Parties play up ‘Sabah identity’, economic development to woo voters in state polls

KOTA KINABALU: Although he had already spoken for more than 45 minutes, Sabah’s Chief Minister Shafie Apdal remained as fiery as ever.

At a night rally last Wednesday (Sep 16) in the quiet town of Tuaran, not far from the state’s capital Kota Kinabalu, Mr Shafie, who played up his local, middle-class roots, sought at every opportunity to turn the focus on how Malaysia’s federal government do not empathise with the concerns of most Sabahans and the hardships they face.

“Today, Sabah is governed by a local party – Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) – not Kuala Lumpur, not the federal government. Sabah belongs to its people,” he said.

“Let’s use this state election to send a message to Kuala Lumpur that Sabah belongs to all of you,” he added to rapturous applause.

For this election, Mr Shafie is leading the Warsian Plus bloc, comprising of Warisan, fellow state-based United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO) and Pakatan Harapan (PH) national parties Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah).

shafie apdal lim guan eng
Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng posing for the cameras while campaigning during the Sabah state election. (Photo: Parti Warisan Sabah) 

Warisan Plus is the incumbent, and its main challengers is state opposition alliance Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), which consists of Perikatan Nasional (PN), Barisan Nasional (BN) and other state-based parties such as Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR). 

While GRS partners are the opposition in the state government, they hold power at the federal level.

And as campaigning for the state elections entered the eleventh day on Tuesday, candidates from both sides have pledged to uphold Sabah’s unique multiracial identity and fight for more resources to boost development in the Borneo state. 

GRS, for instance, is banking on its “Love Sabah” campaign slogan to convince voters that they will serve the people regardless of their political inclination or ethnic background.  

Sabah’s position in Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), the legal document on the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, is also another hot issue on the campaign trail. 

READ: As Sabah heads to polls on Sep 26, what’s at stake for the main political blocs?

THE “SABAH IDENTITY”

Many Sabahans CNA spoke to said they hope the state’s indigenous identities and local faiths will not be diluted.

The main ethnic groups in Sabah are the Kadazandusun, Bajau and Chinese. Only around 5 per cent of Sabah’s 3.5 million population are Malays.  

In terms of religion, although more than half of people in Sabah are Muslims, there are sizable numbers of Christians, Buddhists as well as minority groups that practise animism.

Ms Rozaline Jinius, a voter of Kadazandusun descent who lives in Tuaran, told CNA that GRS has close ties with the likes of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and this will not sit well with Sabah’s multicultural communities.

“I think parties like PAS want to implement Syariah law in Malaysia and the Perikatan Nasional government is very pro-Malay. The Sabahans will never support this,” said Ms Jinius.

“Warisan Plus knows that Sabahans are from various religions and cultures. This kind of racial politics that might work in the peninsula cannot be imposed here,” she added.

PAS is sitting out of the Sabah state election this time in an effort to strengthen cooperation in the PN coalition, according to the party’s deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man.

READ: ‘Help us get back our jobs’ – Rebuilding tourism sector a hot button issue in Sabah state election

However, Ms Michelle Michael, a Chinese BN supporter who lives in Api-Api in Kota Kinabalu, told CNA she thinks that the GRS coalition is more in line with the Sabah identity because it is focused on serving the people, and not “power hungry” like leaders in Warisan Plus.

“I think Sabah BN has served the state for many decades before Warisan came into power in 2018. It understands the needs of Sabah’s diverse cultures,” she said.  

In the early period of campaigning, GRS, led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, unveiled its “I promise” manifesto for the election.

Sabah Political Wrap 03
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president Muhyiddin Yassin (third from right) praying together with Sabah Bersatu chief Hajiji Noor (third from left, in red attire), and Sabah United Malays National Organisation leader Abdul Rahman Dahlan (second from right) during the omination day of Sabah state election on Sep 12, 2020. (Photo: Facebook/Muhyiddin Yassin)

In a conference with journalists afterwards, PN Sabah chief Hajiji Mohd Noor was asked how GRS intends to fight for the Sabahan identity, and he outlined that the coalition’s slogan “Love Sabah” exemplifies this.

“It is the desire of GRS to give the best service to the people of Sabah regardless of their political ideology or racial or religious backgrounds,” he added.

Mr Hajiji is one of the key leaders for GRS, and has been touted by Mr Muhyiddin as possible chief minister if the coalition wins on Sep 26.

However, he must first win the Sulaman seat he is contesting, and he is up against his nephew, Aliasgar Basri from Warisan and Parti Cinta Sabah’s Rekan Hussein.

