AS Bersatu marches on leading the opposition in the peninsula, another new party is making its mark in Sabah, so much so that its leader, Mohd Shafie Apdal, is seen as a threat.
Just a year old, Parti Warisan Sabah has captured the imagination of rising politicians and many young Sabahans who want greater autonomy from Putrajaya.
Shafie, a former Umno vice-president, won the hearts of youth when Umno and Barisan Nasional component parties took the helm in Sabah in 1995. He played a big role in capturing the youth vote when he was only 38 then.
When Warisan was formed on October 17 last year after Shafie quit Umno, he named those in their 30s and 40s as party leaders – namely former PKR Penampang MP Darrel Leiking, former DAP Likas assemblyman Junz Wong and Moyog assemblyman Terrence Siambun.
“This is why Shafie should not be underestimated,” said Kota Kinabalu Umno chief Faisyal Diego.
“He has done it before and he will do it again. (Capturing) the youth has always been his strong point,” he told The Malaysian Insight.
Faisyal sees Shafie doing the same with Warisan as he did when Umno first set foot in Sabah – starting with the youth vote.
Close to half or about 1.6 million of Sabah’s 3.544 million population are aged between 18 and 40.
The party’s motto of championing Sabah’s rights is also an important factor and made more Sabahans aware and vocal about the erosion of state rights under the 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63).
Warisan has been quick to include state rights on oil revenue entitlement, autonomy, education and health in its unofficial election manifesto if it forms the next state government.
It can also be argued that although such electoral issues had been raised in the past by other parties like Sabah Solidariti Tanah Airku led by Dr Jeffrey Kitingan in the 13th general election, it is not until Warisan came into the picture that the ruling Barisan Nasional became more sensitive to the MA63, as seen in the formation of technical committees at the state and federal level to explore the devolution of powers.
Warisan is now in the spotlight with its vice-president, Peter Anthony, remanded over an alleged RM1.5 billion scandal involving federal funds for rural water and electricity supply projects in Sabah.
Shafie, a former rural and regional development minister during the period the funds were allegedly stolen, has said the probe is an attempt to destroy him politically.
These pressures come as Warisan is expected to welcome an exodus of politicians from both the national opposition and ruling parties.
Last month, a few hundred Parti Bersatu Sabah members from the Membakut branch announced plans to join Warisan.
PBS, a BN component party, also saw the resignation of its Youth and Liawan branch chief, Jake Nointin and several other branch leaders. Nointin is expected to join Warisan soon.
Warisan vice-president Wong said the party is trying to get more branch and divisional leaders from Pakatan Harapan and BN to join it.
“Our main mission is to unite Sabahans. And many have come to realise the real struggles of the party as we want to move the aspirations of Sabahans,” h e told The Malaysian Insight.
According to Wong, the party has received more than 100,000 membership applications across Sabah, but because of technical issues, only half has been approved so far.
Warisan also plans to set up 26 division offices, one in every parliamentary constituency, including one for the federal territory of Labuan.
Wong said Sabah and Sarawak’s rise has prompted leaders from the peninsula to react.
“Look at the number of times Prime Minister Najib Razak and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi have visited Sabah recently. This year alone, it’s close to 20 times. But before this, none of these leaders visited more than five times a year,” he said.
Shafie refused to join Bersatu, which also started last year, despite being offered the deputy president’s post.
Wong said this was part of Warisan’s strategy to stop the practice of making decisions for Sabah from the peninsula, a long-standing grouse among Sabahans.
“Sabahans want Sabah leaders to hear their problems, to resolve their problems without relying on the policies fixed by whoever controls Putrajaya.
“Warisan wants the MA63 implemented by a Sabah-owned government without any interference from Putrajaya,” said Wong, a former DAP member.
Despite opting not to be part of PH, Warisan is supportive of the pact’s fight against Umno and BN, and observers said that this rapprochement is enough to be a concern to the ruling coalition.
An observer said that although Warisan appears reluctant to be a part of any formal pact, it has indicated willingness to cooperate with PH in the 14th general election through other state opposition parties.
“This could be in the form of seat negotiation. But it won’t be easy for PH to negotiate with them as Warisan has quite a strong support on Sabah’s east coast since Shafie is a well-respected leader in Semporna.
“The same goes in some areas in the rural and townships across the state,” the observer told The Malaysian Insight.
Former Sabah secretary Simon Sipaun said Shafie has all the credentials to become a top leader, noting his soft-spoken and well-mannered demeanour, and his ability to communicate concerns about the national debt being passed on to the next generation.
“With his qualification in economics, he knows what he is talking about when he talks about the worrying position of Malaysia’s economic future as national income remains unable to sufficiently finance expenditure,” Sipaun said.
This connection with Sabahans and Warisan’s rise have seen open personal attacks against Shafie by the leaders in Sabah Umno, Chief Minister Musa Aman and his brother Anifah Aman, a federal minister, in recent Sabah Umno divisional meetings where national leaders like Zahid were present.
Most worrying for Umno, local political observers said, was when PH chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamed recently declared that there was a party in Sabah supportive of PH, although he did not name Warisan.
As such, ongoing investigations by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission into the embezzlement of RM1.5 billion of federal monies from 2010 to 2016 Shafie’s former ministry, are seen as part of BN’s efforts to derail Warisan ahead of GE14, which must be held before August next year.
Shafie was a federal minister from 2009 to 2015.
But Shafie said Anthony’s arrest has not deterred Warisan from its fight. He has also said he would cooperate if called by the MACC for questioning.
Wong also said Warisan will only emerge stronger.
“Tomorrow our rally in Tenom will condemn the detention of Anthony. Even those who are blind (can see) that the corruption probe is politically motivated,” he said.