Alphabet soup politics in Sabah

Face-off: There are so many political parties in Sabah that elections in the state is like an alphabet soup contest but the next general election may boil down to whether Shafie (left) can make the earth shake under the feet of Musa.

Will the rallying cry of Sabah for Sabahans change the political landscape of this unique eastern state where every other politician imagines he is Chief Minister material?

THERE used to be something magical about the Kitingan name in Sabah.

Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan was the man who brought on that magical quality when he rose up against the powers-that-be back in the 1980s and won.

Everybody loves a David versus Goliath story and Pairin was an awesome figure but the magic has faded. Pairin is now 76, he looks his age and the aura has waned even though he is still the Huguan Siou or paramount leader of the Kadazandusuns and a Deputy Chief Minister in the state.

The down-to-earth charm is still there, he can still belt out his repertoire of folksy songs at social gatherings and he is looked on with affection and respect, but his glory days as a Kadazandusun hero are behind him. There are even calls for him to step aside as the Huguan Siou but that is not going to happen largely because there is no consensus on a worthy successor.

The Kadazandusuns have always provided that edge to Sabah politics from the days when they threw their support behind Pairin to topple the Berjaya state government, paving the way for Pairin to become Chief Minister in 1986.

Pairin and PBS, the party of which he has been its only president, has been part of Barisan Nasional for more than a decade and the Kadazandusun ground has been rumbling for a while now.

Dr Puyok: Shafie’s party has yet to spell out a pro-Sabah policy.
Dr Puyok: Shafie’s party has yet to spell out a pro-Sabah policy.

There is an underswell of sentiment that their indigenous rights have been eroded by the politics of Umno and Barisan and there is a clear pro-opposition mood in the community.

“To put it simply, they want to see change,” said Dr Felix Tongkul, a geologist who lives in Penampang, a town dominated by Kadazandusuns and which, by the way, is pronounced locally as “Pinampang”.

The Kadazandusuns are located on the west side and highlands of Sabah. The east coast side, dominated by the Bajau, Suluk and Malays, had always been with Barisan.

But the emergence of Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) headed by former Cabinet Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has given the opposition new hope of shaking the mighty Barisan.

It takes two to tango and the political chatter is that if east meets west, Sabah could be in for a political earthquake.

“I’m not sure about a political earthquake because the opposition is split too many ways. Moreover, in the rural areas, it is still about the politics of development,” said Dr Tongkul who is considered an earthquake expert but of the geological kind.

There are simply too many political parties in Sabah – 29 at last count. Some have likened it to a pasar malam with lots of stalls and traders hawking more or less the same goods.

Chia: Hoping that opposition parties will get their act together.
Chia: Hoping that opposition parties will get their act together.

The last general election saw multi-cornered fights in every single state and parliamentary seat. One seat had a record seven contestants. The opposition could not get their act together and the result was that Barisan won 48 of the 60 state seats and 22 of the 25 parliamentary seats.

One Kuching-based journalist described it as “too many inflated egos clashing”.

PKR and DAP were the big opposition winners whereas Sabah-based parties were crushed. Only Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, who is president of STAR, scrapped through in the state seat of Bingkor.

But are things about to change?

The rallying slogan of Sabah for Sabahans has gained traction in the wake of the Sarawak election. They saw how Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem’s brand of state nationalism inspired Sarawakians and all those infrastructure goodies he squeezed from the federal government.

It has given Sabah-based parties, especially those in the opposition, new hope even though none of the Sabah leaders comes close to the strategic intellect of Adenan.

There is a new opposition coalition known as United Sabah Alliance or Gabungan Sabah comprising three home-grown parties – STAR headed by Dr Jeffrey, SAPP headed by Datuk Yong Teck Lee and Parti Cinta Sabah headed by Datuk Wilfred Bumburing.

Lajim: He has told the ‘Malayan parties’ to leave the state.
Lajim: He has told the ‘Malayan parties’ to leave the state.

“The feedback is that voters want to see Sabah parties stay united. They say that if it is a choice between Sabah parties and (peninsular) parties, it is easy to choose,” said SAPP deputy president Melanie Chia.

