Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

SABAH AND SARAWAK: The More Things Change the More They Remain the Same

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

SABAH AND SARAWAK: The More Things Change the More They Remain the Same

Article excerpt

James Chin

Politics in East Malaysia is different from Peninsula Malaysia --- both in terms of content, motives, and rhetoric. The different history, culture, and ethnic configurations ensure that politics in both states are dictated more by local factors than the simple Malay-non-Malay; Muslim-non-Muslim dichotomy found in peninsula politics.

Sabah The two main features of Sabah politics have been political patronage and shifting loyalties. Those in power commonly use the state's natural resources, especially the awarding of timber concessions and business opportunities to loyal supporters and financial backers, to cement political ties. Another feature has been the rapid shifting of electoral loyalty. The ruling party in Sabah usually holds office for roughly a decade before being rejected by the voters. In the 1970s Sabah politics was dominated by Mustapha Harun and his party, the United Sabah National Organisation (USNO). Mustapha ruled Sabah as an autocrat from 1967 to 1975 before he was rejected by the electorate in favour of "Berjaya" also known by its full name as Parti Bersatu Rakyat Jelata Sabah (Peoples Racially-United Front of Sabah). Berjaya's rule lasted until 1985, when it was dislodged by Parti Besatu Sabah (PBS, or Sabah Unity Party). The PBS government lasted until 1994, when defections caused its downfall.1 Since then, Sabah has been ruled by a Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. The predominant ethnic group in Sabah is the Kadazan-Dusun (18.4 per cent), followed by Bajau (17.3 per cent), and Malays (15.3 per cent). The Chinese constitute only about 11 per cent of the population.

Coalition Pains The year 2003 started with the replacement of six community development leaders by representatives of PBS which rejoined the Sabah BN the previous year but did not get any political posts in government for a year as part of its rehabilitation process. The PBS-6 replaced United Pasok Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO) and Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) representatives. All three parties --- PBS, UPKO, and PBRS claim to represent Kadazan-Dusun political interests and the move to appoint PBS representatives caused ripples within the coalition. The UPKO and PBRS leaders protested directly to Kuala Lumpur over the appointments but to no avail.

This minor upheaval signalled the start of a much bigger contest --- to find a replacement for the state's Chief Minister. Chong Kah Kiat's term under the unique "rotating Chief Minister" system was up. The unique rotation system, devised by then Prime Minster Mahathir Mohamad in the heat of campaigning for the 1994 Sabah state election, gave opportunity to leaders from the three major political groupings --- Muslim bumiputeras (MB), Chinese and non-Muslim bumiputeras (NMB) --- turns to lead the state government for a two-year duration. Mahathir's offer was a key reason why the BN was able to win significant support from the Chinese and NMB voters in 1994. While the rotation system gave the NMB and Chinese communities a chance to be in the top political job, in practice it was problematic. The two-year term was simply too short for any leader to carry out long-term plans and created confusion in the bureaucracy. Every two years a new leader would emerge, bringing with him hundreds of new political cronies and appointees, and new policy directions. The system had also produced the largest number of living ex-chief ministers among all the states in Malaysia --- six. Three are serving in the state cabinet.

This arrangement was heavily criticized by Sabah UMNO, which has the largest number of representatives in the Dewan Undangan Negri (DUN, or State Legislative Assembly). Sabah UMNO had every right to demand the chief ministership exclusively. In 2001, after intense lobbying by Sabah UMNO, Mahathir modified the system to 2:1:1; that is, Sabah UMNO would get two terms (four years) while the Chinese and NMB would get one term each. …

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