KOTA KINABALU: Kota Belud is best known as the land of the colourful Bajau horsemen, who are always among the main attractions of state parades in Sabah.
Once a year, visitors will flock there for the Tamu Besar or Grand Market, which features an endless choice of traditional native food and handicraft, plus the never-to-be-missed buffalo race through muddy padi fields.
This is the unique social narrative of the gateway to the Bajau heartland on Sabah’s west coast.
Another striking aspect of this rural town is its long list of political notables.
They include three former chief ministers – the late Datu Mustapha Datu Harun and the late Mohammad Said Keruak – both of whom served as Yang di-Pertua Negeri or governors. Said Keruak’s son is Salleh Keruak, the federal communications and multimedia minister.
Current Dewan Rakyat Speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia is also from Kota Belud.
All of them, at one time or another since Sabah’s first direct election in 1967, have represented Usukan, one of the three state seats in the Kota Belud parliamentary constituency. The other two state seats are Tempasuk and Kadamaian.
The present assemblyman for Usukan is Salleh, who was also made a senator to enable his appointment as a federal minister.
Including Abdul Rahman Dahlan, the Kota Belud MP and current minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, the little town has the unusual distinction of having two serving federal ministers.
Once a dusty cowboy town where the sight of a pony passing along the streets would not have attracted a second glance, Kota Belud has seen rapid development in recent years.
The parliamentary constituency, which is about the size of the state of Melaka, is home to some 93,000 people of various ethnic groups, prominently the Bajau and Illanun in the town and coastal areas, and the Dusun in the interior. It has an electorate of 57,710.
Rahman is now in his second term as Kota Belud MP. He won the seat in 2008 by 3,020 votes and retained it in 2013 by beating his closest challenger, Isnaraissah Munirah Majilis of PKR, with a larger majority of 5,095 votes.
Munirah has since joined Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan) as the local opposition party’s Wirawati chief.
About 58% of the voters here are Muslim Bumiputeras, 40% are non-Muslim Bumiputeras and the Chinese make up the remaining 2%.
According to the Kota Belud parliamentary liaison office, most of the people in the district work in the agriculture and fishing industries.
It is not surprising, given the vast fertile land available in Kota Belud, that the federal and state governments have invested RM1 billion to upgrade flood mitigation and water management systems there. About 10,000 hectares have been planted with padi since 2015.
“In terms of mega projects, Kota Belud has seen 1,000 homes built under the People’s Housing Project and a new bazaar rakyat is under construction.
“Dataran Kota Belud is also a welcome addition to the town centre,” said Rahman.
He added that Prime Minister Najib Razak was expected to visit the constituency to open the Kota Belud Polytechnic soon.
The new polytechnic, a brainchild of the Kota Belud MP, will provide local youths with training in various skills aimed at improving their employment opportunities or giving them a chance to start their own business.
The district has also been chosen to house a segment of the Pan Borneo Highway.
The government has built bypass roads in Kota Belud town and paved the 24km Malangkap Piasau-Gaur road which connects Kota Belud’s Dusun heartland to the main federal road.
But despite these projects, Kota Belud is still fraught with problems such as floods, which have increased in intensity since the 2015 earthquake; low water pressure which affects thousands; lack of road networks, especially in Kadamaian; and a lack of job opportunities.
The flood problem is so severe that last year, more than 2,500 victims had to be evacuated after their homes were inundated following two days of heavy rain.
Sometimes, floods occur even when there is no rain.
This is because debris from the earthquake in Kundasang at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu was washed downhill and deposited in the Kadamaian, Tempasuk and Abai rivers, making them more shallow and prone to overflowing their banks.
To address this problem, the government has resorted to dredging and straightening the Kadamaian and other rivers as a short-term flood mitigation measure.
“There will also be long-term work on the rivers to minimise flooding in the future,” Rahman said.
However, opposition parties have sought to turn this issue to their advantage, claiming that neither Rahman nor Salleh went down to the ground during the height of the flood crisis last year.
Instead, it was the opposition leaders who went out of their way to visit victims in shelters or who were trapped in their homes.
They use this to question the sincerity of the BN leaders in Kota Belud, particularly Rahman, Salleh, and Pandikar.
“Nevertheless, there really is no reason for the people to reject BN this coming election, especially in Usukan and Tempasuk, as the voters in the two seats have remained faithful to BN for decades,” said a BN supporter.
The two seats were initially held by Usno, which was led by Datu Mustapha, but the party was dissolved in the early 1990s to enable its members to join Umno.
There has been talk that Rahman will move to the Sepanggar constituency, replacing the suspended incumbent MP Jumat Idris. Speculation is rife that if Rahman moves to Sepanggar, Salleh will stand in Kota Belud.
But the former urban wellbeing, housing and local government minister said Kota Belud is still “very close to his heart”.
“Do not speculate. I love Kota Belud. It has always been close to my heart. I have many family members living in Kota Belud. I have done my best in the last 10 years,” he added.
Salleh, who was Sabah’s chief minister from 1994 to 1996, believes that “fixed deposit” Sabah will continue to vote for BN because “the people know the party is sincere in delivering development and political stability to the country”.
In the meantime, Pandikar has also made it clear that he is interested in contesting in the coming election. However, he did not say whether he would prefer to stand in a parliamentary seat or state seat.
Kadamaian, a Kadazandusun-Murut-majority area, was won by PKR candidate Jeremy Malajad in 2013, but he left the party soon after winning the seat to join BN component party Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS), led by Joseph Kurup.
The third state seat, Tempasuk, is held by Umno assemblyman Musbah Jamli.