In an interview with CNA, Mr Aliasgar said that Warisan Plus is the only coalition which understands the Sabahan multiracial identity.

aliasgar basri
Aliasgar Basri will be contesting against his uncle Hajiji Mohd Noor in one of the hottest seats for the state election. (Photo: Parti Warisan Sabah) 

He noted how Mr Shafie has equally distributed the ministerial positions in his state Cabinet among the Malay, Chinese and Kadazandusun representatives.

“He knows that the Sabahan identity is all about treating each race and religion the same, unlike (GRS) which is very Malay-centric in its policies,” he added. 

PLEDGE TO IMPLEMENT MA63

What has been clearly on the agenda for many of the candidates to woo voters is to pledge that they will fight towards restoring the status of Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners with the peninsula, as enshrined in MA63

In an effort to garner support for the GRS coalition, Mr Muhyiddin announced that the government will form a special council – of which he is the chairperson – to resolve issues on MA63.

Some of the issues that have been key points of contention are increasing royalties of natural resources like oil and gas awarded to Sabah, and giving the state more administrative rights over areas like education and religion.

In 2019, a proposed constitutional amendment was made by PH, which was then federal government, on the status of Sabah and Sarawak. However, after a heated debate in the parliament, the amendment vote failed to pass.

Some politicians, including those from Sabah, argued that the amendment was merely aesthetic and did not mount to a real return to the MA63 document.

Mr Aliasgar told CNA that Warisan has been working hard towards resolving this.

He said that in Mr Shafie’s 26-month tenure as chief minister, he had worked with the federal government to resolve most of the issues with MA63.

“He understands what the locals want and he is almost there in terms of negotiations. If elected again, I’m confident he will finish the job,” he added.

bung moktar
Bung Moktar Radin speaking during a Barisan Nasional event. (Photo: Sabah UMNO) 

Meanwhile, BN’s leader for the Sabah polls, and another possible chief minister candidate if GRS wins, Mr Bung Moktar Radin, has said that it is part of the coalition’s manifesto to form a Sabah Petroleum Council to increase oil royalty payment so that the funds could be used for education and other development projects in the state.

However, he warned that increasing the oil royalty as allocated by the federal government from 5 per cent to 20 per cent might not be possible.

“We have done our research on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 on oil royalty and there is no way we can get the 20 per cent from the federal government,” he told reporters after a rally.

He said that while negotiating for more royalties would be tough, there were other methods to get more funds for Sabah.

“We will discuss with Petronas on this … but let us govern the state first,” he said.

FIGHT TO PULL SABAHANS OUT OF POVERTY

According to Mr Romzi Ationg, senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, while ensuring that the policies are fair to all races is important, it is more important for candidates to prove to the people that they would be able to fight for economic development.

He said candidates needed to show the voters that they would be able to obtain more funds so that people can break the poverty cycle. 

“You know, there is sentiment in Sabah suggesting that they have been marginalised for so long. Although Sabah is one of the richest states in the county (in terms of resources), when it comes to allocation of funds, we are not given the right proportion for development,” said Mr Ationg.

“We don’t like the way the federal government has treated us so far,” he added.

READ: Early election can be held if Gabungan Rakyat Sabah wins Sabah polls, says Malaysia’s PM Muhyiddin

He explained that Sabah is rich in resources like timber, palm oil as well as oil and gas, but it has many people living in poverty.

According to figures released by Malaysia’s national statistics department, Sabah was ranked as Malaysia’s poorest state in 2019, with 19.5 per cent or almost 100,000 households living in poverty.

Sea of trash Sabah
This photo, taken in May 2017, shows the trash problem of Pulau Berhala. Located about 10km off the coast of Sandakan, the island did not have a garbage disposal system for its 5,000 residents. (Photo: Amir Yusof) 

The poorest districts in Sabah are Tongod, Pitas, Kota Marudu, Beluran and Telupid.

Both Mr Shafie and Mr Hajiji have noted this problem in their respective campaigns and have pledged to do more to resolve it.

Mr Shafie said he would be looking to challenge the federal government for more resources, especially in terms of oil and gas revenue, and promised to help locals impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic find jobs.

Meanwhile, Mr Hajiji said that if elected, GRS will be given more power and resources from the federal government, given that they are able to work together.

“If elected, the federal government will give autonomy to the state government here to determine the direction for Sabah, provided it is in line with plans mooted by the federal government,” he told reporters.