International Asia This Week Sabah Elections : Derailed by democracy, development and a distant dimension?

Sabah Elections : Derailed by democracy, development and a distant dimension?

Letter from Kuala Lumpur

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The well conducted, clean and respectable 16th Sabah Elections ended peacefully on September 26 on a decisive note. The COVID-19 pandemic was a definite dampener but rather impressively only a third of the electorate did not show up to vote. They probably had good reasons, including fears of a coronavirus infection, for not participating in the election.

There were no clear winners or losers. The election was an anticlimax. Its results did not create a deadlock but two warring peninsula-backed and inspired political parties decided to bury the hatchet temporarily thus clinching for their parties a strong negotiating caucus.

A small Sabah party, PBS, which is somewhat affiliated to both these parties at the federal level provided the vital six seats required to give this post election alliance a simple majority in the Sabah Legislative Assembly.

The results were surprising for several reasons. The election was forced on the state by UMNO leaders largely but UMNO failed to muster the numbers to clinch the chief ministership. The failure of UMNO to secure the chief ministership is a matter of controversy. It was one of the factors preventing an early closure of this election. It may have wide repercussions affecting the stability of the Muhyiddin Government.

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The expectation in some quarters was that the then incumbent chief minister Dato Seri Shafie Apdal would emerge as the clear winner. His Warisan Plus coalition won a high number of 29 seats, but fell short by nine seats to attain a simple majority.

What was commendable about the Warisan Plus campaign was their high minded and clear messaging that they were dedicated to developing the state and the nation, and not any particular race, religion or region. This was a refreshing message seeking overarching unity and one that transcended the division, some of it artificial, created in a peaceful and harmonious plural society.

These divisions, sometimes superimposed from peninsular perspectives, aggravated whatever ethnographic variations that were native to Sabah.

From the results it is obvious that while Warisan’s message had the greatest outreach both within and without Sabah, yet it failed to perhaps resonate with half the Sabah electorate. That message was perhaps not communicated convincingly, creatively and effectively. It is also likely that that message, for all its motherhood magnanimity, had to compete with several other overtures by almost eleven candidates, in some instances, who represented the widest cross section of the diverse Malaysian and Sabah society.

Voting itself became a rather complicated and tricky exercise as voters, like examination candidates, had the option to provide only one answer to a rather confusing objective test. The various political parties also represented particular personalities and sometimes platforms that seemed identical rather than opposed, nuanced or very different. Some of these personalities were proxies for peninsular political entities and interests.

Key Role of PM Muhyiddin

The classic non contestant in the election but whose election poster portrait was apparently ubiquitous was Prime Minister Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin. He was campaigning also against another peninsula based party, Barisan Nasional of which he himself had been a component until July 28, 2015.

There seemed to be a pitched battle of peninsular proxies in at least 17 constituencies. Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s Prihatin handouts well before the election gave his campaign some gravitas.

An interesting outcome of the election was that the path for the most likely candidate to become the chief minister of Sabah was never clear. There were many opinions on who was most qualified on the basis of seats secured by particular political parties.

According to some interpretations of the Sabah constitution the position of chief minister should have been offered to Dato Seri Shafie Apdal whose Warisan Plus coalition managed to win 29 seats, the single largest block of seats. This is also an issue that will continue to generate some disquiet and discussion.

A new chief minister, Dato Seri Hajiji Mohd Noor of the Prime Minister’s Bersatu (Indigenous) party was sworn in on Tuesday, September 29. Hajiji has consistently emphasised the quality of Sabah society as one that is multicultural, multi religious and one that is historically inclusive. Since assuming the post of chief minister he has stated that his current focus was on reviving the economy of Sabah.

Sabah, like the rest of Malaysia, has taken a horrendous hit from the current Covid-19 pandemic. Sabah has also suffered from a sharp loss of revenue from a depressed global economic and trade situation particularly in the travel, hotel, entertainment and leisure sector due to lower tourist arrivals.

One distinct feature of Hajiji’s government is that in spite of the declaration of it’s inclusiveness there is an absence of any notable office holder from the Chinese community. From the early 1960s Sabah has always had senior ministers including chief ministers drawn from that important community.

There was Dato Khoo Siak Chew and Peter Lo in the early days of Malaysia. Hajiji should consider addressing this matter so as to reflect better the inclusiveness of his new government. If this matter is not addressed Hajiji’s government may become somewhat of a reflection of the current federal government under Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin which, with its affiliation to PAS, is seen as the country’s most Islamic and Malay government both in composition and conduct.

The Muhyiddin Government has, for instance, passed legislation making it mandatory for drunk drivers to do prison time and also pay a hefty fine. Drunk driving is hardly the country most serious traffic or criminal issue in Malaysia. But these harsh sentences perhaps help bolster the Islamic and pseudo Arab credentials of some members of the current government.

Sabah’s Poverty Rate

In the aftermath of this election there are renewed rumblings in several circles about the relatively high poverty rate in resource rich Sabah in comparison with the states in the peninsula. Fifty-seven years after the formation of Malaysia there is a genuine sense of grievance that Sabah has been left out of the rapid development and successful poverty eradication programmes that have benefited the peninsula.

