Is a new political party what Sabah needs?

Shafie, second left, Darell, right, with Jaujan Sambokong of Sulabayan and Loreto Padua, a former LDP sec-gen before he was removed.
Shafie, second left, Darell, right, with Jaujan Sambokong of Sulabayan and Loreto Padua, a former LDP sec-gen before he was removed.

So Darell Leiking is leaving PKR for a brave new venture with Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal. The thing is, if you’ve followed Sabah politics long enough, new party-forming might seem to be a Sabahan pastime.

Way back in the 80s, it was just so hard to keep track of all the new splinter parties that would keep popping up to represent this splinter group and that splinter group.

The joke was that whatever new party would form, Jeffery Kitingan would somehow manage to be a part of it. New parties, old faces; that was the merry-go-round of Sabah politics once upon a time. Then Umno entered Sabah and Sabah-based parties began losing relevance. Until now, that is.

Sabahans who have endured the tumultuous local politics of the 80s and 90s, the bomb threats and Tun Dr Mahathir’s beggaring of the state, will likely be very cynical about this new entity. You can’t blame them, really. As I see it, the party’s formation makes sense on paper but I foresee it running into quite a few problems.

Growing parochial sentiments

While Sabah politicians have not displayed as much fervent state-ism as their neighbours in Sarawak, there has been enough grumbling in the grassroots for BN to have cause to worry.

Despite all the promises and our prime minister’s frequent visits to the state, Sabah remains one of the poorest states in the country.

It’s the 21st century and still there are villages without piped water or easily accessible electricity; schools built in derelict shacks and precious few employment opportunities.

What we do have are traffic jams, ill-advised vanity projects that harm our environmental treasures and the residual effects of Project IC, where non-citizens have somehow attained instant citizenships whereas foreign spouses struggle to even get PR.

A new non-racially aligned party with no roots in the Peninsula (we’re looking at you, Umno/DAP/PKR) could tap into local grouses far better than some party formed in the best interests of Orang Malaya.

Old walls to climb

Some divides are still hard to get over, however. What few people understand about Sabah politics is that despite the tolerance exhibited in the state, religious tensions pervade much of local politics.

It is difficult trying to manage the fears of the non-Muslim community and Muslim community who often feel one is trying to undermine the other. This fear of marginalisation has led to politics in the state being a zero-sum game; it’s either me or you and no in-between.

This religious tension is not a particularly violent one, which is why it is difficult for West Malaysians to understand. There are no threats of Molotov cocktails or pigs’ heads thrown about; one reason being that intermarriage happens frequently enough that it is rare for Muslims not to have non-Muslim relatives and vice-versa, via blood or marriage.

Non-Muslims do not believe that Muslims will respect their rights; fears that Umno has done little to pacify in the state. The prevailing rhetoric among Malaysian Muslims, whatever side of Malaysia they’re on, is that only Muslims can ensure equitable treatment of Muslims.

Leiking and Shafie have their work cut out for them alright as they will need to persuade not just politicians but local communities into moving past old fears.

Home town advantage

Still if this new Sabah party manages to form a solid, working organisation with less infighting and unnecessary drama, it could have a decent chance.

A frequent criticism of Peninsula-based Opposition parties is that they often focus on issues that locals do not resonate with. I’m sorry, PKR, but Sabahans generally do not care about Anwar.

Sabahans want more jobs, more job security, a bigger share of the prosperity pie, an end to the punishing cabotage policy and being treated less like sideshow attractions for the purpose of tourism.

We are not interested in silly concepts such as Bangsa Johor; we’re perfectly fine acknowledging who our tribal ancestors are, thanks.

It’s not about state pride but about state rights — reclaiming what was promised to us when Sabah first joined Malaya and getting Sabahans a better deal.

If it takes a new party or several new parties for us to get there, so be it. Just one request, though. Can we dispense with the bombs this time? That’s so 1980s; let’s stick with the usual mudslinging, poison pen letters and suspicious looking voters.

We’ll leave the bombs to the Americans as we know those nuclear codes are definitely going to get used should Donald Trump become president.

  • This is the personal opinion of the columnist, Erna Mahyuni, a Sabahan who works with the MalayMail Online.