BN (Barisan Nasional/National Front) won 133 out of 222 federal seats while PR (Pakatan Rakyat or People’s Pact) 89 seats to retain the Federal government. But in terms of popular votes, PR obtained more than BN by a margin of eight percent. On announcing BN’s win, its chairman Najib Razak attributed the electoral outcomes to a “Chinese tsunami”. The next day, the UMNO (United Malays National Organisation)-controlled Utusan Malaysia released a front-paged news with the title of “Apa Lagi Cina Mahu?” (What more do the Chinese Want?). BN leaders, irrespective of those who won and lost in the election, supported Najib’s Chinese tsunami contention. Some called the Chinese as “ungrateful” while others regarded them as “racists” for exercising their democratic rights. While a proper study is needed to analyse voting patterns at GE13, and if indeed the Chinese community as a whole should be blamed solely for BN’s loss, the election results in Sabah showed no such evidence of a racial tsunami. The tsunami in Sabah cut across geographical and racial boundaries.
As expected, BN returned to power in Sabah with 48 state seats compared to 59 it obtained in 2008. The opposition managed to increase its share of state seats from only one in 2008 to 12 in 2013. At the federal level, BN won 22 seats as opposed to the opposition’s three. With BN coming to power obtaining more than a two-thirds majority, Sabah once again became a strong fortress for the ruling coalition. The 22 federal seats contributed by Sabah BN also ensured the ruling coalition’s simple majority win in parliament.
Despite Sabah playing its role as kingmaker in federal politics, the opposition managed to make significant inroads at the state and federal levels. This is particularly evident in the Kadazandusun-majority constituencies in which the opposition managed to win five seats. Most of the BN candidates contesting in the Kadazandusun-majority areas also had their majorities substantially reduced. Key BN leaders from PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah/Sabah United Party) such as Herbert Timbun Lagadan and Jahid Jahim also lost their seats to PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat/People’s Justice Party). Following the trend in the Kadazandusun-majority constituencies, the opposition also managed to make inroads in the Chinese-majority areas by winning three seats in Api-Api, Luyang, and Sri Tanjong. The opposition also won in three mixed areas with a substantial number of Kadazandusun and Chinese voters in Inanam, Likas and Kapayan – all with increased majorities.
At the federal level, BN continued to establish its dominance over the Muslim-Bumiputera-majority areas. However, it lost in Penampang, an urban area with a large number of Kadazandusun and Chinese voters. Despite BN winning more seats than the opposition at the federal Kadazandusun-majority areas, the majorities obtained by BN candidates were substantially reduced. The opposition also won two urban and Chinese-majority constituencies of Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. The mixed federal seats of Tuaran and Sepanggar were won by BN but with reduced majorities.
So, what do the election results in Sabah tell us?
First, the results are a clear indication of BN’s influence over the rural Muslim voters. BN’s politics of development once again unleashed its magic. The culture of dependency cultivated by BN through the endowment of aid such as water tanks, roof zincs and cash money charmed the rural voters. For most of the rural voters, quick gains in term of cash money gave them a new lease of life. No amount of persuasion could influence the rural voters to vote for any party other than BN. In some instances, it was alleged that some would take a picture of their ballot paper as proof in return for water tanks or roof zincs. The absence of an alternative Muslim-based party also forced the Muslim-Bumiputera voters in Sabah to support UMNO. Most did not support PKR as the party does not have credible Muslim leaders. Multi-racial parties such as PBS, PBRS (Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah), SAPP (Sabah People’s Progressive Party) and STAR (State Reform Party) are less attractive to the Muslim community because they are more Kadazandusun or Chinese in outlook. The last Muslim-based party in existence is USNO that is now defunct and whose remaining leaders are supporting STAR led by Jeffrey Kitingan.
Second, the elections results in Sabah indicate the sentiment of Kadazandusun voters against BN’s Kadazandusun-based parties such as PBS, UPKO (United Pasok Momogun Kadazandusun Organisation) and PBRS (Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah). Lack of leadership, unclear vision, and failure to attract the young people weakened the Kadazandusun support for these BN parties. Joseph Pairin Kitingan and Joseph Kurup who lead PBS and PBRS respectively survived the election due to split votes in Keningau and Pensiangan. UPKO president Bernard Dompok even lost to a young PKR leader Darell Leiking in Penampang. The formation of the RCI (Royal Commission of Inquiry) to address the problem of illegal immigrants and the millions of ringgit in development funds channeled to the Kadazandusun areas failed to consolidate the Kadazandusun support in BN.
Third, the election results in Sabah also showed the support of voters towards local-based opposition parties such as STAR and SAPP that staunchly champion the “Borneo Agenda”. For some, the Borneo Agenda is still relevant but it is championed by the wrong leaders. The voters were given the impression that STAR and SAPP leaders were only interested in pursuing their hidden agenda using the Borneo Agenda as a bargaining chip. Some also believed that STAR and SAPP were funded by a third party to split the opposition votes. Despite these allegations, STAR managed to win one seat through its chairman Jeffrey Kitingan in Bingkor – his stronghold for a very long time. SAPP was completely decimated. SAPP’s president Yong Teck Lee lost in Likas to a newcomer from DAP (Democratic Action Party) with a 5652-vote margin. SAPP also lost in all seats it contested. Clearly, most of the Chinese abandoned SAPP because of the party’s lack of direction. The rejection of STAR and SAPP also meant that some Sabahans had started to look beyond parochialism that has fuelled Sabah politics since independence. In the Kadazandusun-majority constituencies such as Matunggong, Kadamaian, Tamparuli and in mixed area such as Inanam, voters preferred PKR than the local-based opposition parties to represent them.
The election results in Sabah gave BN the mandate to rule the state for another term. The results also show Sabah playing its kingmaker role once again in determining control of the Federal government. However, the significant shift of support away from BN to the opposition indicates a changing political dynamics on the ground. Sabah may remain a “fixed deposit” to BN for the time being and its politics of development may still be a force to be reckoned with in the rural areas. The dependency culture that BN cultivates may help the rural people to survive economically but only in the short term. If BN fails to face the changing political realities, it may lose Sabah in the next election. The opposition’s ability to make inroads show that it has the support of the people whose plights BN has failed to address. All the opposition needs to show is that it is sincere and that it is a much better alternative to BN. The election in Sabah is clearly not about the rise of one particular race against the other. It simply shows the ordinary Rakyat exercising their democratic right to choose the political party that best represents their interests.
Arnold Puyok is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak