The curb on public rallies remains enforced. Only ceramahs are allowed. The period of campaign has been shortened over the years, from almost a month in the past to just over a week as for this March 1999 election.

There have again been reports, buttressed by documentary proofs, of phantom voters on the electoral rolls. According to one PBS source, there are some 14,786 bogus voters on the rolls this time. Apparently, Indonesian and Filipino immigrants who have been issued temporary identity cards have been smuggled into the electoral rolls of several constitutencies like Likas, Moyog, Marudu, Gaya and Tuaran which are expected to see keen contests. The number of registered voters in the constituencies of Moyog, Bingkor, Tandek and Kuamut have also seen spectacular increases for no apparent reason.

The integrity of the Elections Commission is at stake; it is not adequate for the Commission to claim that it has taken the necessary steps to prevent the registration of bogus voters, and that solving the problem is beyond its limited reach. For electoral fradulence will undermine the single remaining vestige of our democracy.

There is also the issue of gerrymandering, the redelineation of the electoral boundaries passed by the Sabah Assembly in May 1994, which has given an advantage to UMNO in particular while disadvantaging the PBS. The number of Muslim Bumiputera majority constituencies in the 48 member Assembly has been increased to 24 while that for non-Muslim Bumiputera seats reduced to 12. There are now only 4 Chinese majority seats while 8 are considered "mixed" without any particular community holding a majority.

Free But Not Fair

Again it is likely that the elections will be "free but not fair". This was the title the Commonwealth Group of Observers gave to their report of the 1990 general elections. This phrase meant that the actual elections was conducted without vote-rigging or vote-stealing. But it also referred to how the government parties unfairly used government resources and facilities, funds and the mass media to their undue advantage.

In fact, once the Assembly has been dissolved (and morally even prior to the dissolution of the Assembly), the caretaker government must desist from using these facilities and resources, funds and the media for its own party political purposes. Instead, equal access should be accorded to all sides. Alas, there is clear evidence that the incumbent BN parties are not following the spirit of this practice required of an electoral democracy. Consequently, the people's real choice might be thwarted even before they cast their votes in the polls.

The Issue of Development

"Vote the BN for development". This slogan anchors the BN's campaign. The voters have been reminded that there now exists a university in Sabah, that they have a new highway to Kota Belud, many new 5-star hotels, tourism-related resorts and shopping complexes, new employment opportunities, etc.

The opposition PBS has asked the crucial question of how these projects have benefitted the ordinary Sabahan. Or have only a small group of cronies gained from them ? This might have touched a raw nerve, for the BN quickly sent its federal ministers promising many rural development projects, including one by the federal rural development minister Annuar Musa to build 300 km of village roads within 100 days!

Rotation of the Chief Ministership

The BN also argues that its rotation of the chief ministership has prevented any one community from dominating the others, that it has ushered in a new culture of trust among the different communities, and promoted political stability and development.

The PBS has clarified that it will not continue the rotation system if it comes to power. It claims that rotating the chief ministership every two years is disruptive, wasteful and inefficent. Apparently, not only are chief ministers changed, but various members of the cabinet, and even top civil servants found wanting by the incoming chief minister too. Every new chief minister and even the new ministers have their pet projects to launch. This is understandable for herein may be found opportunities for their hangers-on. Rotation, therefore, has led to confusion, uncompleted projects and even higher levels of nepotism and cronyism.
Federal Control

Moreover, the PBS insists, it is left to the prime minister to appoint the chief ministers. It allows for even greater control of the Sabah state government and further erosion of the state's autonomy. In this regard, the PBS, as before, calls for greater devolution of power and financial resources to Kota Kinabalu and for a return to the promises of the Twenty Points.

It might be noted that devolution of power to regional and local governments is the trend in modern day democracies and enhances the ability of the people to check the central government through other levels of government. However, the BN is against such notions and claims that the PBS fans anti-federal sentiments, parochialism and regionalism instead.

The Anwar Factor

The visit to Kota Kinabalu by Dr Wan Azizah Ismail on 16 February probably reminded the Sabahans of the Anwar saga and the larger issues being played out at the national level. This was especially clear among the younger, better-educated and urban Sabahans, both Bumiputera and non Bumiputera. Although allowed to attend a 3,000 strong function she was not allowed to address those present. Yet just a day later rallies were held and wide media coverage was given to Dr Mahathir's own visit to Sabah. It seemed as though he was launching the BN's electoral campaign even prior to the dissolution of the Sabah Assembly,

One of the major reasons why the election has been delayed to its very last moment is that within UMNO Sabah itself, many are critical of how Anwar has been mistreated by Dr Mahathir. Many developed close ties with Anwar when he headed UMNO Sabah and also remember that he led the party into battle in the 1994 elections. Some of these Anwar supporters are even attracted to the reformasi cause, as have ordinary Malaysians elsewhere.

How these individuals vote (or do not) will determine who wins in the closely contested seats in several Muslim constituencies. Already critical of the Barisan government, the majority of voters in the non-Muslim majority, Chinese majority and "mixed" seats will similarly be swayed to cast protest votes against the recent abuses and antics of federal leaders. It is in this regard that Sabahans, though possessing their own history and culture, ultimately, still share certain traits and values that other Malaysians outside of Sabah hold dear. National-level issues, specifically the Anwar saga, will also play a part in the 1999 elections.


Despite the gerrymandering of the electoral boundaries and the bogus voters, the superior UMNO machinery and the BN's promises of development, the coalition's unfair additional use of government facilities, funds and the media, nonetheless, it appears that the PBS will yet again squeeze through ahead of the BN component parties. The winds of change are also blowing in the Land below the Winds. The people's mandate in the Sabah 1999 elections must be respected.