EARLIER this month, Kadazandusuns in the Klang Valley got together for the Kaamatan or Harvest Festival. It was the seventh time that these Sabahans residing in the peninsula had celebrated the Kaamatan in Kuala Lumpur and the guest of honour was Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Huguan Siou or paramount leader of the Kadazandusuns.
Pairin and a number of other Kadazandusun leaders wore the high, stately sigar headgear and the 1,000-strong gathering of mostly young Kadazandusuns gave Pairin a standing ovation.
A fortnight later, the Sabah government held the state-level Kaamatan graced by the King and Queen and officiated by the Culture and Tourism Minister.
Pairin, again in full traditional Kadazandusun costume, was seated at the main table with the royal couple and other top VIP guests, a gesture not lost on those present – Pairin does not hold any post in government but his status as the Huguan Siou was being acknowledged.
“You have to remember he is the Huguan Siou. He still has the charisma and he inspires awe especially among the older Kadazandusuns who worship him,” said a young Kadazandusun professional who was at the Klang Valley Kaamatan.
The Kitingan name, as they say in Sabah, is “still magic” although it is admittedly not as magical as it used to be. Still, they wonder about where Pairin, or for that matter, where the Kitingan brothers, that is, Pairin and Dr Jeffrey, are heading in Sabah politics.
Pairin, 62, who is also president of PBS, has been the model of propriety since leading the party out of the opposition and back into the Barisan Nasional. He has not tried to throw his weight about despite his party having the second most number of assemblymen and MPs after Umno.
Many of his supporters were disappointed when PBS was left out of the new Cabinet called by Chief Minister Datuk Musa Aman a few months ago. But PBS is still considered the “new kid on the block” and will have to prove its commitment and loyalty to the Barisan before it advances further in the state government.
“I think PBS is still going through a transition in the Barisan,” said Tuaran Umno Youth head Abdul Rahman Dahlan who is also political secretary to the Chief Minister.
On the other hand, his younger brother Dr Jeffrey, 56, is still looking for a political party to latch on to. Dr Jeffrey has been party-less since quitting PBRS or Parti Besatu Rakyat Sabah following an ill-timed challenge against incumbent PBRS president Tan Sri Joseph Kurup.
Thus, while one brother is somewhat back in the Barisan loop, the other is out in the political wilderness. Yet, the brothers used to be the two most powerful men in Sabah, Pairin when he was Chief Minister and Dr Jeffrey as the executive chairman of Yayasan Sabah.
The political history of these two siblings is a stunning illustration of the dramatic politics of Sabah and is painful lesson on the transient nature of politics – that one can be up there one day and down there another.
Pairin has come full circle and some are wondering whether he might not be entering the sunset of his political career. He tasted immense power when he was at his prime – at 40 years old – and it is said that the years spent battling the Barisan has worn him out.
His situation is not unlike that of Kelantan prince and politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Tengku Razaleigh came very near the pinnacle of power in the 1980s and little else has been the same since.
Pairin carries himself with a great deal of dignity despite having come down so many notches since his high-flying days as chief minister. Even Umno leaders recognise that. They can see his effect among the Kadazandusuns, the crowds he continues to command and his natural charm and charisma.
Umno politicians in Sabah say Pairin and the current chief minister get along.
“They have the same easy confidence and they have good body language,” said Umno politician Datuk Masidi Manjun.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is also said to relate well to him.
On the night Barisan won the Gaya by-election, Abdullah had personally invited him onstage to stand alongside the winner and other VIPs as they posed for media cameras. Later on in the night, the Prime Minister went on air to thank Pairin for his role in delivering the Kadazandusun votes.
The Gaya by-election was Pairin’s first outing as a Barisan leader and he and his men did well.
“But the real test for Pairin will be the state elections,” said Datuk Shafie Apdal, Semporna MP and Deputy Defence Minister.
Pairin’s chief role, in that sense, is seen as bringing in the Kadazandusun votes. Even his closest supporters cannot visualise a suitable position for him in the state government. They talk about him preparing the ground for his deputy Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili to take over.
“It’s hard to read Pairin. He keeps things pretty close to his chest but he is still a big player,” said a Sabah-based journalist.
Very few think he is anywhere near to calling it a day.
“Frankly, I don’t see any sign of him retiring. He’s been active and I see him and his wife at most functions,” according to SAPP vice-president Melanie Chia.
But Dr Jeffrey is struggling. PBRS was his fifth political party – he rejoined PBS in between – during his 17 years or so in politics. Then again few politicians in Sabah enjoy the distinction of having only been the member of a single political party.
However, Dr Jeffrey may have outdone most politicians in party-hopping or what the Sabah lexicon classifies as “frogging”.
Moreover, his habit of coveting the top party post has also earned him a reputation as being somewhat power-crazy.
“This insatiable appetite to be the chieftain is still quite common among Sabah politicians. As a person Jeffrey is so affable and pleasant to talk to, but his politics is something else,” said Masidi.
Shortly after quitting PBRS, Dr Jeffrey applied to join another Kadazandusun party, Upko, led by Tan Sri Bernard Dompok.
While his application with Upko was still pending he applied to rejoin PBS. Soon after, he informed Upko that he was joining PBS on the invitation of his elder brother. He also told the press he had been accepted by PBS.
Upko was relieved but the incident caused a small uproar in PBS and put Pairin in a tight spot. The PBS president had to publicly deny it.
Blood is thicker than water, but most people believe that Pairin is sensitive enough to know that taking Jeffrey back would be demoralising for his party people and create tension between Barisan component parties.
The younger Kitingan’s next stop was Umno and his application to join Umno is by most accounts “still pending.”
The general opinion among Sabah Umno politicians is that he has changed parties too many times and they could see no benefit in taking him in.
“He’s painted himself into a corner. It looks like he’s finished as a Barisan politician,” said the above Kadazandusun professional.
In fact, said the young professional, “we like to joke that if he joins Umno, he will want to go for the president’s post!”
But he may find his political party yet. Pasok, a fringe party that stirs to life during elections offered him a place earlier this week.
It is said that Dr Jeffrey’s current priority is to stay within the government range of parties. He does not envisage being a lonely opposition wakil rakyat. At the last State Legislative Assembly sitting, he had continued to sit among the government backbenchers although he is technically an independent assemblyman.
Both brothers have been as different as day and night in their politics.
It is said that much of Dr Jeffrey’s politics has been one of playing catch-up with his elder brother.
Hence, a great deal of his energy has been spent trying to be president of every party he has joined for the simple reason that the top post of a top party enables one a shot at the chief minister’s office.
Dr Jeffrey like many politicians with controversial pasts is now finding that his past has caught up with him.
Pairin on the other hand enjoys options. He is not under any sort of pressure to retire from politics and his position as the Huguan Siou is virtually unchallenged for no one can quite match his near legendary fame in defeating the powerful Berjaya government in 1985.
“I think the Huguan Siou post is his for as long as he wants to hold it,” said Ben Topin, secretary-general of the influential Kadazandusun Cultural Association
In fact, he said Pairin’s standing as the Huguan Siou will grow even greater the day he steps aside from politics.
“The Kadazandusuns are members of different parties and some people say Pairin’s partisanship somewhat compromises his Huguan Siou status,” said Topin.
That day is probably still a long way off. Pairin still has a good number of years left in him but the same is hard to say of Dr Jeffrey’s political future.
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