Rising anti-federal sentiment in Sabah raises opposition's hope

Popularity of Umno’s rival party growing, but fractured <NO1>landscape of <NO>opposition may still lose in multi-cornered fights. PHOTO: LESLIE LOPEZ

Sitting on a rickety wooden pier on the island of Kampung Pasir Putih, an enclave of stilt houses outside Sabah's coastal capital of Kota Kinabalu, Mr Riduan Ilham refuses to be drawn into a discussion about politics, and turns his gaze towards children leaping from wooden walkways into the shallow waters.

But when the subject switched to the prospects of ruling party Umno in the next election, the odd-job labourer in his 50s said: "Umno has become lembut (Malay for soft)."

His 15-year-old nephew, Mohamed Sai, was more direct. "Maybe it is time to change clothes and vote Shafie," he quipped, a remark that forced a smile from his uncle.

Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, Umno's former strongman in Sabah who currently leads the newly established Parti Warisan Sabah, is emerging as the political champion for folk like Mr Riduan, a one-time Filipino migrant, like the approximately 1,000 people on Kampung Pasir Putih island who have been naturalised as Malaysians and Sabahans over the last decade.

Sacked from Prime Minister Najib Razak's Cabinet in July 2015 in the fallout over the financial scandal at state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), Mr Shafie is leading a spirited campaign to end Umno's more than two decades' hold over the state government in the next national elections .

Against the backdrop of growing anti-federal sentiment sweeping Sabah, Warisan is starting to make waves.

For starters, Mr Shafie has been drawing large crowds to the party's political gatherings in Sabah.

He has also succeeded in wooing a strong core of second-echelon leaders who have defected from other political parties, including Umno, to quickly beef up Warisan's ranks. But the new party's growing clout has also been attracting some unwanted heat.

In recent weeks, key lieutenants to Mr Shafie, including a senior Warisan vice-president and two of his family members, have been arrested by the country's anti-corruption agency over allegations of graft involving RM1.5 billion (S$479.5 million) of federal funds meant for rural aid in Sabah.

Mr Shafie and several other Warisan leaders have dismissed the crackdown as political persecution.

Former chief minister Yong Teck Lee, who heads the opposition Sabah Progressive Party, believes that the groundswell of opposition against Umno and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that it leads in Sabah is reaching a new high.

"There is a feeling that Sabahans have been taken for granted and it takes many forms, ranging from wanting greater autonomy to the small share of the state's resources, and also socio-economic neglect," he told The Straits Times .

Sabah, neighbouring Sarawak and Singapore joined what was called Malaya in 1963 to form a new country called Malaysia.

Singapore was asked to leave the new federation two years later but Sabah and Sarawak, both rich in minerals and oil and gas, stayed.

In recent years, however, frustration has been building on the Borneo side of Malaysia as the two states claim they should have more say over their affairs. Clutching their substantial vote banks, Sabah and Sarawak have emerged as critical players in national politics.

In state elections last year, Sarawakians voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ruling party, BN-affiliated Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, that made state rights the cornerstone of its election campaign.

"The Sabah opposition is trying to replicate what happened in the last Sarawak state election" by harnessing anti-federal sentiment to get Sabahans what they want, said Dr Lee Kuok Tiung of Universiti Malaysia Sabah in Kota Kinabalu.

"But in Sabah, the opposition is not united," he added.

Umno and its allies in Sabah are hoping the fractured state opposition will mean multi-cornered fights that would benefit the ruling coalition.

Sabah has 27 registered political parties, but apart from Umno and its ally Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), which represents the mainly Christian Kadazandusun community, the pull of the other political organisations in the state is very limited as many of their leaders do not enjoy widespread public support.

Warisan leaders insist that Sabahans are ready for a change, particularly the Muslim voters who previously had no other choice but to throw their support behind Umno.

"For the first time in more than two decades, the Muslims can turn to Shafie and a Sabah-based party to look after their interests," said Warisan deputy president Darell Leiking, a Kadazan native who won a Sabah parliamentary seat in the 2013 election as a candidate for the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which is headed by jailed former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

Troubles between Sabah and the federal government began in the mid-1980s when the Muslim-dominated state government backed by Umno suffered a surprise election defeat to the PBS.

Determined to wrest power back, the Umno-led Barisan government embarked on a series of policy initiatives, which included providing easy citizenship to the large illegal immigrant Muslim ethnic groups from the neighbouring islands in southern Philippines, to overwhelm the politically dominant Christian population.

PBS was booted out of power in 1994 when a close state election victory resulted in several of its elected representatives breaking ranks to form a new coalition government with Umno.

Since then, Umno has controlled the state by raising the number of elected representatives from Muslim-dominated areas through gerrymandering, particularly in the western interior of the state and its eastern coastal regions.

Meanwhile, the controversial award of citizenship to the state's illegals has dramatically changed Sabah's demography, with Muslims accounting for more than 60 per cent of the state's 3.7 million people.

While PBS is now a member of the ruling BN coalition in the state, the dominant position of the Kadazandusun community, which accounts for about 29 per cent of the population, has been whittled down due to infighting among its leaders.

But Umno's cosy political arrangement was turned upside down with the July 2015 sacking of Mr Shafie.

Datuk Joniston Bangkuai, a state assemblyman from PBS, acknowledged that there was a strong anti-federal sentiment in Sabah, but he noted that Warisan's pull with the voters is limited to the eastern coastal regions dominated by Muslim communities closely aligned with Mr Shafie, who is a Member of Parliament for Semporna.

The central and western regions of the state remain strongholds of BN that will back Umno's Tan Sri Musa Aman, who has been chief minister since 2003, Mr Bangkuai said.

Mr Musa, Sabah's longest-serving chief minister, is widely credited for his effective management of the state's economy. Large swathes of jungle have made way for oil palm plantations that have injected life into the rural economy.

The capital Kota Kinabalu is also thriving on the back of large tourist numbers from China, South Korea and Taiwan. Sabah received 3.4 million tourist arrivals that brought in revenues of more than RM7.2 billion last year.

But the economic feel-good factor is felt only in pockets of Sabah, which has the highest incidence of poverty in Malaysia.

Still, many analysts note that the opposition is at a big disadvantage when it comes to competing with Umno and Mr Musa over the widespread practice of vote-buying among Sabahans.

The distribution of election goodies and direct cash handouts have long been potent political tools in this state, and Mr Musa knows which levers to pull to draw the votes.

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