The Sabah State Election: Of Frogs and an Election in the Pandemic

I have John Grimley to thank for the idea to write this post. I am at the moment preoccupied with the Malaysian state of Sabah’s election as John had noticed from all my tweets in the past couple of weeks.

This post is intended to be my personal observations of the Sabah state election and I write from my perspective as a fellow Sabahan. Although I now live and work in Kuala Lumpur, Sabah is still home to me. As the saying goes, you can take me out of Sabah but you can’t take the Sabahan out of me.

The state of Sabah: My home state

For those of you reading from outside Malaysia, Sabah is one Malaysia’s 13 states located in North Borneo. Together with another Malaysian state, Sarawak, these states are often referred to as East Malaysia. Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah and is a 2.5 hours flight from Kuala Lumpur. Sabah’s main population is made up of Sabah’s indigenous people with the largest indigenous groups being the Kadazandusun, Bajau and Murut. The Chinese make up the main non-indigenous group in Sabah. Sabah is home to about 4 million people (based on my Google search!).

I personally think that given the racial or ethnic diversity of Sabah, the political scene in Sabah differs greatly from that of West Malaysia. This is why I think Sabahans generally get worked up or upset when we see West Malaysian commentators commenting on the political issues in Sabah as often times, we feel that West Malaysians cannot necessarily relate to our issues.

Why is there a state election during the pandemic?

So, as many of you already know, Sabah is heading for a state election on 26th September 2020. Here’s a brief background of why we’re heading to the polls (from my perspective).

Following the 2018 General Elections, a brief constitutional crisis, political drama with party hopping by several elected MPs, the Sabah Heritage Party (WARISAN) formed the state government with its allies from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and People’s Justice Party (PKR) of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Shafie Apdal became Chief Minister of Sabah replacing Musa Aman of Barisan Nasional (BN) (who was Sabah’s 14th Chief Minister for 15 years!).

On 29.07.2020, it was reported that Musa Aman claimed that he had the numbers to form a new state government. Some news quarters reported that this the result of weeks of “political maneuvering”. It’s just a sexy way of saying “party hopping”.

In response, Shafie Apdal sought an audience with the state Governor to advise him on the dissolution of the State Assembly. Consequently, the state Governor exercised his discretion to dissolve the State Assembly and that is in short, why we’re headed for an election during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Well, that’s me trying to give a neutral & factual answer to why we’re headed for an election at the worst time possible. Here’s my less than neutral view in under 280 characters:

I’m still flattered that I got a response from Musa Aman! Whoever that is managing his Twitter account, thank you!

Musa Aman then challenged the state Governor’s decision to dissolve the State Assembly through legal channels and tried to obtain a court order to suspend the state election. He went all the way to the Federal Court with but failed to stop the state election from proceeding.

The state election is going ahead and in the biggest plot twist in Musa Aman’s bid to return as Chief Minister, his own party dropped him as a candidate!! I like to think I saw it coming when I tweeted this:

An Election and a Tale of Frogs

It’s almost impossible to talk or read about the Sabah election and Sabah politics without seeing references to “frogs” which are what party hoppers are widely referred to in Sabah. Party hopping is not illegal in Malaysia and whilst there had been talks about anti-party hopping laws, party hopping is still very much legal in Malaysia. Even before I can finish this post, it seemed like there is going to be more party hopping at the Federal Government level when Anwar Ibrahim announced that he had enough numbers to form the Federal Government (and of course, be Prime Minister).

Photo credit: Malaysia Kini

I think this election is particularly important because it is also an opportunity for Shafie Apdal to “legitimise” his government and obtain a clear mandate for his party (and its allies) to govern the State. Back in the 2018 elections, neither Musa Aman nor Shafie Apdal had a clear majority to govern the state. As much as Shafie’s party is denouncing the party hoppers who hopped over to Musa Aman’s side, his government was also formed by virtue of party hopping by 6 BN MPs. It is only fair that Shafie and his supporters acknowledge how his government was formed: through party hopping.

