By Joe Fernandez
The 11th and 12th general elections, in 2004 and 2008 respectively, following the return of Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) to the Barisan Nasional (BN) in 2002, were trial runs by local “Unity is Duty” advocates.
These advocates are now gearing up for the forthcoming 13th general election, widely expected between May this year and the next if not later.
One group of independents, the hardcore nationalists now with STAR supremo Jeffrey Kitingan who is flogging the Unity is Duty mantra, did extremely well in retrospect in seven state seats in 2004 and 2008 despite multi-cornered fights.
However, they wrested the proverbial defeat from the jaws of victory, thwarted by disunity among the opposition. The BN won by default, by the slimmest of margins and has never recovered to this day, still licking its wounds from those bruising battles. The rest is history.
The 2004 and 2008 general elections were also an admission of sorts that PBS had failed to re-absorb the four breakaway parties which were primarily responsible for the downfall of its government in 1994 although then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the prime mover behind the scene.
Akar Bersatu was dissolved and its members including Chinese were absorbed by Umno. Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), the Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) and the United PasokMomogun KadazanDusunMurut Organisation (Upko) were the four breakaways from PBS allegedly engineered by Mahathir.
Putrajaya had ostensibly concluded, at that point in time, that PBS had to go lest the state reached a point of no return and broke away, with or without UN help, from the Malaysian Federation. Jeffrey was even incarcerated for it – he was allegedly 16 hours away from a unilateral declaration of independence – under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) for two terms. The real reason may have been that Umno desperately wanted seats in Sabah to make up for anticipated losses in the Malay reservation areas in Peninsular Malaysia.
The general election will help settle once and for all how Sabahans will recapture the magical years of the PBS government (1985 to 1994) when they stood as a people on an equal footing with the people of Sarawak and Malaya or Peninsular Malaysia.
Jeffrey is in quest for the tataba, the magical wand of power wielded by his elder brother, PBS chief and then Sabah Chief Minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
State rights, STAR’s sacred cow in Sabah and Sarawak, indeed hinge on dealing with the very people who wrecked political unity in the former and allowed Putrajaya to federalise it in a way. Sabah is today almost a Federal Territory when it could be an equal partner of Malaya, and Sarawak, in the Malaysian Federation. The fact that Putrajaya has been unable to swallow Sarawak so far, the state being too indigestible, means that Sabah will soon recover its former autonomy.
Apparently, STAR’s strategy in Sabah come the 13th general election, is to allow the fate of the six Chinese-majority state seats to be determined by SAPP and the Peninsular Malaysia-based DAP, one of the three members in the Pakatan Rakyat national opposition alliance.
This is in line with its oft-cited “statement of principles”.
The exact details like the specific seats, although widely speculated, remain sketchy at the moment. The shift in electoral boundaries and shifting of voters, whether by design or otherwise, would have to be taken into account in the final reckoning.
The list of candidates is work in progress.
The list of parliamentary candidates would naturally have to take into account the finalisation of the state seats.
It’s not known whether SAPP, a mosquito Chinese-led party with multiracial pretensions, will be satisfied with just six state seats. The party had all along, so far, been beating the drums of war for 40 state seats.
SAPP, along with STAR and the recently-revived United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) are members of the fledging United Borneo Alliance (UBA) in Sabah. UBA also includes the Sarawak National Party (SNAP) which once ruled the state before the long arm of Putrajaya intervened and introduced the politics of race and racial polarisation to facilitate its divide-and-rule agenda.
STAR will reportedly field candidates in the remaining 54 state seats and hence not the entire 60 state seats where its young Turks had been raring to do battle royale with the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).
Usno, so much a part of the state’s colourful political history but unfortunately deregistered by Putrajaya, will do battle in 19 Muslim overwhelmingly state seats – Bajau, Suluk and Barunai – under the STAR banner.
That would leave 35 state seats including 12 mixed seats with STAR proper. Dusun – including Kadazan or urban Dusun and Murut – make up 23 state seats. Interestingly, the 35 seats are part of the 40 seats that SAPP wants to contest while conceding only Sri Tanjung, already DAP-held, to the incumbent.
Jeffrey’s strategy evidently hinges on getting the support of members in three BN component parties – Umno, PBS and Upko – to help remove unpopular and deadwood incumbents if they are likely to be fielded again by those parties and/or alternatively capitalise on their dissatisfaction if they are dropped.