Shafie Apdal’s public pronouncements on this issue in the run up to this last election still linger in the air, not only in Sabah but also in Sarawak and the peninsula.

The new chief minister Hajiji has, in this respect, his work cut out for him. Obviously the poverty eradication measures of the past five decades have not produced their desired objectives in Sabah. Peninsular Malayasia had from the early pre-independence days devised strategies to address issues of poverty and landlessness among certain communities. Some progress has to be made in this area as it could turn out into an explosive matter.

In the early 1960s Sabah was disadvantaged by some leaders who behaved like garrulous absolute monarchs than as representatives of the people. One known as the Black Prince of Borneo was noted for his jet set profligacy and spurned love trysts. Sabah only got down to some real and serious governance a dozen years after independence.

Distracted National Leadership

By way of comparison the peninsula enjoyed an extremely competent development focus, governance and accountability for the first quarter century of its independence.

By the late 1980s the country had settled into a kind of complacency and conflation about its place in the world. Malaysians began hearing more about Antarctica than about Lubok Antu because its leader succumbed to grandiose notions of his global standing. He took on an extensive travel agenda, extrapolated and explored potentials for various kinds of tutelage that he felt Malaysia could provide to the Third World.

As a result the country was distracted from real and pressing issues at hand. The national leadership invested inordinate capital on a so-called Vision 2020 when attention was needed on a changing economic realities and demographics. More attention was given to Bosnia than to the Borneo bailiwick. The reality was that the country had enjoyed some attractiveness and almost full employment because MNCs favoured the country for the quality of its political stability, cheap semiskilled labour, good infrastructure and low operating costs.

These advantages dissipated over time as other countries including China and Vietnam could provide highly trainable labour forces at much more favourable rates. Today Malaysia is at a difficult crossroad with wild and valid laments about its poor education system, overemphasis on state involvement in religion, unemployability of its University graduates and massive skyscrapers which have trouble finding tenants.

The focus on constructing brick, steel, cement and glass structures with imported labour was overdone. The building of good character, skill sets, maintenance of old buildings and resilience appear to have been sidelined in the construction and Arabisation boom of the past four decades.

With the global leadership role assumed by Malaysia two principal components of the country, Sabah and Sarawak were also left to their own devices. There is an increasingly deeply felt sense of misgiving that Sabah and Sarawak would have been better off had there been regular flows of development allocations, monitoring and advice on good governance.

The peninsula had some of its strengths intact till the first decade of the present century. Then a new leader emerged to squander its reputation on dubious investment strategies in foreign lands.

These investments were entrusted to a young upstart whose claim to fame came from hobnobbing with film celebrities and playing a high roller role in casinos in the United States. Two years prior to the utopian 2020 it dawned on most educated Malaysians that the country was saddled with unsustainable debt obligations and had lost its moorings and competitiveness on account of its skewed education system, low quality of its universities and pervasive corruption.

Some 40 years earlier an eminent sociologist, Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, had presciently warned of elite corruption and captive minds in the highest levels of society. Elite corruption includes illicit payments, liaisons moral decay, cronyism and an inflated sense of impunity.

This warning by Professor Alatas was largely ignored and any reset of the current impasse with pervasive corruption seems improbable. This digression was necessary to place Sabah in the context of the current situation.

A Difficult Environment

Malaysia’s growing debt service obligations , the relative underdevelopment of Sabah and Sarawak, falling oil and gas prices and the long term adverse impact of Covid-19 coupled with a shaky possibly unstable government are some of the issues that will condition the work of any new Sabah government.

The calm that has settled in Sabah after this last election seems to be a surreal one. Only when there is full closure of the concerns and conclusions of the election can it be said that Sabah is on the mend. Sabahans, like their counterparts in the peninsula, are speculating on the tenacity and permanence of the Hajiji Government.

Frogs And Horse Trading

Undoubtedly the most used word in the electoral vocabulary of Malaysia since Tan Sri Muhyiddin assumed office in early March is ‘frogs,’ a term applied liberally to those elected officials of a particular political party who switch allegiance to a new political heavyweight in hopes of higher public office.

It is this party hopping feature that partly accounts for the high 70 strong lineup of ministers and deputy ministers in the Muhyiddin administration. In addition every government backbencher is given chairmanships or directorships of parastatals, SOEs and regulatory and promotional bodies.

The consequence of this co-option of elected political officials is that the leadership of key government affiliated agencies which have rather specialised public sector roles and responsibilities has passed from the hands of competent technocrats and experts to those politicians who prioritise private and party related interests over public concerns.

Given the dismal economic and investment environment prevailing with the COVID-19 pandemic it is perceived that the current government is thus not prioritising meritocracy, transparency and good governance practices over the creation of sinecures. This is a drag on any government.

Sabah has to be careful in this regard. It has to identify its own best sons and daughters to manage its inheritance and also renegotiate some of the generous concessions granted previously to the federal government. Some equilibrium has to be achieved to ensure that Sabah is eventually on the path to a more equable and equitable future. It has to start with recognising, accepting and treating every Sabahan as a full and equal citizen of Malaysia.

Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador

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