LET’S talk about politics closer to home. Well, not exactly home, but at least neighborly so. Which brings us to my home state of Sabah just across the Sulu Sea. Malaysia’s current federal government as well as the Sabah state government are entering the fourth year of their five-year term, and in the British Westminster parliamentary system (with the party commanding the majority in the legislature forming a government) inherited there, the incumbent federal or state government may call for a snap election anytime, instead of having fixed dates for elections like in the Philippines. All sorts of election speculations are thus flying in Malaysia, and there is even talk of Sabah holding its state election ahead of the much awaited federal one.
Although it is not set in stone, but by tradition, most Malaysian state elections are held concurrently with the federal one. Even in states helmed by the (federal) opposition parties, such as Selangor, Penang and Kelantan in West Malaysia, state assemblies are typically dissolved right after the federal parliament is dissolved to pave the way for a new round of elections. The only exception is the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, which just held its state election last year, with the state government having at least four more years to go in its current term. If Sabah also decides to hold state elections earlier, it would mean that in future the state elections of East and West Malaysia are held at different dates.
There are at least two factors which spur the rumor of an early state election in Sabah. One has to do with the internal and external political struggles in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the backbone of the ruling National Front (BN) coalition. Some readers may still recall back in 2015, at the height of the series of unsettling events involving the Malaysian quasi-sovereign strategic investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), the then deputy prime minister, Muyhiddin Yassin, who held somewhat contrarian views on the matter, was fired by Najib Razak, the prime minister. Fired at the same time was another federal minister who was also an UMNO vice president from Sabah, Shafie Apdal.
Muyhiddin’s dismissal was frankly no surprise, as it had long been an open secret that he did not see eye to eye with Najib on not just the 1MDB issue. But to keen observers of Sabah politics, the firing of Shafie was most amazing. This is because ever since the planting of UMNO on Sabah soil more than two decades ago, Shafie was widely seen to be one of Najib’s most loyal political supporters.Shafie’s long-held wish to become the chief minister of Sabah (the state chief executive) also doesn’t come as a surprise, as most East Malaysian politicians ultimately would like to get involved in politics at the state level instead of at the federal level, which is widely seen to be dominated by West Malaysian political powers. But although Najib has held the premiership for a number of years, in all that time it was never “arranged” for Shafie to take the helm in Sabah, perhaps based on other pertinent political considerations. Matters came to a head as the unrelated 1MDB almost imploded and Shafie started to question Najib’s involvement. Shafie later chose to leave UMNO altogether.
The newly politically unattached Shafie did not choose to join any existing federal or Sabah-based opposition party. When former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (who also fell out with Najib, his erstwhile protégé) formed a new party with Muyhiddin, Shafie also did not participate. Instead, Shafie chose to form his own Sabah-based party called Warisan. Shortly thereafter, Warisan succeeded in persuading a pair of legislators from opposition parties which originated in West Malaysia to leave their parties and join Warisan. Being respectively Kedazan (the largest non-Muslim indigenous tribe in Sabah) and Chinese, the pair added to the avowed multiracial outlook of Warisan, in addition to Shafie’s Malay Muslim background. Politics in Sabah in particular, and throughout Malaysia in general, is to a large extent still very personality-based, perhaps somewhat like in the Philippines.
Over the past few months, Shafie and his party colleagues embarked upon a whirlwind tour throughout the whole state of Sabah. Where they held political talks and rallies, it was said that the number of people (and thus potential voters) who turned out was considerable. It is thus understandable that from the BN’s perspective, the seemingly growing support for Warisan would be a cause for concern. If left “unchecked,” it could potentially harm the winning calculations of BN in the next round of elections. It was thus speculated that the state election should be held earlier, such that a still fledgling Warisan could be roundly defeated and its challenge thus nipped in the bud, so to say, before it becomes a significant political threat to the powers that be. And that is but only half the factor as to the motivation for calling early state elections in Sabah.