THE poor turnout at the opening ceremony of a RM82 million tunnel in Sepanggar last month indicates that Sabah Barisan Nasional is losing its grip on this coastal sub-urban seat.
The empty seats at the event could be traced to BN supporters loyal to Sepanggar MP Jumat Idris who are upset with the Sabah BN leadership.
The disgruntled BN members allegedly did not muster enough of their members for the government-sponsored ceremony, leading to empty seats, wasted food and sour faces.
But this does not mean that the opposition can easily exploit the rift to help it win. In the 13th general election in 2013, BN won Sepanggar by 9,442 votes.
Neither has Sabah’s many opposition parties forged an electoral pact to ensure straight fights against BN. Multi-candidate fights, such as in 2013, only split the opposition vote and handed BN victory in many Sabah seats.
Although opposition parties look to exploit the rift between BN supporters in Sepanggar, they admit that the ruling coalition is working hard to mend ruffled feathers.
The source of the loyalty crisis is the three-year suspension of Jumat, by Sabah Umno, starting in 2015.
Jumat earned the wrath of Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman when he presented a succession plan, which called for the latter to step down and pave way for other Sabah Umno leaders.
Anger over the suspension had impacted on the tunnel opening ceremony.
Invitation cards were sent to the Sepanggar parliamentary office to invite local Umno branch members to the tunnel’s launch, said a Sabah Umno source.
But the invitation cards were never distributed, leading to a low turnout at the event, said the source.
In GE13, Jumat won the Sepanggar seat in a four-candidate race and polled 22,845 votes. The closest runner up was DAP’s Jeffrey Kumin with 13,403 votes. SAPP’s Chin Hong Kong garnered 4,070 votes while STAR’s Daniel John Jambun got 1,931 votes.
Sepanggar has 53,374 voters, 52% of whom are Muslim Bumiputeras, 26% non-Muslim Bumis and 19% Chinese.
Most of the Bumiputeras are from the Kadazan Dusun and Bajau communities. BN won the seat mostly on the back of the Muslim Bumiputeras.
Sepanggar has two state assembly seats – Inanam and Karambunai.
The parliamentary constituency is north of Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu. Billions of ringgit have been pumped into it to transform the area into a primary logistic and transhipment hub.
Sepanggar is home to the main port in Sabah, the Sepanggar naval base, 1Borneo Hypermall, Kota Kinabalu Industrial Park (KKIP) and independent power plants.
It also has five-star hotels, including the world-class resort in Karambunai, and two of Sabah’s biggest universities – Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and a Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) campus.
To ensure it retains the seat, it is learnt that Sabah BN is transferring federal Minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan from his constituency of Kota Belud to Sepanggar.
There are talks that Jumat’s ally, Karambunai assemblyman Jainab Ahmad will be moved to a seat in Tawau on the eastern coast of Sabah.
When asked about this, Jainab dismissed the rumour, saying that “such talks are baseless”.
Local PKR activist Riduan Hamzah said whether Rahman contests in Sepanggar will depend on developments in Kota Belud.
Riduan said Rahman may move to Sepanggar to make way for Usukan assemblyman Salleh Said Keruak to contest as Kota Belud MP.
“This will pave the way for Dewan Rakyat Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia to fill one of the state assembly seats in Kota Belud,” he said.
“But not everyone likes Pandikar now, his views on the Malaysia Agreement was something many of us in Kota Belud can’t accept,” he added.
Jostling among opposition
As for the opposition, it is learnt that Parti Warisan Sabah is eyeing the seat after DAP failed to wrest it. Opposition sources said DAP is still interested in the constituency as it believes it can exploit BN’s disarray.
Riduan of PKR said Warisan vice-president and Penampang MP Darell Leiking may contest the Inanam state seat.
“I was made to understand that Leiking may defend the Penampang parliamentary seat and stand in Inanam seat for his party,” he said.
Darell’s father, Marcel Leiking, contested Inanam in 1977 on a Berjaya ticket.
Warisan and Sabah Pakatan Harapan are currently in discussions to form an electoral pact to ensure straight fights against BN.
Besides the rift in BN, opposition parties are also expected to exploit resident unhappiness towards Sabah BN’s administration of the area.
The new Sepanggar tunnel, for instance, is a sore point with some locals.
A seafood stall operator named Normala Iskandar said she and other stalls along Jalan Sulaman are furious with the opening of the Sepanggar tunnel.
“Now there are will be fewer cars passing this area after the government built the tunnel.”
Port workers, Sepanggar naval base personnel and workers from nearby resorts are expected to bypass Jalan Sulaman by using the tunnel to work.
The Sepanggar tunnel cuts the travel distance between Kota Kinabalu Industrial Park (KKIP) and Sepanggar Port by at least 7km.