Making sense of the Sabah election

In a crowded field divided into different political camps, it’s good to know what issues Sabahans are concerned about in this election.

The recent study carried out by SEEDS, a local think tank, using descriptive and multi-dimensional methods is a good guide to the issues concerning the state’s population.

The Sabah electorate age groupings show a younger voting population aged 21 to 40 who are internet savvy and likely to rely on social media to make up their minds who to vote for. This will be a challenge for parties that are not prepared for a cyberwar.

While the economy is the biggest concern across all age groups, “pendatang tanpa izin” (illegal immigrants) and the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) top the list of issues.

The interesting part of the survey is that voters perceive MA63 as being related to oil royalties although the constitutional 40% tax provision may bring a bigger revenue stream for the state’s coffers.

According to the report, the solid majority seats are a toss between Warisan Plus and Umno/BN but the local parties will have a fairer chance in the marginal seats.

Sabahans who are tired of a “back door” government and interference by Putrajaya have expressed disappointment that Shafie Apdal was not given a full term to prove himself. While he may garner sympathy votes, Shafie still needs to rise above the slew of criticism for his handling of the economy and his management of the state’s enterprises.

On the back of things, the political scenario in Peninsular Malaysia is still fluid with talk of a possible general election after Sabah’s state polls. Although Malayan parties are competing in the state election, there is a big disconnect between party ideology and leadership choice at the state level. Local branches of Malayan parties are given so-called “local autonomy” while, in fact, the leaders in the peninsula are still pulling the strings. This does not augur well for Sabahans who want to distance themselves from the problems of the federal political scene and their race and religion narratives.

The problem of illegal immigrants is still a big issue with the ethnic population. The Kadazandusun fear that illegals have taken over the state through the issuance of blue ICs, upsetting the demographic balance.

Warisan lost the Kimanis by-election partly because of the federal plan to issue a new “Pas Semantara Sabah” (Sabah Temporary Pass) to illegal immigrants, and Shafie was forced to cancel the proposed issuance of such documents immediately after losing the by-election.

The SEEDS report affirmed the mother of all issues will still be MA63. The promises of revenue and autonomy to manage the state’s affairs have yet to be resolved by the federal government. MA63 surfaces at every election campaign and it will be played up again as an election mantra by competing parties. The ordinary folk may not understand the legal intricacies of MA63 but they clearly understand the promises of revenue since 1963 which are tied to their wellbeing – roads, water, electricity, schools and hospitals.

The Pakatan Harapan government under Dr Mahathir Mohamad negotiated 21 items with the Sabah and Sarawak chief ministers in 2019. Of the 21 items, 17 have been agreed upon, and three others require further study.

Under the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, these negotiated items have been put in the back burner and are now classified under the Official Secrets Act. Sabahans are angry that the PN government has not addressed these issues openly and seek immediate resolution. After 57 years in Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak are still being treated unfairly by the federal government and are still not equal partners.

Some political observers say MA63 won’t be a factor, and this election is about bullying an incumbent who was not given his full term. Along with this thinking, Shafie should be given a fair chance to govern the state. Sympathy and people’s revenge might be a bigger pull factor and cannot be entirely discounted. Shafie is definitely not going in as an underdog this time around, but things can change during the campaign rounds and the choice of candidates can make a difference as other parties gain more ground in the final stretch.

Speculation is rife that the Sabah election could be a game changer for federal politics. Under the current scenario, if Warisan Plus wins a fresh mandate, there may be a possible contagion effect in the Sarawak state election due next year.

Sarawakians will follow Sabah’s cue in shutting out Muafakat National consisting of Umno, PAS and PPBM. Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg, who is Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) chairman, has maintained that Umno will not be allowed to enter Sarawak, describing the GPS ally under the new federal government as “extreme”. He said Umno parliamentarians would harp on religious issues and Malay rights, which are alien to Sarawak.

The recent reports of Petronas’ financial losses will also mean that Sarawak will not get the petroleum sales tax they have been fighting for. This could be a factor that can lead to GPS withdrawing their support for the PN government and triggering its downfall.


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