‘Big brother’ politics

Connected: Preparing for Sabah’s 2020 polls, which were triggered by the change in the Federal Government, underlining the ties between federal and state politics. — Filepic/The Star

HOW does a brother defeat his siblings? He calls on his big brother to keroyok (Sabah Malay slang for “gang up on”) their sibling.

“Big brother politics” has been a part of Sabah since the state, together with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore, formed Malaysia in 1963.

Take the fight between blood brothers: Usno (United Sabah National Organisation) founder Tun Mustapha Harun and Upko (United Pasokmomogun Kadazan Organisation) president Tun Mohd Fuad Stephens.

In 1964, Sabah chief minister Fuad appointed a Kadazan to the post of state secretary. However, Yang di-Pertua Negara Mustapha refused to confirm the appointment, precipitating a serious Constitutional crisis involving the powers of the chief minister and the Yang di-Pertua Negara.

“Instead of taking the issue to the courts, the disputants were persuaded to submit their conflict once again to the mediation of (then Prime Minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman. Under extreme pressure, Don-ald Stephens (the chief minister’s name before he converted to Islam) finally signed a ‘peace pact’ on a formula proposed by the Tunku.

“By this formula, Donald Stephens was removed as chief minister and instead joined the Federal Cabinet as minister without portfolio, ” wrote Gordon P. Means in a 1968 Asian Survey journal article titled “Eastern Malaysia: The Politics of Federalism”.

The blood brothers fought, and the big brother (ie, the prime minister) decided to remove Fuad from Sabah’s political scene.

In 1967, after the state polls, Mustapha became the chief minister. With timber money, the Sabah government was more prosperous than Kuala Lumpur then, and big brother (the Federal Government) found the chief minister too independent-minded. So in 1976, in a rematch between Mustapha of Usno and Fuad, now the president of Berjaya (Parti Bersatu Rakyat Jelata Sabah), the latter won – arguably with the help of big brother. Fuad became the chief minister again.

The history of big brother politics keeps repeating itself in the Land Below the Wind.

In 1985, despite the help of big brother Barisan Nasional (which then formed the Federal Government), Sabah chief minister Tan Sri Harris Salleh of Berjaya, a Barisan member, was defeated by PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah) president Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan.

Big brother (the Barisan government) finally brought down PBS in 1994. In the polls at the time, PBS won 25 seats and Barisan – comprising Umno with 18 seats, SAPP (Sabah Progressive Party) with three, LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) one and Akar (Angkatan Keadilan Rakyat) with one – got 23 seats in the 48-seat state assembly. Using a carrot and stick from the Federal Government, PBS assemblymen were persuaded to jump to Barisan, giving it the state. PBS could arguably have held onto power if big brother had not interfered.

With this history in mind, one of the questions I posed as a moderator of an online forum titled “Beyond the 2020 Sabah Polls: Sabah Moving Forward” was about federal-state relations.

The forum on Thursday was hosted by Arnold Puyok, the chairman of the NGO Society Empowerment and Economic Development of Sabah (SEEDS), in conjunction with the publication of the anthology of essays Sabah From The Ground: The 2020 Elections & The Politics Of Survival edited by Bridget Welsh, Benjamin YH Loh and Vilashini Somiah. The panel comprised Parti Warisan Sabah deputy president Datuk Darell Leiking, Umno

Sabah chairman Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin and Sabah Star president Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan.

My question was: “How do you see the role of federal-state relations in Sabah politics?”

Sabah deputy chief minister I Bung Moktar contended that Sabah politics is closely connected to the Federal Government, giving a brief history of how big brother sided with Sabah politicians, giving them an edge over their opponents in the state.

“In 1994, PBS fell when its six assemblymen jumped. In 2018, Upko (a Barisan party) assemblymen jumped, causing a change of the state government. In 2020,33 assemblymen caused the fall of the state government, ” he pointed out.

Bung Moktar was referring to when the two-day-old Barisan government, which had ruled Sabah since 1994, fell after GE14 in 2018. Barisan had won 29 seats and Warisan/Pakatan Harapan 29 seats. But with the tacit support of the Pakatan Federal government, the state government fell. In 2020, with the change of government at the federal level and the Perikatan Nasional coalition replacing Pakatan, the Warisan Plus government could not hold on to power, and it was forced to dissolve the state assembly.

The Kinabatangan MP and Lamag assemblyman then said: “I am not proud of this, but I don’t want to condemn it. The reality is the Federal Government plays a divide and rule game with Sabah leaders.”

“Usno was very close to Umno, but when Tun Mustapha was no longer needed, they used a few Umno leaders to bring him down.

“When Berjaya was in power, they were with it. But later, they brought down Berjaya and brought up PBS. When PBS was not with them, they brought down PBS.

“I told my Umno fellows in Sabah, of course we need the Federal Government in Sabah in terms of politics and economy, but we cannot rely and depend on them all the way. If we are not careful in implementing our duties, we can’t move forward, and Sabah will be left behind if we depend on the Federal Government. Sabahans have to do it themselves.”

Jeffrey, who is Sabah deputy chief minister II, noted that there is constant conflict between the federal and state levels, especially concerning Sabah’s rights – such as the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), oil royalties and allocations for development.

He said when the state government and Federal Government are not aligned in the same coalition, then the state will not be entertained by the Federal Government, as history has shown: “For example, during PBS rule (1985 to 1994, when his brother Pairin was chief minister), the Federal Government withheld funds, established a separate agency for development, and the Sabah chief minister was removed as security chairman of the state. Sabah suffered, ” he said.

“When the state government and Federal Government are aligned as they are today, we can move forward, as we can work together and we can get financial support from the Federal Government.”

However, the Keningau MP and Tambunan assemblyman cautioned that even if the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) state government and the Perikatan Federal Government are aligned but federal leaders did not listen to state leadership, it would hamper their political relationship.

Former International Trade and Industry Minister Leiking argued that Bung Moktar’s team (the GRS state government) has to demand the realisation of MA63, which will equalise relationships among Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Government.

“One of the possible solutions is why not appoint the chief minister of Sabah and chief minister of Sarawak as deputy prime ministers so that they can bring Sabah and Sarawak issues to the Federal Government?

“I know it sounds Sabah- and Sarawak-centric, but as far as we are concerned, we are equal partners (with Peninsular Malaysia), ” he said.

“The Federal Government has to make it very clear: Are we just a colony of the Federal Government or equal partners? When you say equal – because we formed the federation (of Malaysia) together – we are equal in deciding fiscal and development policies.”

The Penampang MP and Moyog assemblyman wants a new narrative in the Federation of Malaysia with equal federal and state relations as far as Sabah, Sarawak and Malaya are concerned: “It must be different when you run Selangor, Johor and Penang – that is their issue. So the state and federal relationship must change – more autonomous and decentralised decisions, especially over fiscal matters.”

The consensus among the three politicians is that Sabahans must unite. But with the divide and rule political game played by the Federal Government, can they?

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