'Fixed deposit state' for ruling coalition

Prime Minister Najib Razak has several times called Sarawak and Sabah the "fixed deposit states" of his ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

The reason is obvious.

BN controls 132 constituencies out of the 222 seats in the federal Parliament. Among Malaysia's 13 states, Sarawak BN sends the most number of MPs to Parliament, with 25 seats, or 19 per cent of the total. And Sabah sends the second biggest group, with another 21 MPs representing 16 per cent of the total.

With Umno-led BN suffering serious slippage in popularity in Peninsular Malaysia in the last two elections, the coalition has come to rely heavily on the two Borneo states to stay in power.

"Sarawak, the only Malaysian state where Umno isn't present, is seen as secure as it is led by popular BN member Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB).

Despite the spike in anti-federal sentiment in Sarawak in recent years as locals push for more autonomy, PBB has harnessed this to its advantage by promising to speak to the central government over issues such as higher petroleum royalty and more development funds.

In Sabah, the anti-federal sentiment has been conflated with the rise of Parti Warisan Sabah, led by former Umno vice-president Shafie Apdal. The predominantly Muslim party is attracting a strong following from Sabah's other main ethnic communities and its allies.

Still, Umno-led BN currently enjoys a comfortable four-fifths supermajority in the 60-member state assembly, with 48 wards. Umno alone has 30 seats. Warisan leaders are hoping to win more than half the Umno constituencies and make serious gains in other mixed ones held by Sabah's clutch of ethnic Kadazan and Chinese-based parties.

Leslie Lopez

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline ''Fixed deposit state' for ruling coalition'. Print Edition | Subscribe