More is not merrier in Sabah

Heartland politics: The Kadazandusuns are quite cohesive as a cultural group but their political alliances are all over the place.

The Kadazandusuns say they are ready for change but their votes are split multiple ways every general election, many of their political leaders have overstayed while the younger generation feel disconnected with the leadership.

DATUK Henrynus Amin has gone from being a small fish in a big pond to being a big fish in a small pond.

Henrynus always wears this big smile and he is one of those rare thinking politicians. He was also a big name in Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) until a few years ago when he was sidelined after losing in a fight for the No. 2 post in the Kadazandusun-based party.

He is now president of Pakar, the newest political party in an already over-crowded field in Sabah.

His friends were not surprised about his latest venture but there was dismay within the segment of the Kadazandusun community who are rooting for change in the general election.

The Kadazandusun vote is already split multiple ways and Pakar has further jumbled up the situation.

Or as Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman has said: “The more the merrier”.

The irony is that during his time in PBS, Henrynus had tried to persuade the three Kadazandusun-based parties in Barisan Nasional – PBS, PBRS and Upko – to merge into a single entity so that the community would have a more unified and stronger voice.

When it failed, he took his unity project to the opposition parties but that also went nowhere.

So what happens? He goes off to form a new party to add to the carnival.

Henrynus: Leading a new political party in a crowded field.
Henrynus: Leading a new political party in a crowded field.

Henrynus is known for his grassroots politics and broad Christian network. He said Pakar would be launched in the Kadazandusun heartland of Keningau where the legendary “Batu Sumpah” is located and where more about his new party would be revealed.

Kadazandusun leaders often talk about strength in unity but the trouble is that everyone wants to be the big boss. If they cannot become the leader in the party, they form a new party where they can be the leader or they join another party to get what they want.

The phenomenon is not unique to Sabah, it used to be rampant in the peninsula too until it dawned on politicians that voters are not into mosquito parties nor do they trust politicians who hop here and there.

“Henrynus is trying to provide an alternative to younger professionals who are critical of the ruling party but whether he can leverage on it to win in the general election is another thing,” said political analyst Dr Arnold Puyok.

The Kadazandusun vote is a matter of concern for Barisan Nasional. Although Barisan won most of the Kadazandusun seats in the last general election, a number of the seats were won with markedly reduced majorities.

“All the state and parliamentary seats dominated by the Kadazandusun can be considered marginal seats for Barisan, meaning that they can go either way. There are no safe seats for Barisan in the Kadazandusun areas. Our studies show that Kadazandusun support is tilted to the opposition,” said Dr Puyok.

Kadazandusun intellectuals like Prof Felix Tongkul is convinced that the community is ready for change.

“Even in the last election, they were ready for something else,” said Tongkul, who is Sabah’s foremost earthquake expert.

Dr Arnold Puyok
Dr Arnold: The Kadazandusuns are looking for a hero figure.

He said the signal was clear as daylight in 2013 when then Upko president Tan Sri Bernard Dompok lost in Penampang to PKR newcomer Darrel Leiking who has since hopped over to Parti Warisan.

The Penampang defeat was a metaphor of the turbulence among the Kadazandusuns. The affable Dompok had so much going for him – he was the incumbent, a federal minister and he had met the Pope twice – yet he lost badly to Leiking.

But despite the overwhelming mood for change, to “tukaron bangkad” or change the shirt, the opposition parties won only five state seats and one parliamentary seat.

The Kadazandusun, said Dr Puyok, are quite cohesive as a cultural group but there is no individual figure to bring them together as a political grouping.

“There is no such thing as total unity in any community but there are too many leaders with their own interests and agenda,” said the Unimas senior lecturer in politics.

Or as Tongkul put it: “They want change but what’s the alternative? That’s when people scratch their heads.”

There are some 28 political parties in Sabah of which at least six are led by Kadazandusun figures. But the opposition parties seem unable to strike an agreement on seats.

It was every man for himself in the 2013 election and the circus of multi-cornered fights resulted in Barisan winning the state with a two-thirds majority.

The signs, said Dr Puyok, are pointing to a repeat performance in the 14th general election.

Darrel: Warisan deputy president set to retain Penampang seat.
Darrel: Warisan deputy president set to retain Penampang seat.

The Kadazandusun’s disgruntlement with the ruling coalition range from the perception that they are marginalised in the civil service to issues of native customary land rights and religious freedom. Many of them are also unable to accept that the Federal Government calls the shots on policies affecting the state.

At one stage, the notion of secession was quite popular but that has tapered off. Reality has sunk in following the spate of kidnappings and intrusions on its eastern shores.

Sabahans realise that they need the military and federal might to safeguard their security especially with the IS-held Marawi just a boat ride away.

The religion factor cannot be discounted. Christians and Muslims have become more conscious of their respective religions. The Christians are also starting to wear their religion on their sleeves.

The mountainous road that winds from the west to the east of Sabah is dotted with the blue and white signboards indicating the presence of Catholic churches. There must have been about 80 such signs which were reportedly erected by a cancer survivor as a testimony of his faith and gratitude.

But it was also a sign of the far-reaching church network among the community.

The Kadazandusun are also quite envious of Sarawak’s ability to close its borders and the way the indigenous leaders speak up. Most of all, they envy Sarawak for being able to keep out Umno.

The anti-Umno sentiment is quite strong among them. They equate Umno’s entry into Sabah to the dilution of Kadazandusun control over state affairs and political power.

They have not forgiven Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for “Project IC”, a covert operation granting citizenship to illegal immigrants so as to offset the Kadazandusun population.

They blame Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as being instrumental in bringing down the PBS government in 1994 and which paved the way for Umno’s entry.

Even Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal is still trying to shake off his past ties with Umno.

The undercurrent to this litany of anti-federal sentiment is that many Kadazandusun are probably still hankering for the good old days when they were the king of the hill and when their leaders controlled the state government.

But the past is unlikely to be recaptured because Muslim-majority seats now outnumber Kadazandusun seats.

Part of the discontent also has to do with the growing gap between the younger cohort and the political leaders from the community. Old is not necessarily gold in politics, many leaders have overstayed and they lost touch with contemporary expectations.

An aide to a Sabah minister said that the disconnect is all too real because 40% of Sabah constituents are below 40 years of age.

Opposition parties, on the other hand, are still dominated by figures who had fallen out with the ruling coalition or what some call “recycled politicians”.

The opposition also has its share of people who are past their shelf life and they know who they are.

The community’s most famous politician Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, who is also Deputy Chief Minister, has indicated that he will not be contesting the next election. His exit will mark the end of an era but it will also set the stage for others to make way for younger faces.

Another over-stayer, PBRS president Datuk Seri Joseph Kurup, is said to be grooming his young and handsome son, Arthur, to contest the election. Upko’s Dompok would probably be making another go at it if he had not been defeated in 2013.

It is quite ironic that the Kadazandusun who are so suspicious of Umno are now interested in Parti Warisan which is led by Shafie, a former Umno leader.

Shafie’s events in Kadazandusun areas are still drawing huge crowds and they seem to love him. His events are well-organised and he evidently has a considerable war chest.

But a Kuching-based journalist who has seen it all said the Barisan side has yet to show their hand.

“Shafie may have a huge gas tank, but the other side probably has a gas field,” said the journalist.

It is going to be another over-crowded political carnival in Sabah.

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Politics , kadazandusun , Pairin , Henrynus , Leiking , Sabah


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