Shafie aims to cause an upset

THE audience at Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal’s political gathering in Penang seemed quite thrilled to see him.

There was applause throughout his speech and lots of selfie requests with the photogenic Parti Warisan Sabah president.

Most of them were seeing him up close for the first time but some of them were behaving as if a new star had appeared on the political horizon.

Yet he has been in politics since the 1990s as a federal minister, then chief minister of Sabah and now a leading opposition figure.

His team had deliberately picked a down-to-earth venue at a foodcourt in Paya Terubong for his party’s foray into Penang.

The audience that day was mainly Chinese and what he said and the way he said it resonated with them.

Shafie, as they say, is a natural. He will lay on the thick Sabah accent when speaking to a home audience but that day in Penang, he spoke plain and simple Malay.

“We are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion,” he said to applause.

He was basically speaking about a Malaysia that is not divided by race or religion, a Malaysia that “does not only belong to the Malays but to the Chinese, Indians and people of Sabah and Sarawak”.

He was talking about the Malaysian dream. It is hardly new, so many politicians and political parties have been selling the same dream but coming from him, it carried the prospect of uniting the east and west.

“The multi-racial narrative, he truly owns it because he’s able to go beyond the Chinese, Malays and Indians to include the Borneo states,” said writer and culture activist Eddin Khoo.

Shafie has emerged from under the shadow of Umno and is seen as a fighter who dared to take on the powers-that-be.

He is also one of the most charismatic figures in politics today.

“His party speaks of him as a prime minister candidate (PM) but that is a long shot. To me, he represents an interesting experiment for Malaysian politics.

“If we are to think of ourselves as a nation, this chokehold of political dominance in the peninsula has to be broken down,” said Khoo.

Warisan’s move to go national is what political risk analyst Amir Fareed Rahim sees as a “new political lifeline” for Shafie.

Shafie has basically lost twice in Sabah. He formed the state government after the 2018 general election with crossovers and lost the snap state election in 2020, an indication that he has not been able to increase his support base.

“He needs this move for his party to stay relevant,” said Amir.

Teaming up with Muda, which is headed by Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, has also lent Warisan a fresher look in a political landscape dominated by bigger and more organised parties.

It is evident the political big boys see Shafie as a threat and the recent resignation of several Warisan elected representatives were seen as calculated attempts to embarrass him just as he was coming west.

It is unclear how Warisan plans to woo the Malay electorate who are generally suspicious of pluralistic parties.

The Warisan roadshow in the peninsula has drawn a largely non-Malay crowd and enlisted a number of notable names. A key DAP figure from Penang is expected to come on board after the Chinese New Year.

The events have been avidly covered by the Chinese media who sense that Warisan and Muda have the potential to spring a few surprises.

Moreover, many Chinese rank Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and Shafie as their top choices for prime minister.

“Underestimate Shafie at your own peril. I am keeping my eye on him,” said Sin Chew Daily columnist and former MP Jeff Ooi.

Following Warisan’s Penang stop, rumours started that it is a Trojan horse with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad holding the reins behind the scenes while die-hard DAP supporters are pushing the narrative that only DAP can protect Chinese interests.

A former Chinese school administrator who has been following Warisan on social media described Shafie as a “bright star”.

“I see them (Warisan and Muda) as an alternative. They are not racial and the vision to bring the east and west together appeals to me. I want to give Shafie a chance regardless of what they say about him,” he said.

Many of the thinking Chinese are still yearning for a Malaysia that is not divided by race and religion. They are still looking for that special someone who can deliver that dream.

One thing which stands out in Shafie’s style is that he is not into bad-mouthing or maligning his opponents. He can be critical but never crude or uncouth.

More politicians should take the cue from Shafie because politics here has become so nasty and uncivil in the last few decades. In fact, this was a complaint among many Sarawakians who did not like the rough attack modes of DAP leaders.

Shafie is coming west at quite an opportune time.

The traditional blocs are not what they used to be. Political sentiments are quite fluid going by what happened in the Melaka and Sarawak elections.

The DAP stranglehold over the Chinese has begun to loosen, PKR has been weakened by defections, Malay votes are split three ways and millions of youth votes will be up for grabs in the next general election.

In a best-case scenario, the Warisan-Muda partnership could win enough seats to be the kingmaker in the event of a hung Parliament. At worst, it could be the spoiler and split the pro-opposition votes.

“We are at ground zero. Anything is possible,” said Khoo.