Gabungan Sabah badly wants Warisan to come onboard but there is no sign of Shafie moving in that direction till now.

The Sabah for Sabahans slogan is bad news for parties like PKR, DAP and even Umno.

Former Umno politician Datuk Lajim Ukin who recently formed Parti Harapan has asked “Malayan parties”– they like to refer to the peninsula as Malaya – to leave the state. But Lajim is a fine one to be talking considering that he used to be a big man in Umno.

Shafie is also having trouble erasing his Umno history and his pro-federal outlook.

“People ask what he did to develop Sabah when he was in the federal Cabinet. Did he do anything to fight for Sabah autonomy? Even the other opposition leaders are asking these questions,” said Unimas don Dr Arnold Puyok.

Dr Puyok pointed out that Shafie has yet to present a pro-Sabah policy to convince Sabah people to support his party.

Soong: Crackdown to shut tap of funds to Shafie supporters
Soong: Crackdown to shut tap of funds

Sabah voters, said Chia, also did not approve of PKR and DAP politicians crossing over to Warisan. It reminded them of the bad old days. In fact, party hopping and money politics first became a political culture in these parts.

The Kadazandusun sentiment is also complicated by long-standing resentment over what is known as the PTI or pendatang tanpa izin (illegal immigrants) issue.

It is more than 30 years old but it is still a burning issue. People from “Malaya”, to borrow the local term, will never understand why Sabahans still talk about it as though it happened yesterday.

It began with the refugee influx in the 1970s and escalated into an illegal immigrants issue. Things became controversial when the arrivees, who were almost entirely Muslim, were issued Malaysian identity cards and citizenship in the 1990s. Depending on whom you speak to, their numbers varied from thousands to a million.

“Sabah’s population doubled within a decade. The joke then was that Sabah women gave birth every six months,” recalled the above journalist.

The scandal was variously known as Project IC or Project Mahathir because it happened during Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s premiership.

“It’s still the No 1 issue, it lives on the minds of people even after all these years,” said Dr Tongkul.

The Kadazandusuns resented it most because they saw it as an attempt by the Mahathir regime to counter the influence of Pairin who was then the leading opposition figure.

It explains why Warisan leaders are anxious to quash allegations that the party is a proxy of Dr Mahathir and his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry was set up to look into it but the outcome has not quelled the unhappiness.

All these issues lend a unique dynamic to Sabah’s politics every general election. How it will play out this time remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the Barisan side is not exactly sitting around, shaking their legs and drinking tea.

According to CENSE think-tank CEO Fui K. Soong, the “Sabah Watergate” graft trial involving the state Water Department was, rightly or wrongly, perceived as a move to shut off the tap of funds flowing to Shafie’s supporters.

“Of course, it must have hurt the Barisan side as well, but people could see that the aim was to squeeze Shafie,” said the Sabah-born Soong.

Both sides do not seem to be slamming each other over the scandal and that says a lot.

Putrajaya sources said Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has given Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman the mandate to ensure that Sabah stays with Barisan.

Musa has accumulated more than his share of baggage after so long at the top but he is still a dangerous tiger and is key to Barisan hopes for victory in Sabah.

There is also a not-so-secret key as to why Barisan is confident of holding on in Sabah. An additional 13 state seats are being drawn up ahead of the general election, bringing the state assembly from 60 to 73 seats. No prizes for guessing that most of these seats are in Barisan strongholds.

All this will be the backdrop to what is essentially a face-off between two of Sabah’s biggest guns, Musa and Shafie.

They have been long-time nemeses but their rivalry could not be openly played out because they were then in the same party and had to keep up appearances.

Shafie used to tell journalists that he was not interested in the Chief Minister job and that Musa could keep it for all he cared. He would say that he had bigger things on his mind. But it has boiled down to this and there is no need to pretend anymore.

Besides, who would not want to be Chief Minister of Sabah? It is such a powerful post especially now with the Sabah for Sabahans call.

Sabahans saw how federal ministers including the Prime Minister were doing the I-love-you waltz with Sarawak’s Adenan and they also want to dance along.

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