In billboard war, Warisan pushes unity while Perikatan banks on cult of personality

KOTA KINABALU — The campaign and poster war between the defending Warisan Plus coalition and the challenging Gabungan Rakyat Sabah have gone in two distinct directions, with the former pushing state solidarity and the latter hoping to profit from Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s positive approval.

The Warisan Plus campaign struck a chord with users of social media — the modern battleground for support in urban and semi-urban areas — with its stylised imagery that borrowed heavily from former US president Barack Obama’s 2008 “Hope” poster for his presidential campaign then.

Its posters feature a pensive-looking Shafie in shades of Sabah’s state colours and emblazoned with mottos such as “In God we trust, unite we must,” or “We are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion,” along with the hashtag #SabahansUnite.

The imagery was created by a group of youths who called themselves the Sabah Unity Movement.

In Tenom, billboards come with a message saying, “Orang Sabah ada maruah (Sabahans have pride)”.

Sabahans have responded favourably to the billboards that appear to only be in urban areas, lauding the Warisan Plus campaign for pushing a message of peace and unity as well as for positioning Shafie as a leader for all Sabahans rather than any single community.

Former beauty queen Deborah Priya Henry also shared a photo with the caption “a refreshing and much needed show of leadership. Malaysia for all!”

Shafie has embarked on an aggressive social media campaign, and gained particular traction with his Malaysia Day message video in which he spoke candidly about his life and upbringing, before driving home the message that Sabah was for all races.

An election poster featuring Perikatan Nasional chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is seen in Kota Belud, Sabah September 16, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
An election poster featuring Perikatan Nasional chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is seen in Kota Belud, Sabah September 16, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

Outside of urban areas, however, the Perikatan Nasional poster campaign was more apparent.

In this, the coalition that was part of GRS sought to tap the popularity of Muhyiddin, the prime minister, and expanded on previous attempts to portray him as a father figure of sorts to the country.

Depicting a smiling Muhyiddin, these described him as Abah kita (our father) but localised to Sabah using the multifunction colloquialism bah for hashtags such as #abahkitabah #abahtetapsayangsabah and Kita Jaga Kita, which he co-opted previously for the federal government’s Covid-19 response.

In the Malay language, abah is an affectionate term for father and the campaign’s message inferred a patriarchal relationship between the prime minister and Malaysians.

The bid to bank on Muhyiddin’s personal approval — which independent pollster Merdeka Center recently put at 69 per cent positive — appeared to turn off some Sabahans on social media, however.

Among others, they saw it as an attempt to shoehorn peninsular culture into a campaign to woo Sabahans’ support.

Geli la (It’s cringey), who came up with this? It’s appalling. We already have our own words, no need to add anymore,” said Francis Sidom.

Kota Belud native Ramli Ejun, 58, a civil servant said he found the message confusing, especially when Muhyiddin’s imagery was accompanied by the Undilah (Vote for) term.

He said it did not make sense for the PN campaign to feature Muhyiddin so prominently when the election was for a new state government and the latter was not standing as a candidate in any local constituency.

Coincidentally, PN and its allies Barisan Nasional are at odds over who should be the GRS candidate to be chief minister and have yet to present one to the public, preventing them from promoting any in such material.

“Where can a PM who is in Semenanjung or KL, stand in Sabah? During a state election no less. There is no way, and this is just a confusing technique that will cause much hate among Sabahans,” he said.

“I find it inappropriate.”

The contrasting billboards and posters of the two camps appeared to epitomise the cohesiveness of the Warisan Plus and GRS campaigns so far.

While the Warisan Plus coalition comprising Shafie’s Warisan, Pakatan Harapan parties, and Upko have managed to avoid overlaps and united behind him as their leader, GRS has been marred by infighting that caused the allied PN, Barisan Nasional, and aligned Sabah parties challenge one another in 20 of the 73 seats being contested.

The premature 16th state election was triggered after Shafie sought the dissolution of the state assembly when predecessor Tan Sri Musa Aman mounted an abortive takeover bid on the back of defections.

The Election Commission has set September 26 as the polling day.

Perikatan banks on ‘abah’ to sweep Sabah

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is featured heavily in the Sabah elections like this poster in Tuaran. Perikatan Nasional is hoping to oust Mohd Shafie Apdal’s Warisan Plus. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 17, 2020.
Posters and billboards of “abah”, Muhyiddin’s nickname, dot the 29 areas PN is contesting in Sabah, most of which are Muslim Bumiputera constituencies.

Political analysts see it as an attempt to leverage on Muhyiddin’s high ratings nationwide, which stand as high as 69%.

It is also an attempt to counter the iconic brand of Mohd Shafie Apdal, the caretaker chief minister, who is leading the campaign for Warisan Plus against PN.

Abah is a Malay term of endearment for father, and social-media users gave Muhyiddin the moniker during the nationwide lockdown to bring down Covid-19 infections, when he would address the nation in live broadcasts.

Social-media users also dubbed senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah “Pak Long” (eldest uncle) and Pak Ngah (middle uncle) respectively.

Both Ismail Sabri and Noor Hisham held almost daily live telecasts where they updated Malaysians on the lockdown and the number of Covid-19 infections.

“Abah” has now become a permanent feature of PN’s branding of Muhyiddin just like how “Tun” was once synonymous with Pakatan Harapan prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

PN’s detractors believe that it will backfire since it proves that the coalition and its allies in Sabah Barisan Nasional have no credible chief minister candidate.

“They are struggling to find their own chief minister, while we already have a strong CM candidate in Shafie Apdal,” said Kota Belud Warisan MP Isnaraissah Munirah Majilis.

“Compared to them (PN), we are the local party who can choose our own chief minister.”

Political scientist Dr Mazlan Ali, however, said Muhyiddin’s popularity cannot be discounted, especially in rural Muslim constituencies.

“Among Malays, Muhyiddin’s favourability is as high as 85%. Rural Sabahans also seem to miss Sabah BN,” said Mazlan, referring to PN’s ally in Sabah.

“Muhyiddin is a popular figure even among rural Sabahans because of his leadership during the Covid-19 crisis and Perikatan is hoping his stature can counter Shafie,” said Mazlan who is monitoring the elections in Sabah.

At the same time, Warisan’s reputation among rural folk has taken a hit due to cuts in aid and subsidies, which the former federal PH government instituted, said Mazlan.

“Because Warisan has been tied to Pakatan, people associate the budget cuts under (ex-prime minister) Dr Mahathir to them,” said Mazlan of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

Villagers in Sabah’s interior appear to confirm Mazlan’s findings concerning rural attitudes towards Warisan.

Mary Andau of Kg Telibong said Warisan cut monthly welfare aid for senior citizens like her.

“Before Warisan, I used to get RM300 per month but during Warisan’s time, it was cut. Shafie even told us not to depend too much on the government, which is very disappointing for people like me.”

Mary has not noticed the “abah” campaign but gave the thumbs up to Muhyiddin due to his management of the pandemic and the fact that he gave out RM1,600 to families like hers during the pandemic.

She also has no problems voting for PN or its allies Sabah BN or Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), even though they have not settled on a chief minister’s candidate.

“For me it was better under BN and I hope that Sabah can go back to that time.”   THE MALAYSIAN INSIGHT