Matunggong won’t be ‘lent’ to Umno, but what now for PBS?

Cracks are beginning to appear in the walls of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) fortress and the fixed deposit state of Sabah ahead of nomination day.

Umno’s dominant style of politics can sometimes ruffle the feathers of BN partners. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s recent visit to Matunggong is a good example of Umno’s overreach, which caused a near mutiny by PBS.

In the presence of PBS president Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Zahid chided deputy president Maximus Ongkili for the party’s poor performance in GE13.

He said the Kora Marudu seat was won with only a small majority of 842 votes, and that the Matunggong seat was lost to a PKR candidate by 320 votes.

PBS contested 13 state seats in GE13 and won seven, the party’s worst election results so far.

Zahid then suggested that the Matunggong state seat be “lent” to Umno to contest in GE14.

However, Ongkili said the suggestion was uncalled for and had caused great unhappiness among the PBS grassroots, with some members urging the party to fly its own flag in the upcoming election.

Following a meeting with PBS Supreme Council members, Ongkili said the matter was solved due to the intervention of Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman. But was the matter really solved, or just swept under the carpet for the time being?

Musa, trying to calm the situation, said PBS would continue fielding a candidate for Matunggong in GE14. He said Matunggong had always been a traditional PBS seat and that the position and role of every BN component party must be respected and acknowledged.

But the public dressing down of Pairin and Ongkili was humiliating, and internet chatter was not kind. Social media users were up in arms, saying Umno should be kicked out of Sabah as the party had shown no respect to their “Huguan Siou” (Kadazandusun paramount chief).

Zahid’s call was highly unusual as such suggestions or requests are usually done in closed-door meetings and through consensus.

Sabah’s opposition parties have long complained that they cannot make their own decisions on the appointment of chief ministers and other key state appointments without the approval of Kuala Lumpur. It seems they must refer to Umno, BN’s dominant partner, for every important decision. Zahid’s suggestion that Matunggong be loaned to Umno is seen as just another example of the party’s dominance.

Opposition parties in Gabungan Sabah want West Malaysian parties to stay out of Sabah politics and leave state affairs to Sabahans. Warisan, the dominant opposition party in Sabah, has managed to keep Pakatan Harapan (PH) parties out of local politics through an “understanding” and has forged an electoral pact with state PKR and DAP leaders.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg meanwhile has repeated his predecessor’s pledge to keep Umno out of Sarawak for as long as he is in office. Many East Malaysians see this as a brave move as they feel that Umno’s brand of politics has contributed to the rise in racial and religious tensions.

Clearly, BN is worried that PBS won’t carry its weight in GE14. Zahid’s remarks reflect how tough this election is going to be for the coalition. He has said that being “hard-headed” will cause BN to lose the constituency.

“We cannot afford to have problems in this final phase. We know the sentiment on the ground through empirical research,” he said.

Zahid’s suggestion that Matunggong be loaned to Umno may have been prompted by the downtrend in PBS popularity. And Zahid is right to be concerned about the party’s performance. PBS, the biggest Kadazandusun party in the state, once controlled the government. But over the years, the lacklustre performance of its top leadership led to the exodus of many senior party members. Ongkili has had a difficult time filling Pairin’s shoes and has never had any real impact on the national stage.

Warisan is now the party to watch, as it gives hope to Sabahans who want change and the implementation of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63). Warisan events start with detailed explanations of the clauses in MA63 and the rights of Sabahans that were said to be taken away by the federal government.

It’s not as simple as it used to be, where politicians could just hand out blue water tanks, bags of rice with the BN logo, and more BR1M. Opposition parties are now teaching the rural voters to take whatever is given by BN but to vote for the opposition.

But whether Warisan’s strategy works remains to be seen, and we should not dismiss BN’s ability to win the coming election.

Shafie, the leader of Warisan, is not a political novice. His soft-spoken demeanour is well received by the people, and he seems to be welcomed wherever he goes. Many say he is a formidable opponent who has the inside scoop on Umno’s political strategies as the party’s former vice-president and a one-time federal minister.

For PBS, it must bite the bullet and plod on as this will likely be its last election with the “Hugan Siou” at the helm. If it loses big as it did in GE13, it will be the end of the road for PBS and the Kadazandusun hopes of maintaining status quo in Sabah politics.

Joe Samad is an FMT columnist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.