KOTA KINABALU: Sabah Umno delegates are heading for the party’s general assembly next week to pay tribute to Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who single-handedly altered the state's political landscape and history.
“It is going to be a special experience. We have only known one president and he has done so much for bumiputras and Sabah itself,” said Umno Papar delegate Sulaiman Osman.
With all this talk about Dr Mahathir handing over his responsibilities to his deputy, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Sulaiman and many other Sabah Umno delegates are going to Kuala Lumpur with a feeling of anticipation.
Their attention will be on what will transpire at the assembly, which will be held for the first time since Dr Mahathir shocked the nation by announcing his resignation at the previous meeting in May last year.
They will be listening hard to the thoughts of the Prime Minister and what he will say in his presidential address, which could set the tone as to who Abdullah’s deputy should be.
Even if there is no clear indication, the Sabah delegates, who will make up the second largest contingent in the assembly, will have other political musings in mind.
Topping the list was who among them could lobby their way to become a candidate in the next state elections, speculated to be held as early as September.
An Umno official said some delegates were going to the assembly with a sense of curiosity.
“I think they will want to see how things are shaping up in terms of the transition in the Umno leadership,” he said.
Most of the 449 delegates agreed that their foremost thoughts were on how to thank Dr Mahathir for bringing the Umno culture into Sabah, where no other Malaysian party from the peninsula had been able to gain a foothold of.
“Dr Mahathir has a special place in the hearts of Sabah Umno members,” said Kinabalu Umno deputy chief Datuk Masidi Manjun.
To many Sabah Umno members, it was Dr Mahathir’s thrust to expand Umno to Sabah in 1991 that helped the state’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious bumiputras unite under a national party.
Masidi, who is also Institute of Development Studies chairman, said that without the presence of Umno, it was unlikely that Sabah bumiputra would have the political strength to bring development to the state.
“I do not think the old order of state-based parties like Usno and Berjaya would have been able to unite such a diverse populace,” he said, adding that these parties eventually lost power due to a culture of “winner takes all”.
It was also Dr Mahathir who introduced a culture of sharing through the two-year chief minister rotation system and the equal distribution of development among all ethnic groups.
Umno spread its wings to Sabah in 1991 with the dissolution of Usno, which was led by the late Tun Datu Mustapha Datu Harun.
Dr Mahathir decided on the move after the then ruling Parti Bersatu Sabah president Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan abruptly pulled out from the Barisan Nasional midway through the October 1990 general elections.
Left in a lurch, Dr Mahathir made the decision for Umno to become the backbone of Sabah’s political scene.
“This has stopped the political upheaval and changes that we had experienced since independence,” Masidi added.
State information chief Datuk Rahim Ismail said the key theme of Sabah’s message would be on Dr Mahathir’s contributions to the state and his outstanding roles at international levels.
Sabah Umno chief Datuk Musa Aman, who is now in the two-year rotated chief minister’s slot, is the man chosen to convey the feelings of the state members.
Asked whether the general assembly could give him inspiration as to a date for the state polls, Musa said with a smile: “It just might.”
“But we will have to consider all things. And we will discuss with the Barisan chairman as to the right date for the elections,” he said.