In 1994, Herman Luping in his seminal work, “Sabah’s dilemma”, wrote about the dilemma faced by Sabahans in maintaining state autonomy and independence under the Federation of Malaysia. Sabah leaders wanted to safeguard the state’s regional rights but the federal leaders viewed this as an attempt to override the power of the central government. Just as Sabahans are prepared to vote in the upcoming 13th Malaysian General Election, they are facing with a new kind of dilemma – which party to vote to rule Sabah for the next term. Sabahans have shown that they are capable of voting out a party that they dislike. A case in point is USNO (United Sabah National Organisation) in 1975. Despite USNO’s leader Mustapha Harun’s iron fist rule, Sabahans voted in unison to oust him from power. In 1985, Sabahans bravely voted against the mighty BERJAYA (Sabah People’s United Front) in favour of PBS (Sabah United Party). Back then, Sabahans had a clear choice: BERJAYA to replace USNO, and PBS as an alternative to BERJAYA. Now, despite the desire of Sabahans to see change in the political landscape of the country, they have to make a hard choice between the complacent Sabah BN whose leaders lack the tenacity to address the Sabah issues and the fractious opposition coalition led by Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact/Alliance) consisting of PKR (People’s Justice Party), DAP (Democratic Action Party), PAS (Pan Malaysian Islamic Party), and UBF (United Borneo Front) comprising STAR (State Reform Party) and SAPP (Sabah People’s Progressive Party).
In a survey conducted by Merdeka Centre, more than 70 percent of the respondents in Sabah were satisfied with the performance of Prime Minister Najib Razak. It is undeniable that Najib’s popularity is contributed by his transformational leadership style and his pragmatic policies (despite their many flaws). Unlike Najib, however, Sabah BN leaders lack pragmatism in addressing the Sabah issues. Not many Sabahans in the rural areas understand what Najib is trying to do. Sabah BN leaders seem to lack the fervour to materialise Najib’s transformational plan. Many Sabahans are also unhappy with the lackadaisical attitude of Sabah BN leaders in tackling the perennial illegal immigrant issue. Due to the inertia shown by BN, Sabahans have no choice but to look for the alternative. In 1999 and 2004, Sabahans rejected PKR as it was then a newcomer in Sabah politics. In 2008, Jeffrey Kitingan helped increase PKR’s popularity. Even though Jeffrey is known for his infamous reputation as “katak” (political frog a term used for elected representatives to switch parties), he managed to “re-package” the Borneo Agenda to rally Kadazandusun support for PKR. Despite PKR’s failure to win any seat, its popular votes increased substantially in most of the constituencies.
Now, PKR is back to woo Sabahans once again through a partnership with DAP and PAS in PR. PKR’s future in Peninsular Malaysia looks promising but it is a different story in Sabah. Lack of leadership, clashing personalities and infighting cause disarray in PR. Internal party conflict in PR has deteriorated further with the admission of APS (Sabah Coalition for Change) and PPS (Sabah People’s Front for Change) into PR. Wilfred Bumburing and Lajim Ukin who lead APS and PPS respectively have submitted their potential candidates to PR, much to the chagrin of the “original” members of the opposition coalition who regard the two former BN leaders as opportunists. The mudslinging between PR and the state-based opposition parties in UBF has weakened the opposition coalition in Sabah. STAR and SAPP have accused PR as having the agenda to “colonise” Sabah. They urge Sabahans to reject Peninsula-based parties as only Sabah-based parties can understand local sentiments better. Some Sabahans, however, have had enough of Jeffrey and SAPP’s leader Yong Teck Lee. They have been in politics for too long and have a lot of political baggage. Many still remember Jeffrey’s act of betrayal in 1994 in which he left his brother Joseph Pairin Kitingan, the founder of PBS, to form a new party. Partly because of Jeffrey’s action, Pairin had to relinquish his post as chief minister of Sabah. Yong was one of the ring leaders whom Pairin had accused of having the intention to oust him from power. Yong’s withdrawal from PBS had weakened the Chinese support in the party. So, just like Wilfred and Lajim, Jeffrey and Yong are also considered as opportunists and not real fighters for Sabah rights.
The fractious opposition coalition means that PR and UBF will contest against each other. Come nomination day, disgruntled members of the respective coalitions will file their candidacy to contest as independents. This will add colour to the electoral contest in Sabah as in 2004 and 2008. Nevertheless, the 13th general election will be different from the ones in 1975 and 1985 where Sabahans had a clear choice between the incumbent and the alternative party. The upcoming election will force Sabahans to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Arnold Puyok is a political science lecturer at University Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Sabah.