AFTER winning three by-elections in a row – the Cameron Highlands MP seat and Semenyih and Rantau state seats, can the opposition make it 4-0 in the parliamentary seat of Sandakan?
For the record, it is Pakatan Harapan four and Barisan Nasional three as the ruling coalition won earlier by-elections in state seats of Sungai Kandis, Balakong and Seri Setia and an MP seat of Port Dickson. If the Opposition wins the by-election in the east coast of Sabah, it will be a draw (4-4).
The Sandakan seat fell vacant when its two-term MP Datuk Stephen Wong died of a heart attack on March 28.
On paper, the seat is for Pakatan to lose. In GE14, DAP won it by a 10,098 majority in a straight fight against Barisan.
But, MCA presidential council member Datuk Chew Kok Woh contends that the angin (wind) in the constituency in the east coast of Sabah is changing.
Some of the Chinese voters are thinking of voting the Opposition now that the DAP is in government, said Chew, the chairman of MCA’s division in Batu Sapi, a parliamentary constituency next to Sandakan.
Historically, the Chinese voters in Sandakan were opposition-minded, he said.
They voted in Fung Ket Wing of DAP against Barisan in 1978, 1982 and 1986, Chong Hon Ming, an independent in 2004, and Wong in 2013 and 2018. With Pakatan and its electoral partner Parti Warisan Sabah winning the Federal and state polls and ex-Umno MPs joining Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, there is practically no opposition lawmaker (with the exception of Sungai Sibuga assemblyman Tan Sri Musa Aman, a former Sabah Chief Minister) in the Sandakan constituency and its two neighbouring parliamentary constituencies – Batu Sapi and Libaran.
There are Chinese voters, said Chew, who are thinking that there is a need for an opposition lawmaker to voice out their grievances as Sandakan, Batu Sapi and Libaran state and parliamentary seats are with the Government.
Sabah DAP secretary Chan Foong Hin said the Sandakan voters are not necessarily anti-establishment if the government performs well. He pointed out that Barisan’s candidate Datuk V.K. Liew won the Sandakan seat against the DAP in 2008.
“Chinese or urban voters are less dependent on government. They are more sensitive to governance issues, such as local government performance, government delivery and system efficiency,” he said.
The Kota Kinabalu MP admitted that there is a certain unhappiness among the people about the cost of living and some Sandakan local issues such as the slow local economy.
“However, the late Sandakan MP Stephen Wong has done his best to serve the people there. So, I think, Sandakan urban voters are willing to give us another chance,” he said.
The Chinese make up about 51% of the 39,349 voters, the Muslim Bumiputra, who are mostly Suluk and Bajau, make up 45%, and Kadazandusun 3%.
The Muslims in Sabah are different from the Muslim Malays, especially those supporting Umno and PAS in Peninsular Malaysia. In the Land Below the Wind, the 3Rs – race, religion and royalty – are not popular issues.
“Semua sama bah di Sabah (everyone is the same) as a family will have members from other religion. If not, some Umno members would not have voted for DAP in Sandakan in GE14,” said Chew.
Chan agrees that the Muslim Bumiputra in Sabah are generally more inclusive.
“They can accept any Sabahan as their brothers and sisters. The 3R factors are less effective over here,” he said.
He believes the Muslim Bumiputra in Sandakan would vote for the “establishment”.
The Muslim voters have an ini kali lah (this is the time) mood as they are angry that their life has not improved after voting in Pakatan/Warisan into power, observed Chew. The GST (Goods and Services Tax) was replaced with SST (Sales and Service Tax) but the price of goods did not go down.
The MCA central committee member said the Muslim voters are also unhappy that BR1M was not given and the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN) not abolished. They feel cheated by Pakatan’s broken election promises, he said.
Chan and Chew do not think that Sabah rights and the defeated equal partners status Bill would bring in the votes in the by-election.
Chan said Sabah rights issues would not be the central theme for this by-election.
“Instead, people would be more concerned about bread and butter issues.
“They hope to have an upgraded and extended airport runway to cater for tourism needs, they hope to see a more stable oil palm price, and they want to have peace of mind about the safety in Esszone (Eastern Sabah Security Zone),” he said.
Chew said the by-election would be about the economy.
“They want the economy to be better. They want investors coming to Sandakan,” he said.
“Claiming Sabah’s rights is important to us. But for the rakyat in kampung and urban areas, they don’t get the gist of it. They think that somehow we will get it.”
Umno helped Barisan to win the three recent by-elections by delivering the Malay/Muslim voters.
In Sabah, it might not do the same as: 1) Sabah Umno is weakened with almost all its assemblymen and MPs jumping to Bersatu or Warisan or Upko and 2) Sabah Chief Minister and Warisan president Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal commands a sizable Muslim vote bank in the constituency.
“We have a good working relationship with Warisan and CM Shafie is a popular figurehead.... PPBM is still new in Sabah politics, so it’s too early to make any assessment but we appreciate their help,” said Chan.
Chew does not think that Umno is weaker in Sabah as Sabahans do not like katak (a lawmaker who jumps to another party is called a “frog” in Sabah). He also said that the acceptance of assemblymen or MPs from rival parties, who it fought bitterly in GE14, was causing disharmony in Warisan.
For example, there is a viral video of a Warisan supporter angry with her party for accepting an Umno assemblyman, who is now giving government posts to his former party members. Tearing a party t-shirt, she hysterically complained that Warisan members loyal to the party were forgotten.
To show their dissatisfaction with Warisan, Chew said they would tell their family members: “Peduli mereka, kita kasih pembakang” (Who cares about the government, we give our vote to the opposition).
Can the opposition deliver an upset in Sandakan?
The Chinese there are a DAP vote bank, according to Chew. He said the hardcore DAP supporters would continue to support the party, but there is a high chance that 20% to 30% of the Chinese might give a chance to the opposition candidate so that their voice is heard.
With the local economy in bad shape – the low price of palm oil – Chew said they might just say: “I’ll give my vote to the opposition, see what it can do, it will only be four years, let the MP bark in parliament.”
However, Chan is confident that DAP would retain Sandakan.
The nomination day on Saturday will give a clearer picture on whether DAP can break the Opposition’s winning streak.