Dark horse candidate might spring surprise in Sandakan

Lau (second right) canvassing for votes in Sandakan.

KOTA KINABALU: Thomas Lau Chi Keong could be the dark horse in the six-way fight for the Sandakan seat, which is seen as a battle between former allies Pakatan Harapan and Parti Warisan.

At 73, the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) candidate is making his electoral debut in the twilight of his political career.

However, he is seen as a seasoned administrator having spent over 30 years in the state civil service.

Other than his experience, Lau, who served as the Sandakan Municipal Council deputy president from 1999 until he retired in 2005, is also seen as a fresh face.

“He is not controversial, has no baggage and people like him because he is friendly. There are not many negative perceptions associated with him,” said Abdul Sali, a Sandakan resident.

Lau’s personal touch seems to be working with the locals, with seafood restaurant owner Lam Yuk Fai impressed by the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) vice-president.

“I have never been interested in politics until I met Lau,” Lam said after meeting the candidate who held a ceramah at his restaurant on Wednesday.

Lam said he approached Lau about the streetlight problem in the Sim-Sim neighbourhood after his previous complaints were not entertained and was amazed by the latter’s quick response in resolving the issue.

“As voters, we should choose a candidate who listens to our grouses and takes initiatives to find solutions, and I am more convinced than ever about supporting Lau based on his ability to resolve issues promptly for the people,” he said.

But whether Lau’s community- friendly approach is enough to convince the more than 55,000 Sandakan voters remains to be seen.

The seat comprises 45% Chinese and 35% Muslim bumiputra voters, with non-Muslim bumiputras and other ethnicities making up the rest; it has been a DAP stronghold since the 2013 general election.

Datuk Stephen Wong Tien Fatt first won the seat on a DAP ticket in 2013 and retained it in the following general election but died in March 2019.

His daughter Vivian stood as his replacement for the by-election in May 2019, which she won with a massive majority of over 11,000 votes – surpassing even her late father’s majority of over 10,000 votes – at a time when Pakatan and Warisan were strong allies and part of the same government.

Political pundits said Vivian’s landslide victory was due to Warisan’s swing of the Muslim bumiputra votes.

Warisan is fielding political novice Alex Thien as its candidate while three independent candidates – namely former Sandakan Municipal Council president Datuk Peter Hii, Syeikh Lokeman and Lita Abdullah – are also contesting the seat.

Once known as the “mini Hong Kong” of Sabah during the timber boom days, Sandakan these days is dubbed a dying town with many businesses folding as it struggles to rebrand itself.

The issue of reviving Sandakan to its vibrant glory days – when it was said of the city that “if you throw a stone, it will hit a millionaire” – is a hot topic among the candidates.

Vivian insisted basic infrastructure of water and electricity is needed first in order to attract investors into the district.

Eventually, she said, she wanted to pull in a foreign university to open a campus in Sandakan, which could then attract students from Indonesia and the Philippines.

But Thien has another plan altogether, saying efforts are needed to develop downstream businesses for the palm oil industry.

He said Sabah should be given the authority to control its exports of palm oil and also to decide on expanding downstream activities.

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