Will history repeat itself in Sandakan?

Hopeful return: PBS president Dr Maximus announcing the party

AFTER two decades of absence, the Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) symbol is making a comeback in the Sandakan by-election. The last time the PBS symbol – a handshake with the Sabah map in the background – was used by the multiracial Sabah-based party was in GE10 in 1999.

That time PBS was in the opposition.

I remember vividly being told days before polling by a Barisan Nasional political operative that PBS could only win three seats. I didn’t believe his assertion as in GE9, despite being in the opposition, PBS had won eight out of 20 parliamentary seats in Sabah.

“Only three will win as a warning to PBS. The jaguh (champions) of PBS will be able to keep their seats. But if we want, we can make them all lose,” he said.

The jaguh he was referring to were Keningau MP and PBS president Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Bandau MP and PBS deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili and Tanjung Aru MP and PBS deputy president Datuk Dr Yee Moh Chai.

His prediction was spot on.

PBS lost its Kadazandusun-majority strongholds Tenom, Penampang, Kinabalu and Tuaran. It was also defeated in Marudu, a mixed seat. Shockingly, Pairin, the Kadazandusun Huguan Siou (paramount leader), retained his Keningau seat by a 250 majority.

PBS is a story of a party born in 1985 to oppose the autocratic Berjaya, a Barisan component party that had ruled Sabah since 1976.

“The people then, especially the Kadazandusun and Chinese, wanted to topple the Berjaya regime, which they saw as being unfair to them,” recalled PBS vice-president Datuk Johnny Mositun.

There was also a fear of Islamisation among the non-Muslim communities. For example, there was a mass conversion ceremony during a Harvest Festival celebration in Keningau, about 110km from Kota Kinabalu.

In Kota Kinabalu, 16 days before the 1985 Sabah polls, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad declared: “We’ll sink or swim with Berjaya”.

The mighty Berjaya sank and months later Dr Mahathir swam away from it.

It was almost a miracle that a party, formed 47 days before the state polls, had defeated Berjaya. PBS won 25 out of the 48 state seats. But the two losing parties – Berjaya and Usno – plotted for Tun Mustapha Harun to be sworn in as chief minister. Pairin was also sworn in as chief minister. This led to Sabah having two chief ministers. Later, the court declared Pairin the real Sabah chief minister.

Hidden hands: The Sabah riots erupted in March of 1986, believed to be instigated by secret forces from Kuala Lumpur to destabilise the PBS government.

Then the Sabah riots erupted in March of 1986. Several explosives were detonated in Kota Kinabalu, Tawau and Sandakan. Mobs – many believed to be illegal immigrants – took to the streets.

There were hidden hands believed to be in Kuala Lumpur which wanted to destabilise the PBS government.

Two months later, Pairin called for a snap state election. This time PBS won convincingly – 34 out of the 48 state seats. Soon after that, PBS was admitted into Barisan.

“We wanted to work with the Federal Government as we needed funds to develop the state. We also wanted to fight for Sabah rights within the Barisan government,” said Mositun.

In the 1990 Sabah elections, PBS and Usno were Barisan component parties. However, they were allowed to use their party symbol against each other. PBS won 36 seats, Usno 12 and Berjaya zero.

Three months after the Sabah elections, GE7 was held.

In less than a week before polling, PBS – in the words of Dr Mahathir – stabbed Barisan in the back. It quit the ruling coalition to join forces with Semangat 46.

Ironically, PBS, which was now in the opposition, contested against DAP, which was also against Barisan, in Sabah. There was an overwhelming anti-Barisan and pro-PBS sentiment in the state.

That’s how DAP lost to PBS the Sandakan seat that it had held for three terms since 1978.

“We left Barisan because Dr Mahathir was unfair to the PBS government. When the chief minister Pairin asked for federal funds, the prime minister ignored his request,” Mositun said.

PBS won 14 out of the 20 parliamentary seats in Sabah. However, Semangat 46, DAP and PAS failed to deliver enough seats to overthrow Barisan. The PBS-led Sabah government was back in the opposition.

Barisan through Umno exacted revenge for PBS’ betrayal in GE7. The Dr Mahathir government tightened the screw on the rebellious party.

In 1991, Umno spread its wings to Sabah by taking over local parties such as Usno and Akar. In 1991, Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, the younger brother of Pairin, and Dr Maximus were detained under ISA for an alleged plot to take Sabah out of Malaysia.

In 1991, Pairin was charged in court for corruption, which many Sabahans saw as politically motivated. On his way to his office in Kota Kinabalu, the Sabah Chief Minister was arrested by the police armed with M16 as if he was a common criminal. Some saw it as an effort to politically humiliate the PBS president.

In the 1994 state elections, PBS won 25 state seats and Barisan 23. Pairin was made to wait for 36 hours outside the Istana Negeri gate before he was allowed to be sworn in as chief minister, a post that he held for nine years.

But about a month later, his government collapsed after some PBS assemblymen ditched the party.

After 12 years in the opposition, PBS was readmitted into Barisan in 2002. One of the reasons the party rejoined the ruling coalition was because of the 9/11 tragedy in United States, said Mositun: “Dr Mahathir had called on all Malaysians to unite for the security of the country.”

Critics would argue that PBS was forced to embrace Barisan as in almost every state elections after 1994, some of its assemblymen jumped to join the government.

The 1999 state election in which PBS won 17 seats out of 48 state seats showed that mathematically, the party could not make a comeback into government. Project IC had increased the number of phantom voters.

The party’s Kadazandusun strongholds were removed while Barisan’s Muslim seats increased. For example, the three Kadazandusun and Rungus seats in the Bandau parliamentary constituency were reduced to two while the two Bajau-majority seats in Semporna were increased to three.

Some would argue that PBS’ return to Barisan was a kiss of semi-death. The party lost sizeable support from the younger and anti-Barisan voters as they perceived it to be subservient to Umno, the backbone of the federal and Sabah governments.

For example, some Sabahans blamed PBS over Barisan’s failure to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigrants. PBS could not convince them that it too wanted the thorny problem resolved but it was the Federal Government that was not sincere in resolving it.

The mood of some Sabahans was of ABU (anything but Umno), as well as anything connected to Umno. This sentiment reached its peak when Barisan won 29 seats, Pakatan Harapan/Parti Warisan Sabah (29) and Sabah Star (2) out of the 60 state seats in GE14.

The Barisan-led Sabah government collapsed after less than 24 hours in power due to party hopping. In a case of history repeating itself, Sabah had two chief ministers.

PBS subsequently left Barisan to be on its own. The party, according to Dr Maximus, who replaced Pairin as president, is distinctively unique because 1) it is a multiracial party, 2) it has been persistent in defending Sabah rights and Malaysia Agreement 1963 since its birth, and 3) it has voiced and stood ground that Sabah is for original Sabahans and genuine Malaysians only.

The last time PBS contested in Sandakan was in 1990. It defeated DAP which held the parliamentary seat in the east coast of Sabah for three terms.

In the Sandakan by-election, can PBS repeat its 1990 victory against DAP?


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