SOME political analysts argue that Sabah politics is different from Peninsular Malaysia’s.
They point to the demographics of the two territories. Sabah has ethnic communities such as Kadazandusun, Murut, Bajau, Lundayeh, Rungus and Bisaya that influence state politics; Peninsular Malaysia has mostly Malays, Chinese and Indians and only a few Orang Asli groups that aren’t political.
They also contend that Sabah politics is unique because the state has several locally-based political parties, like Parti Warisan Sabah, Parti Sabah Bersatu (PBS), United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (Upko), Sabah Star (Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku), Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), Parti Cinta Sabah (PCS) and United Sabah National Organisation (Usno). Parties based in Peninsular Malaysia tend to be national rather than confined to one state; though some do not have a presence in Sabah and Sarawak.
However, the snap Sabah state election held in 2020 heralded a new political trend from the wild, wild east that has been exported to Peninsular Malaysia.
“... the election marked changes in the country’s fluid political waters with the ripple effects extending from Tambunan and Kota Kinabalu to Putrajaya and Kota Baru. The Sabah polls was a contest in which the fortunes of both federal and state power were openly intertwined, ” wrote Bridget Welsh, Benjamin YH Loh and Vilashini Somiah in the “Conclusion” of the book they edited, Sabah From The Ground: The 2020 Elections & The Politics of Survival (SIRD+Iseas, 2021).
In the 2020 Sabah election, Umno, which had lost the state in 2018’s GE14 (the General Election that saw the historic fall of the Umno-dominated Barisan Nasional) came back into power but in a subsidiary role, as a member of a coalition it does not lead.
“Umno has shown since September 2020 that it is uncomfortable in this position – with the Sabah election serving as a catalyst for wider divisions within the Perikatan Nasional (federal coalition government).
“In March 2021 Umno announced it would not go into GE15 as part of the PN coalition – showcasing arguably one of the most important national consequences of Sabah’s polls: persistent divides among Malay parties, ” wrote Welsh, Loh and Somiah.
The editors observe in their “Conclusion” essay: “In an Umno-ruled Sabah, there was a hierarchical political arrangement, yet in which a politics of accommodation took place. Increasingly, a willingness to accommodate eroded away and one-party dominance and the centralisation of power took root within Sabah, a process that parallels developments in Peninsular Malaysia.”
I wrote a chapter for Sabah From The Ground titled “Key Players in Sabah’s ‘Keroyok’ Politics”. “Keroyok” is Sabahan Malay slang for “ganging up”. For the essay, I interviewed several Sabah politicians, including Kota Kinabalu MP and Sabah DAP secretary Chan Foong Hin.
During the interview in November last year, Chan pointed out that the 2020 Sabah election indicated how Malaysian politics would shape up. (I didn’t include his views in my chapter for the book as they were not relevant to my topic, keroyok politics.)
“After we (Pakatan Harapan) toppled Umno and Barisan Nasional in GE14, the country moved from one ring to rule Malaysian politics to a bipartisan two-party system. It is a break up of one party’s (Umno) dominance and a move to multi-partisan competition, ” Chan said.
(Pakatan was, of course, ousted in February 2020 by the Perikatan coalition government comprising, at that time, of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, PAS, Barisan Nasional, Gabungan Parti Sarawak, several former PKR leaders, Parti Bersatu Sabah and an independent MP.)
“You have Bersatu and Umno in Sabah polls, which could be a rehearsal for how Perikatan and Barisan will play their political game. I believe they will emulate the Sabah model – they will use the Perikatan flag, the Barisan flag and not necessarily achieve 100% no overlap in seats they are contesting, ” Chan said in the November interview.
“Look at how PBS did it. They contested in 2020 using their flag, but they were part of the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition.”
In the 2020 Sabah election, it was Warisan Plus, consisting of Warisan, DAP, PKR and Upko, versus GRS, comprising Perikatan (made up of Bersatu, Sabah Star and SAPP), Barisan (Umno, MCA and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah or PBRS) and PBS.
Even though they were part of the GRS coalition, Umno, MCA, PBRS and PBS contested against each other and Warisan Plus in 17 of the 72 state seats. However, in many of the overlapping seats, it did not matter whether the GRS parties langgar (hit) each other. GRS won most of the overlapping seats.
According to DAP’s Chan, the Sabah state election opened up a new way of thinking in Malaysian politics: “Political parties used to form a coalition before the election, but after the Sabah polls, we see political partnerships formed after the election, ” he pointed out.
He explained that it is likely that going into GE15, a party might have an ally but after the election, you can’t rule out that the party might go with a new ally as no party will win outright.
“Just imagine if PBS (which won seven seats in Sabah) joined Warisan Plus (33 seats), we would have formed the government, ” he said.
On the night of the Sabah polls and for days after, the air was thick with political intrigue as politicians tried to bypass political pacts to become chief minister. Some even tried to double-cross their party or allies.
In the end, the GRS parties stuck together and Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor of Bersatu was sworn in as Sabah Chief Minister three days after the Sept 26 election.
A similar free-for-all over the prime minister post could happen on the night of GE15.
That’s where keroyok politics might come in.
In my chapter in Sabah From The Ground, I wrote that the state snap polls was about the then Sabah chief minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal getting keroyok (ganged up on) by GRS leaders like Sabah Umno chief Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin, Sabah Bersatu chief Hajiji, Sabah Star president Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan and former Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman.
Some of the GRS leaders competed against each other; they even dropped in independents to face off against their allies. Yet, they worked together – along with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin, plus several independents – to bring down Shafie.
Why was Shafie alone in the fight against GRS? Where were his allies, like founder of yet-to-be-registered-party Pejuang Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim or Upko president Datuk Seri Wilfred Madius Tangau? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Will keroyok politics spill over into Peninsular Malaysia?
Possibly, as there are political leaders who might (covertly) gang up to bring down one man who poses a threat to their ambitions.