Kingmakers: Will Sabah and Sarawak decide the polls?

Sabah and Sarawak once more hold the key to the various sides’ chances of victory in the coming polls. But what exactly do they want for themselves? Political analyst PROF JAMES CHIN takes a look at the sitch in the East.

WITH polling for the 15th general election (GE15) less than 3 weeks away, things are set to get heated in Sabah and Sarawak. In fact, top politicos from the peninsula have already flown in and attempted to show they care. This, despite the Bornean states having long been sidelined by Malaysia’s decision makers.

Sabah and Sarawak currently account for 57 or 25% of the 222 seats in the Malaysian Parliament. So the simple truth is that they’ll be crucial both in helping the winning side form a government as well as ensuring whoever rules has the support of a sizeable majority in the Dewan Rakyat.

What needs to be pointed out, however, is that, at present, there is no way a single party or coalition can win all the seats in Sabah or Sarawak. 

Even Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the coalition of parties which governs Sarawak, isn’t expected to win all 31 parliamentary seats on offer in that state.

The same is true in Land Below the Wind, although the situation there is a lot messier. They don’t call Sabah the “wild west” for nothing.

MA63 and the future of Sabah and Sarawak

Attack and Bloc

The contest in Sabah, as it stands, is ostensibly a 4-horse race; with Pakatan Harapan, Parti Warisan Sabah, Barisan Nasional, and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) acknowledged as the main players. Nevertheless, what complicates matters somewhat is that Perikatan Nasional parties are part of the ruling GRS, which is also allied with BN.

Officially, thus, GRS and BN govern Sabah together. Yet, there’s been tension too. So, expect to see crowded fields come nominations, with GRS and BN candidates perhaps even contesting against each other in certain constituencies .

The opposition is also far from united. 

In fact, Warisan has been constantly attacking Sabah PH over the past weeks, even as it moots the forging of a “Borneo Bloc”, comprising all Sabah (and Sarawak) parties. 

Warisan’s hope is that it wins enough seats so that it can have a say in the formation of the next federal government. However, to achieve this aim, it must win between 15 and 20 seats, a majority of Sabah’s 25 parliamentary seats plus a few on the peninsular. Warisan is planning to field about 10 candidates in Peninsular Malaysia.

Is that idea crazy? Maybe. But the record shows that GPS, with 19 MPs, managed to hold the last 2 federal governments to ransom, so to speak. As such, if Warisan can win a sizable number of seats, it plus GPS can form a formidable bloc to stand against the peninsula.

The reality, however, is that this dream of Warisan’s is contingent on it winning big. Anything less and it will be ignored by both peninsula parties and GPS.

Incidentally, GRS has also proposed the formation of a “Borneo Bloc”. However, in GRS’s version, Sabah BN and PH parties would be required to reconstitute themselves as Sabah-based parties and join GRS, before then combining forces with GPS.

This version of the Bloc, however, may be impossible to achieve given the personality-driven politics of Sabah. Moreover, Sabah Umno, Sabah BN’s lead party, is unlikely to want to fold it in so long as its parent party remains a key player at the national level.

The reality, however, is that this dream of Warisan’s is contingent on it winning big. Anything less and it will be ignored by both peninsula parties and GPS.

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Calm waters


While Sabah’s politics are constantly shifting in terms of names and personalities, the situation remains relatively calm in Sarawak.

GPS’s stranglehold on Sarawak was confirmed in last year’s state election when it won 76 of 82 seats. That’s 92%. So, the coalition is super confident heading into GE15. 

Also, unlike in Sabah, GPS doesn’t have to worry about BN. Reason being there is no BN in Sarawak.

Bersatu, PN’s anchor party, does hold 2 seats, however. But GPS has made it very clear to Muhyiddin Yassin and co. that they’re not welcome in Sarawak. 

GPS, as such, finds itself in a unique position, where it has been part of the federal government and worked closely with both PN and BN but rules the roost at state level, with its 2 Putrajaya partners viewed as frenemies. In other words, political friends at the federal level, but enemies at state level politics.

The opposition, like in Sabah, nevertheless, is divided. 

