The Politics of Tragedy in Borneo

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The Politics of Tragedy in Borneo

The death of a Malaysian MP has raised the political stakes in Borneo—and will give a glimpse of how popular the govt is.

A tragic motor bike accident in a little known corner of Borneo has the backroom boys in Malaysia's ruling party number-crunching like they’ve never done before.

In some political circles, the death of MP Edmund Chong Ket Wah—who crashed his Kawasaki Superbike into a Mercedes along the Sembulan coastal highway on October 9—in a way could hardly have come at a more opportune time.

Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has already had a tough time holding its own in recent by-elections—all 12 of them—in the aftermath of its poor performance at the 2008 eletion. With then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the helm, UMNO just secured a majority, primarily due to lingering support from the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island.

Before the bike accident, UMNO was already facing a November 4 by-election in Galas, in the West Malaysian state of Kelantan—the heartland of all things Malay. The state seat fell vacant after PAS lawmaker Che Hashim Sulaima died from colon cancer in September. UMNO’s ability to wrest control of the seat from the thoroughly pro-Islamic PAS will provide an insight into how the party is faring among its grass roots constituency.

However, the stakes are now much higher.

Following the death of 54-year-old Chong, another by-election will be held on the same day in Batu Sapi near Sandakan, the former capital of British North Borneo, in Sabah. Chong was a hard working member of parliament and popular family man whose Parti Bersatu Sabah party is allied heavily with UMNO through the Barisan Nasional coalition that formerly governed Malaysia.

A contest for his vacant federal seat will provide the best litmus test yet for current Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government among the broader electorate. Najib challenged and won the leadership from his predecessor amid dissatisfaction with UMNO’s performance and waning public popularity for the party, which has ruled since independence in 1957. In recent months, speculation that Najib will call an early election in the first half of 2011 has increased (after all, Najib wants to stamp his own authority on the government and silence his growing band of critics).

But the grumbles within the electorate have spread from West to East Malaysia and the natives on Borneo have grown restless since the last poll two and a half years ago. East Malaysia holds the bulk of the nation’s natural resources—timber concessions, fishing grounds, palm oil plantations, oil and gas—but locals say they see too little in return for the sale of their assets.

Sabahans, particularly those around Sandakan and the state capital Kota Kinabalu, are now realizing that how they vote could dictate the political course of the country. If Najib is serious about an unprecedented early election then he'll have to poll well in Batu Sapi.

Three opposition parties are expected to vie for the seat and will probably split the vote, which would enable an UMNO-BN victory. But if their combined vote exceeds the total garnered by UMNO’s backed candidate, then Najib would’ve fared badly enough to delay any plans for a national poll.

As one political insider put it, ‘This is promising to be a humdinger of a by-election. No one knows which way this will go.’