Rather than issues, the Sandakan by-election campaign has so far been about the personalities of two candidates with similar starts to their political lives and different approaches to campaigning.
THE Sandakan by-election fight has been dubbed “old ginger versus baby kailan”.
Seasoned politician Datuk Linda Tsen of Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), a 64-year-old former two-term Batu Sapi MP, is facing political newbie Vivian Wong of DAP who is the 30-year-old daughter of the incumbent Sandakan MP.
There are also three independent candidates: former Sabah PAS chairman and former Sabah Parti Amanah Negara chairman Hamzah Abdullah, 65, businessman Chia Siew Yung, 45, and former political worker Sulaiman Abdul Samat, 36.
However, all the attention so far has been firmly fixed on Tsen and Wong, not least because they share a grievous entry into politics: Both contested in a seat that fell vacant after the sudden death of their loved ones.
Tsen first contested in Batu Sapi after her husband and incumbent MP Datuk Edmond Chong of PBS died in a motorcycle accident in 2010. Wong is contesting in Sandakan after her father, Datuk Stephen Wong of DAP, died of a heart attack on March 28.
(The Batu Sapi Parliamentary constituency shares Sandakan town on the east coast of Sabah with the Sandakan Parliamentary constituency.)
Sabah DAP publicity secretary Ginger Phoong Jin Zhe observes that being “old ginger” might not be to Tsen’s advantage. He said the public’s perception of the former MP is that she did not deliver on the promises she made as a Barisan Nasional government MP for seven years.
However, PBS information chief Datuk Joniston Bangkuai thinks otherwise.
“Linda’s highly successful two terms as Batu Sapi MP has given her the required experience to effectively serve and be the voice for Sandakan,” said the Kiulu assemblyman.
“Baby kailan” Wong might be a newbie candidate but Phoong said she has long been active in politics as she used to accompany her dad on his political rounds.
“She knows the issues. She knows the pain of the people. She’s not totally new. It’s not that she has been sitting on the bench for 10 years and then suddenly was called to contest in a by-election,” said the Luyang assemblyman.
Political analyst Mohd Rahezzal Shah, however, wonders whether who the candidate is is as important as past trends – especially among Chinese voters – when the electorate voted along party lines. In other words, the lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara in Sabah said people might vote for the party they prefer and not the candidate.
In the first week of campaigning, Wong discovered that politics in the age of WhatsApp and Facebook could be brutal when critics scrutinise campaign photographs and turn them into negative memes.
The DAP candidate made several perceived missteps which the unforgiving anti-Pakatan Harapan crowd on social media and messaging apps pounced on. They called her gotong-royong campaign activities – to clean a Muslim cemetery at Kampung Sim and pick up rubbish with Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin at a Muslim water village in Pulau Berhala – a political gimmick.
Phoong accepted the criticism from the public. He also defended Wong, saying that her intentions were genuine.
Mohd Rahezzal noted that the opposition on Facebook and WhatsApp seem to be trying to move the narrative of the campaign from issues to personalities. He noticed in his WhatsApp groups that, instead of talking about serious issues like development, he was receiving messages saying, “Vivian going to the grave, Vivian is still young and she follows everything DAP tells her to do, Linda was good when she was Batu Sapi MP”, and so on.
“Many are highlighting the personalities of the candidates rather than the issues,” he said.
Wong’s missteps are minor issues which might not haunt her at the ballot box. So far, Tsen has not made any perceived missteps.
Phoong of DAP said this is because PBS is sticking to low profile campaigning. PBS, he said, has not held a ceramah and, instead, is meeting and distributing leaflets to voters by going house-to-house and shop-to-shop.
“They don’t do big events like us. We have ceramah and gotong-
royong. And the more events you organise, the more chance that you will be criticised,” he said.
Bangkuai of PBS said his party’s campaign strategy works, as it can reach out to the voters. The party’s leaflets state that PBS left Barisan after GE14 last year in order to get back to being a Sabah-based party championing Sabahan interests.
“DAP has a ceramah here and there. But the turnout is poor even with party heavyweights like Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng speaking,” he said.
However, an observer of Sabah politics contended that for PBS to have a fighting chance in the by-election it should be more aggressive.
“Have kelompok (group) ceramah and even a grand ceramah inviting the big shot opposition leaders to speak,” she said.
So, with the campaign reaching the midpoint, who is the favourite to win the Sandakan by-election?
Phoong did not want to speculate about how his party would perform.
“The public has given us a warm welcome. The support is overwhelming. But we won’t say that we are leading,” he said.
The DAP politician said that the difference between GE14 and the by-election is the voter turnout.
In GE14, DAP won with a 10,098 majority in a straight fight against Barisan. But voter turnout will be lower this time as he did not expect younger voters, especially from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, to return home to vote.
“They are traditionally our voters. If they come back to vote, it will be good for us,” he said.
The Sabah political observer estimated that there are about 7,000 to 8,000 outstation voters. Many of them, she said, were DAP voters.
For Fung Ket Wing, the former Sandakan MP from 1978 to 1990, the fight is between DAP and PBS, as the three independent candidates do not have a chance.
“DAP has a better chance of winning. Its huge majority might be reduced – because of low voter turnout – but it is still on the winning side,” said Fung, who left DAP in 1998 over internal party squabbles.
He reasoned that his former party could win his former Parlia-mentary seat because, apart from the fact that Sandakan was where DAP first “landed” in Sabah, the majority of the voters there are Chinese.
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%.
He also said that DAP could win the Malay votes because of the Sabah Chief Minister and Parti Warisan Sabah Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal factor.
“Shafie has control of the Suluk and Bajau voters. If Linda is so popular with the Muslim voters, she would have won Batu Sapi in GE14. But she lost because Shafie has control of them,” he said.
Fung also said there is a small percentage of voters who are angry with the Pakatan/Warisan Federal government.
“But what do you expect this government can do in one year? You can’t do it overnight. Barisan couldn’t do it in its 60 years in power,” he said.
Looking at voting trends, according to Mohd Rahezzal, DAP seems to have an obvious advantage, especially as 50% of the voters are Chinese. If you looked at the results of the last four general elections, he said, Barisan’s share of votes has dropped significantly.
Sandakan urban voters, he said, will follow the trend in Peninsular Malaysia where urban constituencies with large Chinese voters went to Pakatan.
“It is for DAP to lose. But with a reduced majority because of low voter turnout. The likelihood of PBS winning is slim. But then again, you never know,” he said.
PBS, admitted Bangkuai, is the underdog. He said DAP seemed very confident that the by-election would be a walk in the park and that it will retain the seat for the third time in a row.
But for him – and to quote Mark Twain – it is not the size of the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog. He believes that PBS has a fighting chance.
“It is 50/50. It is touch and go,” he said.
Here’s how his party could win it: The Muslims, he said, are quite solid behind PBS because parties like Umno and Usno (United Sabah National Organisation) are backing it. “It is just like in Semenanjung Malaysia. For many of the Muslims, it is asal bukan DAP (as long as it is not DAP),” Bangkuai said.
A majority of the Chinese are still with DAP, he said. But there is a minority who are unhappy with Pakatan/Warisan’s broken promises and the rising cost of living.
Another veteran observer of Sandakan politics noted that DAP is likely to retain Sandakan with a reduced majority.
But as the momentum of the campaigning picks up, and if DAP makes more missteps, he doesn’t rule out an upset victory for PBS.