Essentially, there are 2 oppositions: local parties, such as Parti Sarawak Bersatu (PSB) and Parti Bumi Kenyalang (PBK), and national PH parties, like PKR and DAP. And the 2 groups have been unable to find common ground. This means there are likely to be multi-cornered fights in most constituencies in the coming polls; a fact that will, no doubt, present GPS with a clear advantage.

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Harvesting carrots


A key issue over the 2 previous GEs centred on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) and East Malaysia’s quest for more autonomy from Putrajaya. This remains the case in GE15, even though the Federal Constitution was amended last year to explicitly recognise Sabah and Sarawak’s status as founding partners in the federation. 

Many Sarawakians and Sabahans are looking for tangibles following the amendment. And this essentially means more political autonomy and more money. 

For BN, the offer is a deputy prime minister (DPM) each for Sabah and Sarawak. That’s 3 DPMs in total, according to Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. And PH and Anwar Ibrahim have also offered the same deal, albeit with 2 DPMs in total and just a single DPM from either Sabah or Sarawak.

PN, no doubt, will offer a similar deal in the coming days. 

Regardless of the number of deputies, however, the offers so far haven’t generated the sort of buzz Zahid and Anwar might have expected. Reason being voters in the Borneo states see the DPM role as merely symbolic. Furthermore, it’s widely accepted that a deputy’s real power is dependent on the actual ministry he/she is handed to head. 

The big issue, thus, will once more be money, and Sabah and Sarawak’s oil and gas resources. 

Putrajaya is unlikely to ever cede control of the states’ oil and gas, because if it does, Petronas’s revenue would go down the toilet and with it the entire federal development budget.

Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi says BN is offering 3 DPM posts — 1 each for Sabah, Sarawak

The immigrant factor


Yet there will, undoubtedly, again be loud calls for the return of resources. And the opposition will, of course, attack the state government for not doing enough to get more cash back.

In both states, meanwhile, another issue that’s likely to be played up is local vs. national opposition. Politics in both states, so the argument goes, should be confined to local parties only. As such, all peninsula-based parties ought to be rejected for kow-towing to Peninsular Malaysia leaders.

Additionally, there’s the problem of illegal immigrants, or PTIs. 

This long-standing issue, which affects Sabah, exploded last week when it was revealed that more than half a million new voters have been added to the state electoral roll. In GE14, there were just 1.06 mil registered voters. Yet, this time around, the figure is 1.63 mil.

Undi18 and automatic voter registration has, of course, added a significant number of new voters to the roll. But the increase in voter numbers in Sabah is controversial due to a large spike recorded between 2018 and 2020, before amendments to voter eligibility came into effect. 

Additionally, critics point to a substantial increase in Indian voters, a minority in the state, and the fact that many new names on the electoral roll are registered as Malay, something uncommon among natives in the state. 

The situation has caused uneasiness among many Sabahan voters. And you can expect it to be a key issue come campaigning, what with many Warisan critics and rivals accusing it of being a “PTI party” and friendly to illegal immigrants..

This tactic, incidentally, was used successfully in the 2020 Sabah state election that saw Warisan lose a significant share of the KadazanDusunMurut (KDM) vote due to its PTI-friendly tag.

Yes, national issues like eradicating corruption, regime changes, punishing those involved in the Sheraton move, bringing back political stability, and restoring PH’s 2018 mandate will all be part of the narrative as well. However, at the end of the day, voters in both Sabah and Sarawak are likely to be swayed by personalities, ethnic solidarity, state loyalty, and the most important incentive of all, money politics. 

So, unless there is a political earthquake, it is a foregone conclusion that things will stay pretty much as they currently are, with GPS winning in excess of 20 seats and the vote being split in Sabah.

The good news, however, is that no matter who forms the federal government after GE15, you can expect a DPM from Borneo. It may be a symbolic appointment but as far as power sharing goes, it’s good for the country.

Putrajaya is unlikely to ever cede control of the states’ oil and gas, because if it does, Petronas’s revenue would go down the toilet and with it the entire federal development budget.

Picture of James Chin

James Chin

JAMES CHIN is Professor of Asian Studies, University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow, Jeffery Cheah Institute, Sunway University)

Follow @jameschin110

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