Eight lessons from PBS’ defeat in Sandakan

Vivian Wong after winning the Sandakan by-election. -Zulazhar Sheblee/The Star

PARTI Bersatu Sabah’s stunning defeat in the Sandakan by-election in Sabah is a lesson on how not to run a campaign.

With a low voter turnout – just 54% – DAP’s Vivian Wong got 16,012 votes against PBS’ Datuk Linda Tsen’s 4,491.

Wong defeated Tsen and three independent candidates by a majority of 11,521. That’s bigger than the 10,098 majority her late father, Datuk Stephen Wong, obtained in GE14.

Here are the lessons that PBS or any Opposition party taking on Pakatan Harapan/Parti Warisan Sabah/Upko can learn from the by-election.

Lesson One: Don’t subcontract your campaign to Umno to win Muslim bumiputra voters.

PBS left it to Umno to win the 45% of Sandakan voters who are Muslim bumiputra, mostly the Bajau, Suluk, Bugis and Sungai.

Umno is out of power at the Federal and Sabah-state level. It can no longer give or promise goodies to the voters. It also doesn’t have the same clout it used to have in terms getting its machinery to work.

It is also a dismantled Sabah Umno with almost all its 17 assemblymen and seven MPs – except for Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin and Sungai Sibuga assemblyman Tan Sri Musa Aman – joining other parties.

In hindsight, some PBS leaders think that it would have been a better strategy to win over the Muslim voters on their own.

Lesson Two: Don’t send a mixed message to the voters.

Almost immediately after the collapse of the less-than-48-hours-old Sabah government led by Chief Minister Musa Aman, PBS quit Barisan Nasional to go out on its own. About a year later, in the by-election, the Sabah-based multiracial party was back in bed with Umno.

The anti-Umno voters, especially the Chinese, who comprise 51% of total voters, were confused. They did not know whether PBS was in or out of Barisan.

Lesson Three: “Bossku” Datuk Seri Najib Razak is a double-edged sword.

Bossku is popular among Muslim bumiputras in Sabah. This was evident from the rock star welcome he received when he made an appearance at a supermarket in a Sandakan suburb. The former Prime Minister and ex-Umno president was stumping for Tsen on the eve of polling.

However, for most of the Chinese, Najib – who is battling several corruption charges – is the embodiment of the negative side of “malu apa, bossku” (what’s the shame, my boss?).

There are Chinese voters who are disillusioned with DAP but he alienated them so they did not go out to vote for PBS.

Bossku also did not do what PBS expected him to do: inspire enough Muslim bumiputras to come out to vote for Tsen.

Lesson Four: Sabah Chief Minister and Parti Warisan Sabah president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal is a force to be reckoned with.

The story of the DAP’s stunning victory is as much Shafie’s as it is Wong’s.

Undeniably, Shafie is to Muslim bumiputras – especially the Suluk and Bajau communities – what former Chief Minister and PBS president Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan was to non-Muslim bumiputras, especially the Kadazandusun and Murut, in the 1980s and 1990s.

During his campaign in Muslim areas, it was easy to see that Shafie has a heart-to-heart connection with the community. He speaks their lingo.

Lesson Five: Don’t run a campaign on a shoestring budget against the well-oiled DAP and Parti Warisan machinery.

Money is necessary to fuel the mobilisation of voters, especially in poor areas like Kampung Sim Sim, Pulau Berhala, Taman Harmoni and Kampung Forrest in the Sandakan constituency.

It has been ingrained for decades in voters from such neglected areas that politicians will hand them duit tambang (transport money) to get them to vote for their candidate.

PBS leaders were given hints that the party had to fork out duit tambang.

“The car is ready. We’ve checked the engine oil and the battery water. Now we need to fill it with diesel so that we can start it,” a politician, tasked with mobilising hundreds of voters, told PBS.

The party, however, didn’t have the budget for duit tambang.

There are also allegations by the Opposition that vote-buying took place during the by-election. But so far, the only evidence provided has been a dark and blurry video purportedly showing the act of vote-buying.

There’s also an allegation that the poorer PBS supporters were paid RM50 not to vote.

Lesson Six: Remember you are fighting the mighty Parti Warisan Sabah/Pakatan Harapan/Upko government.

PBS was facing the Sabah government that had advantages such as misusing government resources and machinery to campaign and promising development.

For example, Shafie’s political secretary Jo-Anna Henley Rampas shared a video on Instagram showing her and a group of Warisan party members heading to Pulau Berhala in a police speedboat.

Bersih 2.0 chastised Warisan. However, the electoral watchdog can only bark, it can’t bite.

Lesson Seven: Don’t field a reluctant candidate.

PBS picked Tsen who was not keen to contest. The 60-year-old also has political baggage as she served as a two-term MP for Batu Sapi, which is next to the Sandakan constituency. DAP told voters that she was a non-vocal MP in Parliament.

Tsen is a genteel politician. She ran a non-confrontational campaign.

Looking in the political rearview mirror, PBS should have fielded a young ayam sabung (fighting cock) to fight DAP, whose supporters love its fighting cock political culture.

Not fielding a younger candidate was a lost opportunity for PBS to rebrand itself as a young and vibrant party. In the by-election, it was the same old, same old party in the Malaysia Baharu environment.

Lesson Eight: PBS couldn’t rah-rah the disillusioned voters.

There were voters angry with the Pakatan government’s unfulfilled manifesto promises and the rising cost of living.

However, PBS failed to convince them of the benefit of having a strong opposition that can act as a check and balance to the Pakatan/Warisan government.

It also failed to turn the Sandakan by-election into a mini-referendum of the Pakatan government’s one year performance.

Before the by-election, some political analysts predicted that it would be a walk in the park for DAP. They didn’t realise that the pace of PBS’ campaign would also be a walk in the park.

PBS was simply not aggressive enough. It relied on house-to-house and shop-to-shop walkabouts. It hardly organised a ceramah.

PBS couldn’t portray itself as a credible alternative to voters. So the disillusioned voters were willing to give the status quo another chance, or they abstained from voting.

Did PBS learn from its defeat?

Dejected PBS leaders went soul searching. They have admitted some of their campaign strategies went badly wrong. One of them was the cooperation with Umno and Bossku, which brought more negatives than positives.

Some of them see a rainbow after the political storm. Notwithstanding the loss by a huge margin, a PBS leader said after analysing the situation in-depth, it was not a bad result.

“We ran a clean campaign. We did not even have enough money to pay for campaign workers let alone give gula-gula (candy, a euphemism for buying votes).

“We have not contested in Sandakan since 1990. We had no machinery in the constituency which has been in DAP’s control for two terms,” he said.

“Yet, out of four votes, one was given to PBS. So there are hardcore, genuine PBS supporters in the area. We will work harder to strengthen the party in Sandakan.”

PBS and the other opposition parties in Sabah, like Umno, Parti Solidariti Tanah AirKu (Sabah STAR), SAPP, Usno or Parti Gagasan Rakyat Sabah, have to rethink how to bring down the Shafie-led government.

The task is daunting.

Perhaps the thorn in Shafie’s state government, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, will create a crack in the Warisan-led coalition that the opposition could take advantage of.

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