KOTA KINABALU, Aug 11 ― Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s visit to Sabah today will be crucial for Barisan Nasional’s (BN) survival in its east Malaysian fortress amid talk that the state’s non-Malay communities have switched to the opposition camp.
The prime minister is expected to announce the terms of reference for
the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the state’s illegal
immigrants problem this afternoon, a critical issue that could decide
the outcome of the coming polls not just in Sabah but nationwide.
Seats in east Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak are deemed vital for BN to
maintain federal power, because without the 55 parliamentary seats it
won in both states during Election 2008, the coalition could have ended
its half-century rule in Malaysia.
Sabah-based political analyst Dr Arnold Puyok told The Malaysian Insider in
an interview here that although BN was unlikely to lose Sabah in the
next general election, there is a growing resentment against it among
the state’s Chinese, Kadazandusun, and Murut (KDM) communities ― the
majority of whom are Christians.
He predicted that the BN may find itself in trouble in at least 13 of
the state’s 25 parliamentary seats, which are currently held by local
KDM-based BN parties like Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) and the United
Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO).
These marginal seats include the Kota Marudu, Tuaran, Kota Belud,
Sepanggar, Putatan, Penampang, Beaufort, Ranau, Keningau, Tenom,
Beluran, Batu Sapi and Tawau seats.
“These are seats that are now controlled by KDM parties and if you
look at them, they are seen to be very weak; that they are not fighting
hard enough for state rights so the KDM are not happy. Go to the ground
and ask people ― it is clear that voters are disappointed with leaders
like (PBS president Tan Sri Joseph) Pairin Kitingan,” he said.
For the opposition, Puyok predicted safe wins in three federal seats ―
Pensiangan, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu, which is currently held by
DAP’s Hiew King Cheu, Sabah’s sole opposition MP.
Najib’s Cabinet had agreed to form the RCI in February 8, but the
nearly six months of silence following the decision had cost BN two of
its senior lawmakers in Sabah: Tuaran MP Datuk Seri Wilfred Mojilip
Bumburing, UPKO’s deputy president, and Beaufort MP Datuk Seri Lajim
Ukin, a federal deputy minister and Umno supreme council member.
The duo cited their lack of confidence in Najib and BN’s sincerity in
forming the RCI, a key demand of Sabah-based BN parties for decades.
Just days after their departures, Najib told a press conference that
he would announce the RCI’s terms today, a move described as an attempt
at damage control.
But not to be outdone, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) de facto leader Datuk Seri
Anwar Ibrahim will also be in Sabah this weekend and is expected to
announce more political crossovers in a grand function at Kota Marudu,
some two hours outside of Kota Kinabalu.
Kota Marudu is also the parliamentary seat of PBS deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili.
One UPKO leader told The Malaysian Insider that Najib’s
attempt may be “too little, too late” for Sabah voters, agreeing that
the government’s apparent inaction to resolve the over four-decade-old
illegal immigrants issue has angered local communities here.
“It will be viewed as a political move and one that is lacking in
sincerity. But what’s to be done? What is important now is that this
issue must be resolved.
RCI terms must be all-encompassing and must really address the problem
because now, although the KDM voters believe we have been doing what we
should be doing, the point they are making is that ‘you guys are just
not effective enough’,” the leader said.
But despite anger over the RCI and BN’s slipping support among
Sabah’s non-Muslim Bumiputeras and the Chinese, it is believed that the
overcrowding of the state’s opposition front may mar its chance of
breaking the ruling coalition’s chokehold over the state.
Puyok said the opposition must consolidate its strength and ensure
straight fights in all seats to avoid splitting the opposition vote.
But this, he said, may not be possible with political maverick Datuk
Jeffrey Kitingan, the younger brother of Pairin, and his State Reform
Party (STAR) in the battle.
The veteran politician, known for having jumped at least six times
from one party to another, has indicated his intention to stand in all
seats in Sabah, likely throwing a spanner in the works for Pakatan
Rakyat’s (PR) hopes to ensure straight fights.
Another local opposition party, the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), has agreed to negotiate a power-sharing deal with PR.
“But Jeffrey is famous and he is well-known among the KDM
communities,” Puyok said, adding that the fight for the KDM vote could
very likely be a battle of the Kitingan brothers.
“I think Jeffrey is trying to capitalise on Pairin’s leadership weaknesses. If you look at STAR, Jeffrey is a smart guy.
“He can package his Borneo agenda very well to make it attractive to
the KDM voters and that is why support for STAR is growing every day,”
Puyok added that even with Bumburing’s entry into the opposition, the
fight would still remain between the Kitingan brothers, both of whom
are expected to go neck-and-neck for the Keningau parliamentary seat.
The Malaysian Insider
understands that Bumburing has been tasked with handling the KDM seats
in Sabah to ensure that the community’s support swings to the
opposition, even though the peninsula-based PR is leading the fight.
BN’s dip in popularity among Sabah’s non-Muslim Bumiputeras and
Chinese also does not appear to have hampered Umno, and the coalition’s
leading component is thought to have stayed popular among the state’s
Muslim communities like the Malays and the Bajaus.
The Muslims are said to make up some 60 per cent of Sabah’s 3.12
million population. There are nearly one million registered voters in
Puyok said this was likely because PR, together with the state’s
local opposition parties, lack credible Muslim leaders who could take on
political giants like Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman.
“In PKR, there are only its state chief Ahmad Thamrin Jaini and
leaders like Ansari Abdullah and both are not very popular. Thamrin is
quiet and perceived to be weak so the opposition would not be able to
breach the Muslim territory,” he said.
In Election 2008, BN lost its customary two-thirds parliamentary
majority largely due to significant losses in the peninsula, where it
won just 85 seats while the opposition swept 80 seats.
BN’s saving grace was in Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan where the
coalition trounced the opposition and made a near-clean sweep, winning
55 parliamentary seats to the opposition’s two.
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