Besides, Usno has a score of sorts to settle with certain Umno factions which had been expected to work together with it in return for facilitating its entry into Sabah and helping it to bring about PBS’ downfall in 1994. Instead, it suffered the indignity of being unceremoniously consigned to the dustbin of history. All its subsequent efforts to re-register have been thwarted by Putrajaya as part of efforts to protect its hold on seats since acquired as part of its electoral “fixed deposit” in Sabah.
Interestingly, Usno founder Mustapha Harun signed up as a PBS member not long before he breathed his last, but at the same time, he urged his followers to help revive Usno. It’s not known how many Usno members in fact followed Mustapha into PBS.
It’s no longer possible for Usno members to work from within PBS since the party is in BN together with its nemesis Umno.This is where STAR has entered the picture to offer a way out of the dilemma facing the hardcore Usno members led by Badaruddin, Mustapha’s son.
One unknown still in this emerging scenario, unfortunately for the opposition, is the Peninsular Malaysia-based PKR which, like Umno, is after seats in Sabah after having reached a dead-end on the other side of the South China Sea. It intends to battle STAR in 52 of the 54 state seats the latter is eyeing. PAS, a Pakatan member like PKR, will vie with STAR for the remaining two token seats.
Again, this means that SAPP and DAP will be left alone by the other opposition parties to battle each other and BN in the six Chinese-majority state seats. Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Tawau are clear Chinese-majority parliamentary seats and it’s likely that the six state seats will come from these areas. Kudat, a parliamentary seat, is sometimes included as a fourth Chinese-majority seat.
The odds favour the DAP given the anti-BN sentiment sweeping the country among the Chinese and the urban areas. These two blocks, Chinese and urban, appear to have finally thrown their lot with a party long in the opposition through thick and thin.
The Chinese and urbanites in Malaysia also belatedly, and nostalgically, identify themselves wholeheartedly with this Malaysian offshoot of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) across the causeway in Singapore whose economy eclipsed Malaysia’s in size, GDP-wise, at the end of 2010.
PKR’s insistence on emulating Umno and entering the fray in Sabah, as in the state election in Sarawak last year, can only be expected to play into the hands of BN and probably hand it (BN) victory by default, especially in the marginal seats and the 12 mixed seats.
Another unknown in the Sabah scenario is the Peninsular Malaysia-based Kita which has since sprouted a chapter in the state but as yet not locally-incorporated to qualify it for membership in UBA. Kita plans to field candidates in all 60 state seats and 26 parliamentary seats including Labuan.
Kita chairman Zaid Ibrahim bases his all-out strategy on his observation that only a multiracial party is suitable to govern Sabah, especially now that Mahathir is no longer around to keep artificial political initiatives in place. He was referring to the time when the state was governed by Usno, Berjaya and PBS, all single parties.
Zaid has a point which Jeffrey readily concedes in private, according to STAR insiders from among the young Turks who are still pushing for their party to emulate Kita and go for broke without SAPP in tow.
These young Turks are against any political party circumventing the democratic process by endorsing elite power-sharing through seat-sharing and forming a coalition before polls. Such tactics, according to them, denies the grassroots majority meaningful participation in the democratic experiment.
The BN, the young Turks warn, is a discredited model which is failing and will fail in the 21st century.
The BN continues to pay lip service its so-called BN Spirit (arriving at decisions by consensus and compromises); the BN Concept (seat-sharing) and the BN Formula (power-sharing). All three components are observed more often than not in the breach.
Like Kita, and ruling out the usual entry of any number of independents, there are two other unknowns likely to make their presence felt during coming national polls.
The first is the Sabah People’s Front (SPF) which has been linked with Umno veteran Lajim Ukin, a prominent traditional chief from among the Bisaya, a Dusun Muslim tribe living along the west coast.
Another is Parti Bersama which continues to maintain a discreet silence in Sabah on its political options. Bersama was decapitated financially when Phillip Among, its deputy president, joined STAR and was appointed vice-chairman.
Among, an unofficial Jeffrey aide, had earlier tried to persuade his mentor to take over the Bersama leadership but to no avail. He also used to function as de facto PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Sabah aide during his visits to the state. Jeffrey was then, before January 2011, a PKR vice-president and de facto Sabah and Sarawak Chief.
Among is also the co-founder of the newly-established Oil for Future Foundation of Borneo which is reportedly going through the registration process in the United Kingdom.
The emerging political scenario in Sabah presents serious and a credible threat to STAR’s Unity is Duty campaign line.
The hope is that Jeffrey will be able and is willing to rise to the occasion through STAR to help usher in a new and exciting time in the politics of Sabah, if not Borneo. The last time that there was any such level of excitement in Sabah politics was during the PBS era.