• Going it alone in Sabah and beyond

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    EI SUN OH

    WE continue with the political developments in neighboring Sabah. In the last article, we mentioned a sort of conglomerate of some of the minor opposition parties in Sabah, called the United Sabah Alliance (USA), which appears to want to keep on emphasizing their Sabah origins. This was of course ostentatiously a by now somewhat tired attempt to ride on the so-called rising “Sabahan” sentiment for greater autonomy after the results of the last two federal general elections saw th increasing dependence of the federal ruling coalition on their Sabah component parties.

    Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that Sabah politics, and especially party politics, just like in other parts of Southeast Asia in particular and Asia in general, the Philippines included, is still very much personality-driven, in the sense that many political parties are but platforms for one or more “prominent” politicians to showcase themselves, and are seldom long-lasting vehicles for genuine political struggles which transcend individual interest. When such politicians disappear from the political scene, their erstwhile parties typically disintegrate or slip into dormancy. As such, there are, to be polite about it, quite a number of “mature” or “familiar” politicians within USA, with quite a few being disgruntled or popularly rejected, the faces of whom I recognize since my elementary school years (and I am entering, alas, middle age)! Meanwhile, some other USA leaders appear to be “fresh” faces who came out from nowhere and definitely do not inspire confidence. In addition, this odd mixture of “old” and “young” leaders also frequently engage in quite public internecine (between USA “component” parties as well as within those parties themselves) political fights.

    Therefore, a rather “ragtag” or “strange bedfellows” image is often attached to USA by the general public in Sabah, to no one’s, but perhaps only those within USA’s, surprise. It may perhaps be considered overboard to rule out now USA’s amounting to anything (winning any seat) in the coming Malaysian federal and Sabah state elections. But it is safe to say that they will not amount to much, as in definitely not winning enough state assembly seats to form the next Sabah state government, for example. The decision by the major Sabah opposition party, Warisan, led by former United Malays National Organization (UMNO, backbone party of the federal and state ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional or BN), vice president Shafie Apdal, not to enter into alliance with USA is somewhat expected. Though it may be said not to have dealt a mortal blow to the USA, it is indicative of the popular regard that is accorded the latter. In recent days, one of USA’s main “component” parties also decided to detach itself from the opposition alliance and go it alone, citing insurmountable political differences with the others. This of course paints yet another coat of shadow on USA’s political future.

    In any case, in the next round of general elections, Sabah’s electoral battlegrounds will see rather interesting fights. In some constituencies, BN candidates may be faced with one-to-one races with candidates from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), or Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), both of which originate from West Malaysia, or from Warisan, or indeed from a USA component party. But it is far more likely that so-called multi-cornered fights will emerge with BN holding off against more than one opposition party in quite a number of constituencies. In this sort of scenario, the opposition vote banks would inevitably be split, and under a plurality-win electoral system inherited from the British, which side will ultimately benefit is rather obvious. Moreover, in view of the self-centered and self-congratulatory trend prevalent among the various opposition parties in Sabah, as time drags on, it would actually be more and more difficult for them to coalesce into a united and credible opposition front facing off BN. This sort of gradual but progressing fragmentation of the opposition makes life easier for the BN side. The ruling coalition can indeed take their sweet time in deciding when to hold the next general election, or whether to hold the Sabah state election earlier than the federal one.

    The molecularized nature of Sabah’s opposition to a large degree also reflects the sorry but real state of their counterparts in the federal level as well as in many other states. To take but one example, Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) used to be one of the three major “component” parties of the by-now moribund largest opposition front, Pakatan Rakyat (PR). But after the last general elections four years ago, and especially after the death of their moderate spiritual leader Nik Aziz, PAS chose to gradually detach itself from PR and instead align itself ever closer to UMNO. In recent months, PAS and UMNO worked hand in hand in bringing up for parliamentary consideration a bill to enlarge the powers of the religious courts in Malaysia, which many Malaysians fear may erode the secular nature of the country. PAS’ recent decision to so-called go it alone in the next general election may appear to be quite vainglorious, demonstrating its indomitable will to advance a decidedly religious agenda for the country. In essence, however, it is nothing but a shrouded decision to solidify its alliance with UMNO, as will be explained in the next article.

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