In my opinion, this election is absolutely necessary to return the mandate to the people to decide who should be the rightful Chief Minister and who should govern the state. Very simply put, party hoppers betray the people who voted for them. These politicians cannot possibly believe that voters vote for them as individuals as opposed to the party which they represent.

I do believe that Covid-19 aside, heading for the election is the best way to determine who should legitimately govern the state. Power grabs during the pandemic are nothing but selfish and opportunistic moves by people with self-serving interests. I therefore cannot accept the opposition’s cries that no election should be held during the pandemic. Well, in the first place, they should not try to get into power through party hopping during the pandemic!

At least this BN politician calls a spade, a spade

Why is the Sabah state election a big deal?

If I may say so myself, the Sabah state election is a pretty big deal. We just need to look at the stream of Federal ministers who are in Sabah campaigning against Shafie Apdal, his party and his PH allies.

Well, this brings us to another government which is formed through party hopping: Malaysia’s current Federal government!!

It is a no brainer that our Prime Minister is looking to the Sabah state election for a glimmer of hope that should he calls for snap polls, he and his allies will be able to garner a majority victory.

This is precisely why I think the Sabah state election is so important to the Prime Minister and his allies. Just look at the number of times they have been in Sabah over the last 2 weeks. I do think that a win in Sabah for BN (and its allies) would be very much comforting for the Prime Minister. He needs that validation too, given the manner in which his government was formed.

However, in recent days, I believe that there is only 1 certainty in Malaysian politics: Uncertainty. Even before I can finish this post, Anwar Ibrahim had made an announcement claiming (again!) to have the numbers to form the government presumably (again) through party hopping. This puts the current Prime Minister’s position in much of a limbo. He may be carrying on business as usual but one can only ask, for how long more?

Some thoughts…

I am a little wary about commenting on the local issues for this election since I live outside Kota Kinabalu most of the year and have pretty much called Kuala Lumpur home. Having been home and being around locals for the last couple of days, I think what I read in the news is just a small part of what this election is to the locals.

As an urban voter, I am also conscious of the fact that the urban voters’ issues are always going to differ from those living in the interior parts of Sabah. So, I can only speak from my own personal experiences and views, albeit currently somewhat limited in terms of current issues in Sabah.

One thing that is for sure is that there are strong sentiments against party hoppers amongst the urban voters. Just look at the barrage of “Frogs” related posts, commentaries and over-the-top campaign activities (like roasting frogs!). Warisan is playing up these sentiments well and they seem to have support on this issue.

The irony is always going to be that it is also a little rich for Warisan to be harping on the issue of party hopping when Shafie Apdal’s government was formed through party hopping as well.

That said, I hope this election will give someone a strong and clear mandate to govern the state so much so that it is almost impossible to change the government again by way of more party hopping.

May the best alliance wins!

(Lie: May the alliance I’ll be voting for wins!)

One Reply to “The Sabah State Election: Of Frogs and an Election in the Pandemic”

  1. It does appear that party hopping is creating some level of instability in government, both at the state and federal levels here. Very interesting to read about this and not something I knew about Malaysian domestic politics. Similar types of things have happened elsewhere. Notably, recently in the UK, Tory MP’s opposing Brexit broke with the Tory-led government in voting against key Brexit legislation – and were then denied the whip and lost their seats because they were replaced at the next election as Tory candidates. More distantly, a succession of California State Assembly Members in the mid-1990’s from the Republican Party broke with that party to vote with the Democrats and assumed the leadership of the Assembly in a nearly equally divided lower house of the legislature – resulting in a series of recall elections where those Republicans that did break with the party (and helped maintain Democratic control) were replaced with new Republican members. This created a lengthy period of instability until finally there was a majority with no breakaway members prepared to vote against his or her own party and throw control of the house to the party opposite. Interestingly, this sort of behavior appears to be common in Malaysia’s state and federal legislatures – making instability the norm rather than the exception.

Leave a Reply