ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Sabah Heads to the Polls for Snap State Election

In addition to the perennial question of regional autonomy, the result could play into the ongoing political turmoil in Kuala Lumpur.

By James Chin for
Sabah Heads to the Polls for Snap State Election

The waterfront in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah.

Credit: Flickr/Jason Thien

Tomorrow, voters in the Malaysian state of Sabah will go to the polls for a snap election. This is the country’s first real election since the sudden regime change in Kuala Lumpur back in February, when the Pakatan Harapan government (PH) fell from power. Indeed, the collapse of PH and the formation of the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, is what led directly to this snap election in Malaysia’s easternmost state.

To recap, Sabah’s incumbent Warisan Sabah government was allied to the PH coalition, although it was not a formal member. When PH fell apart, Warisan remained rather than join the new PN government. When Mahathir and Anwar split up, there was a suggestion that Shafie Apdal, Warisan’s leader and Sabah chief minister, should be considered as a compromise PM candidate from PH.

This was a landmark moment as no one from East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) had ever been considered for anything more senior than a deputy prime minister post. For decades, East Malaysia has been treated as a peripheral part of the federation and ignored or looked down upon by the political establishment in Kuala Lumpur.

Historical Grievances

What sets Sabah (and Sarawak) apart are historical grievances related to the agreement that established the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. When the federation was created, it was widely understood among the founding leaders that the Borneo states would retain a high level of autonomy, and receive additional funds that would help bring them up to the same level of development as peninsular Malaya. The natives of Sabah and Sarawak were also promised that they would be treated as equal to the ethnic Malays, and thus able to benefit from the extensive affirmative action policies put in place to support Malays and other indigenous peoples, known collectively as bumiputeras.

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None of this happened, and in fact, for the past 57 years, the people in Borneo have felt completely marginalized by Kuala Lumpur. To add insult to injury, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has dominated Malaysian politics since independence, has also decided to “export” its ideology of Malay supremacy and Islamic politics to Borneo. From the 1970s until around a decade ago, thousands of undocumented Filipinos and Indonesian Muslims were unofficially allowed to move into Sabah, causing the indigenous (and largely non-Muslim) population, known collectively as Kadazandusun-murut (KDM), to lose their majority status in the state.

Conventional wisdom suggests that around a third of Sabah’s population are actually foreigners that have been issued Malaysian citizenship to ensure Sabah remains a Muslim-majority state. These anti-federal sentiments are further exacerbated by the inability of the federal government to protect Sabah’s eastern border with the southern Philippines. Just a few years ago, there was a large-scale armed attack from Sulu militants on Semporna. In recent times, Southeast Asian members of the terrorist group ISIS have used Sabah as a transit point when attempting to join their comrades in Sulu.

Anti-Federal Sentiment

As a result, anti-federal sentiment now looms as one of the biggest issues in this weekend’s state election.

Earlier this year, Musa Aman, an ex-chief minister of Sabah, tried to take over the Sabah state government using defectors from the incumbent Warisan-PH administration. Everybody knew that Musa was working on behalf of federal leaders who wanted to take down the Warisan government, since Apdal had allied himself with PH and Mahathir after the fall of the PH government.

Neighboring Sarawak state was already supporting Muhyiddin’s government and Muhyiddin was hoping that if Musa succeeded, he would not have an “eastern” problem. Sabah and Sarawak command 57 of the 222 seats in the Malaysian parliament; therefore, if Muhyiddin was able to ensure that Sabah and Sarawak were controlled by his allies, it would strengthen his political position in Kuala Lumpur considerably.

Warisan’s tagline in this election is basically “Sabah for Sabahans,” arguing that “outsiders” (i.e., Malayans) should stay out of Sabah and that locals should only vote for state nationalists. The Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Malayan-based ethnic Chinese party, is using the Warisan logo in its campaigning, although two of Warisan’s coalition partners – PKR and UPKO – have insisted on using their own logo.

If you think this is bad, Muhyiddin’s PN is in an even worse position. The old Barisan Nasional coalition is also contesting and there have even been clashes between PN and BN candidates. The inability of Muhyiddin to control the PN/BN parties means there is no official chief minister candidate from the PN/BN side. Instead, the posters promoting PN feature a photo of Muhyiddin, although he is not even on the ballot in Sabah.

In fact, this election is such a “free for all” that there are 447 candidates trying their luck, working out to an average of around six candidates per constituency. In some seats, there are 10 or 11 candidates standing.

Interior Mess

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The conventional wisdom is that the Muslims on the east coast of Sabah will continue to support Warisan and Apdal, while ethnic Chinese will throw their lot in with Apdal and the DAP. The real question concerns the KDM seats in Sabah’s forested interior. All reports suggest that the two sides are running neck and neck. One complication is that Sabah has long suffered from what is colloquially known as “heavy rain.” This refers to extensive vote buying on the eve of polling. Indeed, the practice is so widespread that interior voters very often expect to be paid for their vote.

Another permanent problem in Sabah politics is the “katak,” or political frog, which hops from party to party depending on which will best serve their interests. Post-election defections are common, and in fact, this was precisely how the present government was formed in 2018.

The results of the election are expected to be announced before midnight on Saturday. If there is no “heavy rain” tonight, we can expect Warisan to win. But if it rains tonight and tomorrow morning in the KDM areas, then all bets are off.

Implications for Federal-State Relations

The results will have long-term implications for the future of federal-state relations in Malaysia. If Apdal and Warisan win, this will confirm that the most potent political idea in East Malaysia remains state nationalism. This would ensure that politicians promoting the idea of federalism and close ties to Kuala Lumpur will be forced to take back seat.

On the positive side, it might force Kuala Lumpur to address East Malaysia’s historical grievances and broker a deal with Sabah and Sarawak. The only deal available if Warisan wins is more autonomy for Sabah (and Sarawak).

If Warisan loses, then Muhyiddin will be strengthened politically. He needs it desperately, given this week’s proclamation by perennial opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim that he commands the majority necessary to replace Muhyiddin’s government. As they say, nothing succeeds like success. If Sabah falls to PN/BN, Muhyiddin can claim credit – after all, it is his face that is on all the posters in Sabah.

The immediate implication will be for the upcoming Sarawak state elections, which are due to be held before September next year. As in Sabah, state nationalism – “Sarawak for Sarawakians” – is gaining traction on the ground. If Warisan wins, expect to see the same in Sarawak.

James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.