Will Sabah Change Shirts in the Malaysian Elections?


Photo by Derrick Chang

The tiny constituency of Senellang in Malaysia covers a portion of the northern Borneo mainland and a number of outlying islands in the coastal waters of the Sulawesi Sea. It has 12,998 registered voters, mainly ethnic Bajaus and Suluks of the Islamic faith, traditional fishermen who eke out their livelihood from the sea.

In the days of the British North Borneo Chartered Company and later under formal British colonial rule, this was one of the most pirate-infested areas in the region. As recently as the early 1990s, attacks on remote villages were still being reported. With better roads and accessibility to bigger towns and enhanced security along the porous sea border with the Philippines, however, the threat of pirate attack from the sea has diminished.

Now, instead of pirates, politics has made its way from Kuala Lumpur 700 kilometers across open water to this outpost. It is here, as in many other constituencies nationwide, that opposition political parties are trying to wrest power from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in Saturday’s national elections.

In the 2004 general election, the ruling coalition swept almost 100 percent of Sabah’s state and national parliamentary seats, losing only one each to independent candidates. No opposition party secured a seat. Now, however, with the resurgence of political parties from Peninsular Malaysia coming here to contest elections, the results may at least be a bit closer for the country’s long-suffering opposition.

In the small village of Kampong Sipanggau in the Senellang constituency, villagers have gathered to wait for the incumbent assemblyman, who is making his once-in-five-years political pilgrimage. The mood is of festivities and celebrations, with food and drinks being passed out for free. There are fewer posters and banners this time compared with previous elections. A party official says it is because of the substantial increase in the cost of materials.

A 55-year-old villager, Ramli Bachok, a fisherman since childhood, has been here since early morning, hoping to see his leader. Asked why, he said he was waiting to see whether there would be any handouts this time. He said in many previous elections the ruling party gave away free zinc roofing materials and water tanks. He came, he said, to see whether he could get some zinc roofing for his leaking roof. Asked whom he would vote for this time, without hesitation he said it would definitely be the incumbent.

Meantime, on Sabah’s west coast in the interior town of Keningau, the story is different. This is a place where traditionally exuberant Sabah politics can be truly wild and woolly. A group of locals, probably Kadazan or Murut, were having their favorite drink at a coffee shop. Not many people know that Sabah probably has one of the highest consumption rates of Guinness per capita in the region, mostly consumed in the so-called KDM area that is home to the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut ethnic groups, who prefer their Guinness warm. Asked who they would vote for this time, one said they need to tukaron bankad, or “change the shirt”, as the present government is not serving the people well. Nowhere is the feeling more apparent than in the KDM heartland. Tukaron bangkad, a phrase in the in Dusun language, is a catchword gaining popularity.

A mighty battle is shaping up here in Keningau between two brothers. The Hoguan Siou, or paramount chief, Joseph Pairin Kitingan of the Barisan Nasional, and his younger brother Jeffrey, of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party. The older brother is attempting the difficult feat of contesting a state assembly seat in one district, Tambunan, and a national parliamentary seat in Keningau, where he will face brother Jeffrey, whose party has come across the water trolling for seats.

Many local pundits give Jeffrey the edge due to dissatisfaction over Joseph’s failure to address local problems – an interesting turn of events because it was here, in 1986, when Joseph, with his brother then in tow, staged one of the legendary political comebacks in Sabah history. At that point, Joseph Pairin had left the Barisan because he was disgruntled by the treatment of ethnic Kadazans, to contest as an opposition member against the government then headed by Harris Salleh, a long-time Sabah strongman. When Pairin quit the ruling party, Harris Salleh simply abolished his district, pulling out all the government workers and removing any state-owned equipment. It became impossible to get a marriage license, a construction permit or anything else supplied by the government.

The audacity of the act so outraged the locals that they actually threw Harris and the Barisan out of office. Pairin was installed as the chief minister of Sabah in Malaysia’s only Christian-led government. Days of demonstrations followed in Kota Kinabalu, paid for with free drinks and food and occasionally punctuated by exploding fish bombs allegedly supplied by another legendary figure, Tun Mustapha Harun, the state’s first chief minister. (It was once said that there were 12 miles of paved roads in Sabah, and that six of them were in Tun Mustapha's driveway.)

Ultimately, however, Pairin led his government back into the ruling coalition. And now, his days as an insurgent over, the issues of loss of customary rights to native land, developmental neglect and marginalization are high on the opposition’s demands for a change and threatening his political career.

In the state seat of Tambunan, Pairin will take on Mozes Iking of Parti Keadilan and independent Francis Koh. The real fight is with Iking, but Pairin seems to have an edge over his opponent here as he has served the area for more than five terms.

But many predict that the KDM parties in the ruling Barisan National will lose a significant number of seats to the opposition in Sabah this time around, reflecting broader disquiet in Malaysia with business as usual. In the interior of the state, Parti Keadilan is expected to wrest away at least three seats.

In the urban areas, where more Chinese are concentrated, the opposition seems also to be making inroads. A number of seats are expected to fall to the opposition, mostly to the Democratic Action Party. In the state seat of Api-Api, incumbent Yee Moh Chai of the BN is taking on Christina Liew of Parti Keadilan. Local analysts say Yee has lost his luster with Chinese constituents and is likely to lose. One or two more Chinese seats on the West Coast are expected to go to the DAP.

"The BN can't be trusted," said Chan Kok Leong, a 43- year old second-hand car salesman from Kota Kinabalu. "They only filled up their own pockets and I will surely vote for the opposition this time.”

That sentiment may be more widespread than in past years but none of this is likely to mean that the Barisan National will lose its majority, because in many places, like tiny Senallang, with its 12,000 voters, one only reluctantly strays away from the party most likely to come up with a new zinc roof.