Manifestos and issues have taken a backseat to the drama, mostly between the leaders of Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS), the hastily formed informal Opposition alliance of Perikatan Nasional (PN), Barisan Nasional (BN) and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS).
There are at least 17 confirmed clashes among the three GRS components but this could be as many as 20 if independent candidates allegedly supported by Parti Solidariti Tanah Airku (STAR) are considered.
Complicating matters further are another six independent candidates who were dropped by their parties for defecting but still command a decent following, and independent parties such as Datuk Anifah Aman’s Parti Cinta Sabah (PCS) and Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
While observers all agree the main fight is between the incumbent Warisan Plus coalition and GRS, independents and local parties — even those with one or two seats — have a real potential to be the kingmakers in the likelihood of a close finish between Warisan and GRS.
A serious internal tussle has also emerged between BN and PN, as both have openly stated their aim of winning enough seats to unilaterally name a chief minister of their choosing.
While BN had appeared to hold the numbers advantage in this race, the appearance of former chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman — dropped unceremoniously by Umno before the election — on the PN campaign trail has tipped the scale towards the latter.
Musa, who is also the former Sabah BN chief, made a surprise appearance at a federal government event earlier this week, stumping for Bersatu and, later on, PBS’ Kiulu candidate Datuk Joniston Bangkuai.
His emergence has given substance to murmurs that he was not taking the decision to deny him a seat to contest lying down and was plotting reprisal behind the scenes.
Musa’s decision to appear with the Bersatu and PBS camps instead of the Umno/BN campaign has led to speculation that he was throwing his still considerable influence behind the former two in a quid pro quo.
Political analyst Ei Oh Sun hypothesised that Musa’s cooperation with PN could open up avenues for him that had appeared closed after he was dropped from the Umno line-up.
The first was for him to be the chief minister by proxy — a plausibility given his evident support base from the July 29 attempted takeover — before being appointed as a nominated assemblyman, allowing him back into the state legislature without needing to contest.
The other option was more straightforward and has been done before: Get an assemblyman in a safe seat to resign and force a by-election that he could then win.
Despite his mysteriousness at the moment, Musa is no doubt a main player in the polls, and a threat to both caretaker chief minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal and Sabah BN chairman Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin, who is leading the BN charge for the first time.
Superficially, Musa’s involvement appeared to be most damaging for GRS but political watchers said he could also sway votes away from Warisan Plus as there were pockets in the state who still backed him.
It is also unclear if Shafie will be able to capitalise on the Musa factor enough to put his coalition ahead.
The Warisan president and his coalition have run a slick election campaign so far but this has not completely erased unhappiness in the state with undelivered pledges, the flagging economy, and Sabah’s perennial problem with undocumented migrants.
Running on a platform of state solidarity, Shafie has been at the forefront of the Warisan Plus campaign, eschewing the support of leaders of allied peninsula-based parties in an attempt to portray his coalition as a primarily local outfit.
With the political drama again catching the news cycle, it would appear that the intrigues of political parties have again eclipsed issues that have been centrestage for numerous elections but seem no closer to resolution: the development of the economy and basic infrastructure, state rights, and undocumented migrants.
The Sabah election is on September 26 and will feature 447 candidates, including 56 Independents, vying for 73 seats.
Polls lay bare racism in Sabah’s politics
SABAHAN love to say that they are a model of communal and religious harmony that Malaysians across the sea should emulate.
But the Sabah polls have ripped away this rosy picture to reveal the racist and xenophobic undercurrents that permeate the state’s politics.
These raw sentiments are being exploited by the two biggest political coalitions fighting for control of the state – the incumbent Warisan Plus and Sabah BN-Perikatan-PBS.
In its campaigns, Warisan Plus brands Peninsula-based parties and politicians as “colonisers” who want to control everything from who gets to be Sabah’s chief minister to how the region’s funds are spent.
On the other side, Sabah BN-PN-PBS said a vote for Warisan is a vote for Filipino Suluks to flood the region and take away jobs and businesses from native Sabahans.
The Suluks are an ethnic group that is concentrated on Sabah’s east coast, especially Semporna, where Warisan caretaker chief minister Mohd Shafie Apdal comes from.
Distrust towards the community has been on the increase after the Lahad Datu incursion in February 2013 by gunmen claiming to be part of the ancient Sulu Sultanate.
Experts said these sentiments have always existed in Sabah and reflect the complex patronage and economic networks that are interwoven between its 32 ethnic groups.
This suspicion and fear were exposed in The Malaysian Insight’s interviews with Sabahans in different parts of its long west coast.
In southwest Kuala Penyu, taxi driver Wan Aziz Muhammad complained that the Warisan government has favoured the Suluk community with administrative posts and funds, to the detriment of other communities.
“Warisan’s strength is among Filipino Suluks. The district officer and the assistant district officer of Kuala Penyu are from Semporna.
“Why are they from Semporna? Is there no one from Kuala Penyu who is qualified enough?” said the 50-year-old.
In Tuaran, contractor Mydin Sapai said Filipinos, who control the cigarette smuggling trade, have become more brazen under the Warisan government.
“They sell their cigarettes openly at markets. Sometimes right under the noses of the local authorities,” Mydin said, recounting a recent encounter with one such trader.
“He told me – ‘one day we will take over Sabah and you will be ones selling smuggled cigarettes’. People are scared that this is happening under Shafie.”
Perikatan information chief Azmin Ali appeared to exploit these fears in a rally recently in Tuaran where he said: “Shafie says he wants Sabah to be for Sabahans but we all know that he means Sabah for Semporna.”
Politics fuel fears
Sabah-based political economist Dr Firdausi Suffian said there has always existed distrust between Sabah communities on the region’s west and east coasts and even between clans of one ethnic group.
“For instance the Bajaus on the west are distinct from the Bajaus on the east and the western ones are sometimes condescending towards those on the east,” said Firdausi of Universiti Teknologi Mara.
“The distrust is due to a mixture of distance between communities and class, where some clans are wealthier due to their proximity to urban centres.
“On the surface there is strong interfaith and communal harmony but when it comes to politics, the ties can be fractious.”
In the case of Shafie – who is a Bajau, not Suluk – politics can also artificially amplify this distrust.
“When Shafie was in BN, no one talked about his ethnic descent and where he came from. No one accused him of being a Filipino,” Firdausi said.
The issue is particularly potent among Sabah’s Kadazandusun-Murut (KDM) community who have long felt that waves of migration to Sabah from the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1970s have changed the region’s demographics.
In the Kimanis parliamentary by-election last year, Sabah BN played on these fears among the KDM to defeat Warisan Plus.
Tempasuk resident Joharye Yading said the Suluk-label still had traction among older KDM voters who are unfamiliar with Warisan.
“The youths are much more aware that this is a campaign tactic to scare them,” said Joharye of Kampung Rantai Rosok.
Hassan Buniam, a Warisan Plus activist pointed out that the coalition and its main party, Parti Warisan Sabah was multi-racial and that it was fielding a diverse slate of candidates from all communities.
“The accusation of us being a Suluk party is to divide and conquer Sabahans,” said Hassan, a Kota Belud PKR official.
Yet even in constituencies where there is a heavy Sabah-BN presence, the Suluk label against Warisan does not automatically stick.
Suraya Rahman is not satisfied with Warisan’s performance especially in its distribution of aid during the Covid-19 pandemic and its service to the poor.
But she does not buy into the propaganda that it is a Suluk or a pro-foreign migrant party.
“They are not a party just for Suluks. Warisan is made up of different ethnic groups. But I still think they should be changed because they have not helped the little people like me.”
THE MALAYSIAN INSIGHT