Monday 24 October 2011


BATTLE….In Sabah politics, the real battle for power is between the Bajau Muslims and the Umno Malays.


MUCH attention has been given to Sabah after the 2008 general election. This is understandable as Sabah contributed a substantial number of parliamentary seats to the national parliament. In fact without Sabah, Barisan Nasional would have lost power.

In order to see this clearly, it is important to look at Sabah’s electoral contribution in a proper perspective.

There were 222 seats contested in the 2008 elections. BN won 140 seats. But it was eight seats short of a two-thirds majority in parliament.

For BN, having a two-thirds majority is a ‘prerequisite’ for establishing a strong and stable government a ‘standard’ set by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Given Malaysia’s political convention, having two parties forming a coalition government is almost impossible.

Of the 140 seats BN won, Sabah and Sarawak contributed 54 seats thus giving BN the advantage of a simple majority.

Umno’s ‘bank’

If Sabah and Sarawak were left out from the calculation, it is BN with only 86 seats against the Pakatan Rakyat coalition with 82 seats.

With this slim seat difference, BN would have risked losing power in the event of crossovers.

Clearly, without the 54 seats from Sabah and Sarawak, BN would not be able to form a stable government.

With the 2008 election results, Sabah and Sarawak are BN’s fixed deposits and hold the key for BN’s survival.

Sabah, however, is given more attention than Sarawak due to Umno’s strong presence in the state.

Aside from Sabah receiving the largest financial allocation of RM16 billion under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, it also has four Sabahans as federal ministers in the national cabinet. Sarawak on the other hand has only two.

Bajau challenge

In Sabah, local politics is essentially controlled by Sabah Umno and Chief Minister Musa Aman.

Although conflict have begun to resurface following allegations of dominance by Musa’s allies, Musa’s skillful political maneuverings is keeping the ‘rebels’ tamed.

In Sabah, Musa’s strongest challenge comes from the Bajau community, the second largest ethnic group in the state.

Even though a substantial number of the Bajaus are Sabah Umno members, some are not happy with the alledged domination of the ‘Malays’ led by Musa.

The three Bajau leaders who pose a threat to Musa’s leadership are Salleh Said Keruak, Amirkahar Mustapha and Pandikar Amin Mulia—also known as the ’Big Three’ in USBO (United Sabah Bajau Organisation).

Except for Amirkahar, Salleh and Pandikar wield a significance influence among the Bajau community.

Sabah Umno is anxious about the rise of USBO whose re-branding in 2006 was seen as an attempt to replace Sabah Umno as a party to represent the Muslims in Sabah.

When Musa decided to drop all three as candidates in the 2008 elections, it was seen as an attempt to chip away the Bajau influence in Sabah Umno.

Musa, however, was quick to prevent dissatisfaction among the Bajau community. He quickly gave Salleh and Pandikar important roles in government.

The Bajau factor will remain an important political challenge for Musa to overcome.

Kadazandusun factor

While the Bajau community want to have a greater say in Sabah Umno, the Kadazandusun, on the other hand, want a proper power-sharing arrangement to be introduced in the state.

The voice of the Kadazandusun community is essentially coming from PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah) which is the largest Kadazandusun-based party in the state.

In its party congress, PBS suggested that the power sharing arrangement in Sabah should be based on 70:30 ratio.

This means, if there are 10 vacant political positions in a PBS-controlled constituency, seven should be appointed among its members while the rest from other parties.

While no visible changes could be seen arising from this demand, Musa however seems to be continuing to enjoy the Kadazandusun support through the ‘Huguan Siou’ Joseph Pairin Kitingan, who is also deputy chief minister.

PBS, while synonymous with the fight for state rights and autonomy, has however been criticized for being too ‘soft’ on issues such as illegal immigrants, regional autonomy and economic imbalance between East and West Malaysia.

But PBS supporters argue that it is more politically viable to talk about these issue behind close doors.

Pairin, it seems, prefers not to use a confrontational approach in pursuing the Sabah issues.

Nonetheless as far as Musa is concerned, the Kadazandusun support for him remains intact and will not pose a serious challenge to Sabah Umno.

Musa, Shafie and Najib

Another important aspect to ensure a continued political stability in Sabah is federal-state relations.

Sabah’s history has shown that the role of the federal government is crucial in determining a stable state government.

Classic examples can be seen during the reign of Mustapha Harun, Harris Salleh and Joseph Pairin Kitingan.

Mustapha, who courted with the federal leaders under Tunku Abdul Rahman had to give up power after Abdul Rahman’s successor (Tun) Abdul Razak initiated the formation of Berjaya (Bersatu Rakyat Jelata Sabah) to topple Mustapha’s Usno (United Sabah National Organisation).

Musa Hitam, the then Deputy Prime Minister was instrumental in Salleh’s fall and Pairin’s rise to power.

But with Mahathir’s manipulating role, Pairin was left to see PBS disintegrate in 1994. These were all lessons for Musa and he learnt them well.

Musa has been tactful in ensuring that federal-state relations remain integral to Sabah’s political stability.

The speculations that Musa is not on good terms with Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak are rather weak to presume a change of leadership in Sabah anytime soon.

If it is true that Najib had wanted his ‘proxy’ Shafie Apdal, the Umno chief in Semporna, to lead Sabah, it is not only a wrong political calculation but a risky move. Shafie moving in could affect Najib’s popularity in Sabah.

Shafie, for one, is not based in Sabah and is considered as an outsider among Sabah Umno’s rank and file.

If indeed the war to gain political supremacy in the state exists, Musa seems to have the advantage to hold on to power as he enjoys a strong local support.

(NOTE : The writer is a lecturer in political science at Universiti Teknologi MARA Sabah. This is an excerpt from a talk he delivered at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Brunei Darussalam.)

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