In the next ten years, development will become the main political issue with different social groups demanding their share of the Sabah growth story.
The clearest evidence that the political paradigm is changing came from Musa Aman’s sweeping victory in the 2008 Sabah assembly elections. He cooked up a storm with a development plank that pushed traditional politics, both of patronage and identity, to the margins of irrelevance and gave him numbers that all political leaders dream of but rarely get.
It was a personal triumph for Musa Aman but the real significance of his win lies in what it says about the emergence of development as a key political issue in today’s Sabah. So when the Sabah 2012 Budget was unveiled, it was the Biggest Ever budget in the history of Sabah and it amounted to RM4.048 billion, recording an increase of RM979.62 million or 31.92% as compared with the 2011 Budget of RM3.068 Billion, and this increase is all to be spent on development of the state. With the economy projected to continue growing at between 5-9% annually over the next decade, there is every reason to believe that development and governance issues will increasingly dominate public discourse with different social groups demanding their share of the GDP pie.
The Barisan National party’s politics of patronage of vote banks had currency in an underdeveloped economy. Race and religion-based identity politics took over as the process of economic and social empowerment began with the opening up of the economy.
Today, after a period of rapid growth, politics is set to enter another phase, which is likely to be defined by battles for a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. The lessons from Sabah are slowly being assimilated. Musa Aman’s mastery over the emerging new idiom reaped him huge electoral dividends.
Now Sarawak’s Taib Muhamud is seeking to emulate Musa Aman as he scrambles to set his house in order before the 13th General Elections although he just won the Sarawak state polls, but losing much support in the urban areas. Like Musa Aman next door, he too is concentrating his energies on targeted development projects for marginalized native communities. Dayak villages are at the top of his list, but he is also trying to ensure that roads, electricity, water, schools and primary health care centers reach areas populated by extremely backward natives and minorities.
In fact, Sarawak’s utilization record of funds allocated for development of minority concentration districts is one of the best just like Sabah — almost 60%.
It is important to understand the nature of the development politics taking shape.
It’s not just a simple matter of building roads or providing electricity. The question to which voters are demanding an answer is: development for whom?
Musa Aman’s success lay in the focused manner in which he took development to different social groups to create a wider constituency beyond the narrow race and religion base. This is identity politics of a different kind in which mobilization is not merely on the basis of race and religion but also on economic, gender and age subgroups.
The coming decade will see an acceleration of the factors responsible for altering the political dynamics in the country. The three important ones are the mainstreaming of marginalized social groups, the communications revolution and increasing urbanization.
The biggest success of Sabah democracy has been empowerment of natives and communities that existed outside the social pale. The spread of adult franchise, a series of affirmative steps like communal land titles, a slew of welfare measures and the growth of market forces are changing the feudal nature of social and economic relations. The rise of native-based parties like PBS, UPKO, PBRS and even the spread of Jeffrey Kitingan’s STAR Sabah chapter which is allign to Sarawak’s State Reform Party and Jeffrey’s own UBF (United Borneo Front) which promotes the Borneo Agenda, are all signs that those at the bottom are demanding to be heard.
Besides, increasing connectivity in Sabah and Sarawak has only strengthened the process of empowerment. Mobile phone connections have already zoomed beyond 3 million and are expected to cross 5 million by 2015 in Borneo States, while internet penetration, according to industry estimates, will cross the 60% mark by 2020. It means people in every corner of the Borneo States are rapidly getting connected and acquiring independent means of accessing information. It also means that voters can no longer be fooled by mere rhetoric and empty promises. They want delivery and are acquiring the means to monitor it.
The third factor, urbanization, has the potential to take politics beyond race to include class. More than one third of the population is likely to be living in cities and towns by 2020 and their concerns and issues will be shaped by their urban environment and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, between those who live in gated communities and drive shiny, big cars and those who live in kampongs without basic civic amenities and have to make do with shoddy public transport.
A transforming Sabah means a changing polity. Those who keep pace with the times will emerge as the powerhouses while others will fall behind. The visible process of fragmentation into subgroups, subregions and subcultures gives regional forces an advantage over national parties which have to work with a larger canvas.
Regional satraps like Musa Aman or Taib Muhamud or Pairin Kitingan or even Jeffrey Kitingan (except Jeffrey Kitingan, while the rest who despite belonging to the Barisan National are really regional chieftains) are better connected to the grassroots. They also have the flexibility to knit together an electorally successful social alliance specific to their state without having to worry about the bigger national picture.
The Barisan National was compelled by local Sarawak considerations to allow scam-hit Taib Mahmud to continue as chief minister even as it fought a high-pitched battle over corruption allegations during the recent Sarawak state elections 2011. Taib’s victory underlines the continuing relevance of the satraps.
The Barisan National Sarawak in its glory days was an umbrella party of strong regional leaders. Its decay began when Taib Mahmud started cutting them down one by one till the Chinese based SUPP party stood decimated as can be seen in the recent Sarawak State polls 2011. Today, regional chieftains have created their own political units while Baru Bian and Wong Ho Leng survive in national party like the PKR and DAP only because they have been given almost complete autonomy.
Yet, as Musa Aman understood and as Taib Mahmud seems to be realizing, regional leaders have to expand their political horizons beyond race and religious identities to remain on top. They have to put together broader social coalitions while national parties will have to put aside their dreams of single-party rule and contend with political coalitions to run Putrajaya. This is one reality that is unlikely to go away even as the political frame expands to include issues of development and governance and Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Illegals getting Malaysian Identity Cards to become voters.
Past tense In politics, every player works and waits for a big moment. A real leader emerges when there is perfect harmony between his ideas and the people’s mood. But, at some point, he has to fade away. The leaders who make desperate attempts to cling to their receding turf often face humiliation. Taib Mahmud, once the giant of Sarawak politics, was rejected by the urbanites and even in one or two rural constituencies in the recent Sarawak State Elections 2011.
So, lets see what is there in the cards come the 13th General Election which should take place anytime before March 2013, and, with Anwar Ibrahim now acquitted from sodomy2 charges, things might move quite differently.