After the guilty Najib Razak SRC International verdict on July 28th, political attention in Malaysia quickly turned East, to the state of Sabah, where after a 24-hour sleepover standoff on July 29th/30th and intense political pressure from Kuala Lumpur, the state’s Governor Juhar Mahiruddin consented to Chief Minister Shafie Apdal’s request for state elections.
These elections should be held within the next couple of months, likely after the politically-charged September 16th Malaysia day. This state contest both reflects and shapes national power.
The failed takeover that preceded Juhar’s consent to new elections showcases the limits of federal influence of Malaysia’s most insecure national government – Perikatan Nasional, led by Muhyiddin Yassin. The prime minister and his key ally, Sabah’s former strongman chief minister Musa Aman, failed to win control of the state through defections and political deals. This move would have shored up Muhyiddin’s political base in national parliament and both symbolically and substantively showcased him as ‘being in control’. Instead, it did the opposite.
This ‘front door’ move (aiming to walk directly into the Governor’s residence) was in the works for months but gained traction after 46 corruption-related charges against Musa Aman were discharged in June. While money did play a role in the changing political alliances (with unconfirmed reports on social media claiming as much as RM20 million was offered to woo defectors), it was the promised positions and perceived political security that were the main drivers of realignments; Sabah frogging has always been about safe landings for a secure income in a context riddled with insecurities.
Two factors contributed to its failure – heavy-handed federal mismanagement of political pressure on Sabahans that included reports of visits by senior federal ministers (which backfired) and over-reliance on Musa Aman, who has his own baggage and ultimately served to harden opposition to his leadership even as he managed to get the numbers to form a state government.
The Sabah debacle showcases the symbiotic relationship between federal and state power, which has been enhanced in this era of coalition politics and backroom deals. States have increased power to shape national contests through loyalties in parliament, shoring up tenuous alliances and access to patronage at the state level. Without positions at the state level being bartered to consolidate national power, the PN government would not have been possible.
Traditionally, the federal government has dominated negotiations and state leaders have bowed to their greater financial and sanction powers, but the failed Sabah takeover shows this is no longer the case. The Borneo states in particular have greater autonomy and have savvily wielded the levers at their disposal – in this case Shafie’s closer ties to the Governor.
Events in Sabah have two additional important national spillovers. Foremost, they are shaping the two main national coalitions. With Najib’s guilty verdict, the never officially formed/registered PN coalition was formally rejected; it has for months been quietly informally been opposed as a vehicle for the next general elections. Most of UMNO in particular are not comfortable working with Bersatu, which is their competitor and comprises of many who left the party behind.
Muhyiddin has failed to convince UMNO and PAS to move away from their preferred relationships, the Muafakat Nasional PAS-UMNO partnership and the still (barely) alive Barisan Nasional coalition that was ousted from national power in 2018. Sabah tests the PN allies further. Though Musa is officially UMNO, his loyalists are now part of Muhyiddin’s Bersatu, while UMNO Sabah has distanced itself from Bersatu-tied leadership.
UMNO state chairman Bung Moktar Radin openly stated UMNO was not part of the state takeover bid – which is accurate as it does not have the seats at the state level to make a difference. Sabah’s state polls are now a test in the competition for power between Bersatu and UMNO. It will place tension on an already frayed post-Najib verdict relationship. Resources (which is wealthy Musa Aman’s main advantage) may win the day, but not without fragmentation.
Pakatan Harapan will also face tensions, as here too relations have been tested. There is the view that Anwar Ibrahim’s party was the most disloyal to Shafie Apdal, reinforced by the fact that some of the defectors were from his party.
PKR has long been divided – and, frankly, mismanaged – in Sabah, and this has been heightened after the Sheraton move. A closer look shows that the most defections at the state level came from Warisan (10 out of 14). In fact only two (out of the three) PKR assemblypersons defected.
These numbers ultimately gave Musa the majority advantage he wanted but was not the largest share of jumping. Nevertheless, the sentiment persists that PKR defections were about payback for Shafie’s challenge to the leadership of PH. While PH seat negotiations for the state elections are already underway, it will be difficult to see a working PH coalition given the current distrust. Keep in mind Warisan remained independent from PH parties during the 2018 election and will want to retain its greater autonomy to tap into the state’s strong nationalist sentiments.
The end result is this: At the state level both PN and PH will be deeply challenged to present a candidate list that does not include multi-cornered contests. Seat negotiations will not be easy and will accentuate fragmentation at the national level. Parties may go it alone in the Sabah polls rather than under clearly demarcated coalition umbrellas.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, Sabah dynamics will shape national leadership. A victory in Sabah strengthens Shafie’s claim to national leadership among PH parties. His standing up for holding elections, giving power back to the electorate, has already been lauded as the right thing to do.
Muhyiddin on his part needs Shafie to lose, as he needs his own allies at the national level. He is looking to Sabah to strengthen Bersatu, and to strengthen himself politically. It will be an uphill battle given the fragmented and competitive landscape of Sabah.
For ordinary Malaysians looking for easy answers amidst Sabah’s political complexities, these answers may not be so clear. Arguably, Sabah is the most fluid political state electorally, with personalities and money traditionally overshadowing party loyalties in voting, a large share of swing and younger voters, and considerable disgruntlement among voters for all contenders. Sabahans, however, have more power than they have ever had to determine Malaysia’s political future.
BRIDGET WELSH is currently an Honorary Research Associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (Unari), based in Kuala Lumpur. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies, a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Centre. Her writings can be found at bridgetwelsh.com.
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