Sarawak’s polls will influence Sabah’s politics

Sabahans are looking for more local control rather than federal authority.

WHAT’S the difference between politics in Sabah and Sarawak?

In 2016, I discussed Borneo politics with Sabah politicians at a happening nightspot in Kuching. The politicians, who were top leaders of Sabah Barisan Nasional, and I were in Sarawak’s capital to observe state elections.

While sipping single malt whisky, we found three significant differences.

1) Sarawak’s Chief Minister was the CEO of the party that ruled the state, whereas Sabah’s Chief Minister was the branch manager of the party that dominated the state.

At that time, Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem was the president of PBB (Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu), which was the backbone of Sarawak Barisan that ruled the state. Sabah’s Chief Minister was Tan Sri Musa Aman, the liaison chief of Sabah Umno.

2) Sarawak was ruled by four Barisan component parties that were locally-based, whereas Umno, a national party, controlled Sabah.

3) Sabah has a huge PTI (pendatang tanpa izin or illegal immigrant) problem that has changed the state’s political dynamics, whereas Sarawak doesn’t have such a problem.

Two years after the 2016 Sarawak polls, the political dynamics in Sarawak and Sabah changed. Barisan lost the Federal Government in 2018’s General Election, the country’s 14th.

In Sarawak, four parties – PBB, Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) – quit Barisan and formed Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS). GPS, a Sarawak-based coalition, ruled Sarawak but was not part of the Pakatan Harapan Federal Government.

With 18 MPs (Barisan Sarawak won 19 parliamentary seats in the state but one MP jumped ship) out of the then 31 seats, GPS was a force to be reckoned with. It was the kingmaker in the formation of the Perikatan Nasional government in March 2020 that took over after the Sheraton Move that led to the collapse of the Pakatan Federal Government.

GPS could demand concessions (such as full control over its oil and gas rights) that benefited Sarawak as a condition of supporting the Federal Government.

In Sabah, Sabah Barisan formed the state government after GE14. But two days later, Parti Warisan engineered the defection of six Barisan assemblymen and, together with Pakatan parties (DAP and PKR, which are non-local parties) and Upko (United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation) ruled the state.

Locally-based parties like Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS), Upko and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) quit the Barisan coalition. Later, PBRS rejoined Barisan.

But unlike GPS, which could fend off Putrajaya, Warisan, as part of the Pakatan Federal Government, was not the master of its political destiny.

The Sabah-based party could not stop its national-based political ally Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia from spreading its wings to Sabah. Bersatu chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad broke a gentleman’s agreement with Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal that Sabah was Warisan’s domain. Sabah Chief Minister and Warisan president Shafie had to kowtow to then prime minister and Bersatu chairman Dr Mahathir.

Fast forward to now.

Sarawakians are facing a Dec 18 state election to determine whether they want local coalition GPS, or nationally-based coalition Pakatan (comprising PKR, DAP, Amanah and Upko), or locally-based Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) to rule the state.

Political manoeuvring affirms that GPS is currently the master of Sarawak politics. It could tell its nationally-based allies such as Umno and Bersatu (which has two MPs and an assemblyman in Sarawak) not to contest in the state. When Saratok MP and Krian assemblyman Datuk Ali Biju from Bersatu decided to defend his state seat as an Independent, GPS pressured him to withdraw his nomination.

That’s raw political power.

In Sabah, after Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) – consisting of Barisan, Perikatan and PBS – won the snap Sabah polls last year, the Sabah Chief Minister was chosen from Bersatu. The two nationally- based coalitions – Barisan and Perikatan – dominate the Sabah state government.

GRS couldn’t even stop PAS, a non-player in Sabah politics, from getting a nominated assemblyman post. The order came from Putrajaya and the local GRS parties, such as Sabah Star and PBS, could only make some noise about it.

For decades, the Sarawak-based coalition – Sarawak Barisan, later rebranded as GPS – arguably had the autonomy to chart the state’s political direction. Since 1994 in Sabah, after the fall of PBS, a Sabah-based party that held power for nine years, Putrajaya has dominated politics in the state.

To sum up, when it comes to the politics of federalism, it is ikan bilis (anchovy) politics in Sabah compared with ikan yu (shark) politics in Sarawak.

Sabah politicians and people look at Sarawak with envy as GPS seems to be master of its state whereas Sabahans take orders from Putrajaya.

There’s a move in Sabah to change this. Sabahans want to determine their own political destiny. The state wants political autonomy from Putrajaya.

Certain politicians in GRS are planning to register the currently loose, unofficial coalition as a political party. They want to turn it into a Sabah-based coalition just like GPS is a locally-based coalition in Sarawak.

There’s a plan afoot for Bersatu assemblymen and MPs in Sabah to join a local party. They reportedly feel that Bersatu is a sinking ship since party president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin lost the prime minister’s post and the party won only two seats in the recent Melaka polls.

The party, which will consist of Bersatu and Warisan politicians, will be part of the GRS coalition with SAPP (Sabah Progressive Party), Sabah Star and politicians from Umno. GRS will be rebranded as a Sabah-based coalition, and don’t be surprised if it will contest in GE15 instead of Perikatan in 2022.

If GPS wins big in the Sarawak polls, its victory will quicken the birth of a Sabah-based coalition. And Sabah’s ikan bilis politics might just be elevated to ikan yu level.

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