Pakatan Harapan breaks losing streak with landslide win in Sandakan by-election

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s ruling pact Pakatan Harapan (PH) on Saturday (May 11) won its first by-election this year in Sabah, breaking its streak of losing in previous three by-elections. 

PH candidate Vivian Wong from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) won the Sandakan parliamentary seat - a Chinese-majority seat - with 16,012 votes, an overwhelming majority of 11,521 over her closest rival. But turnout was only 54 per cent of the total registered voters.

The Election Commission had forecast a 70 per cent turnout from the 40,131 voters.

The victory was not surprising as the seat was held by DAP’s Stephen Wong, Ms Vivian’s late father, in two previous general elections. Mr Wong had gained a 10,000 majority-vote in last year’s polls.

 His sudden death from a heart attack on March 28 paved way for the country’s eighth by-election since national elections were held in May last year. 

Ms Vivian, 30, is an activist and had campaigned on the promise of returning Sandakan to its glory days. The town was once called Little Hong Kong due to its vibrant trading culture that existed since the 18th century. 

“As my late father’s child, I felt a need to take up responsibility and I have confidence to realise his unfinished mission,” Ms Wong said in a campaign video on her Facebook page.

Sandakan, located in Sabah’s northeast coast facing southern Philippines, has a rich history of once being part of the Sultanate of Sulu and later as a port town transporting raw materials to Singapore and Hong Kong. 

The elder Wong, 64, died after he was admitted to hospital following a morning hike. He was also the Sabah government’s Health and People’s Wellbeing Minister.

Ms Wong beat four opponents including opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah’s (PBS) Ms Linda Tsen, 63, who polled 4,491 votes. The three independent candidates together polled only 1,092 votes.

PBS, once part of former mighty ruling-coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), left BN after it lost power in the 2018 polls. Still, Umno leaders had turned up during the 14-day campaigning period to support Ms Tsen.

Former prime minister Najib Razak landed in Sandakan at the 11th hour, wowing crowds with a rendition of “Young Ones” by Cliff Richard from the back of a pick-up truck. He also went grocery shopping, gamely posting photos of himself in a local supermarket with catchy captions on palm oil and crowds shoving to get a selfie with him.

“Sandakan really likes pulling people? One by one. Boss isn’t going anywhere,” Najib posted on Twitter, alongside a photo of a mob trying to get his snapshot. 

In a jibe against Najib, DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang said in a statement: “Vivian Wong’s victory in Sandakan is a national turnaround, wiping out the three by-election defeats in Cameron Highlands, Semenyih and Rantau and a knockout blow to former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s shameless ‘Malu Apa Bossku’ campaign”.

Mr Lim was referring to Najib’s ‘Why the shame, boss?” campaign to revive his embattled reputation among grassroots electorate. 

Analysts say that Najib’s presence in Sandakan could have brought about the opposite effect of what he had hoped for.

“It had the opposite effect of consolidating and turning out the otherwise complacent Chinese voters,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “His star appeal among Muslims didn’t translate into votes in Sabah”.

Ms Wong’s overwhelming majority vote count is attributed to Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, who leads Parti Warisan Sabah - a PH partner.

“Shafie brought the Muslims voters out, as Chinese votes were almost guaranteed,” Mr Oh adds. 

The Sandakan ward has 51 per cent Chinese voters, 45 per cent Muslim bumiputeras and the remaining are made up of ethnic groups.