Sabah opposition is, for all practical purposes, a collection of four main parties, DAP, PKR, Sabah Star and SAPP including newly formed but not registered Angkatan Perubahan Sabah (APS) headed by Wilfred Bumburing and Pakatan Perubahan Sabah (PPS) headed by Lajim Okin. USNO Baru is also in the fray mobilising support using founder Tun Mustapha’s name, but, its yet to be registered and very unlikely that it ever will.
There is a remark attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to Dr Jeffrey Kitingan to the effect that most Sabah politics is mathematics, a number game. As political analysis goes, this remark proves insightful. Sabah politics is, in this view, not driven by ideology or charisma. It is constituted by the mundane activity of stitching together narrow interest-driven coalitions. And electoral fortunes, for the most part, do not turn on massive changes induced by immense persuasiveness of candidates. They turn on small swings, and contingent management of interests.
But if this political analysis is taken too literally, it can become spectacularly self-defeating. It can make politics a passive waiting game. As opposition parties in Sabah prepare to met and strategise, or assuming they ever will, a plan to commit to one-to-one fights against the Barisan National in the coming 13th General Elections brews.
Pakatan Rakyat in Sabah headed by Anwar Ibrahim has little presence here but it has done well in other PKR states from 2008. Since the last election, it has not expanded its presence in Sabah although the DAP has its footing in the urban areas.
Lest we forget, elections are ultimately about the ability to project credibility.
On the economy, the Pakatan Rakyat states have done well so far. It has given an alternative to old-fashioned UMNO/BN politics, concocting better versions to solutions. In Parliament sessions it had the rulling coalition on the mat for the many economic mess-ups in the last four years.
The most polished personalities in the Sabah opposition scene, Dr Jeffrey Kitingan and Yong Teck Lee, don’t seem to show that they have what it takes to run the state economy like the way Musa Aman has, but has only seem to be harping on the Sabah Rights vis a vis the Malaysia Agreement 1963. They are also simply waiting for the Barisan National Sabah to make more errors to give them a lift. To make matters worse, internally, the Sabah opposition itself is faced with a series of simultaneous equations it cannot solve. The main one is of course the mistrust between Malaya based Pakatan Rakyat and Borneo based Star Sabah and SAPP.
Most commentators assume that the Sabah opposition’s central dilemma is between Sabah Rights and a more centrist position. But, arguably, this is not its biggest dilemma. It will never be able to persuade die-hard antagonists who think that Sabah joining the Federation in 1963 to form Malaysia is a mistake. Regrettable as it might be, it can probably get away with a game of calculated ambiguity, so long as it is not deeply polarising. Its central dilemma is that Malaya does not understand what federalism means for Sabah politics.
If politics has become genuinely federal, then there are implications for how political parties are organised. In an ideal situation, like what we see now in the Musa Aman Government, state-level leaders and units have to believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between them and the leadership in Putrajaya. Association with the Putrajaya leadership enhances the prospects of local units and that’s why we see so much positivity coming from the Musa Aman government today. But if the Putrajaya leadership does not significantly add to the state units’ prospects, or worse still, becomes a liability ( like during the PBS days) then the central high command has little authority over the state. On the other hand, a party composed entirely of state units can have no coherence at the centre, and cannot project itself as a national party, like in Sarawak. This is the basic structural dilemma faced by the Sabah opposition.
It is, for all practical purposes, a collection of four parties; DAP and PKR, (Malaya based), Sabah Star and SAPP (Borneo based). Except for Jeffrey Kitingan and Yong Teck Lee who can be considered local leaders, PKR and DAP does not have anyone except Anwar Ibrahim who isn’t local himself. So the question of who is going to lead the Sabah opposition becomes an issue. To complicate matters, PKR in Sabah is undergoing a leadership crisis. Anwar and his cronies have meddled and presented Azmin Ali, also an outsider, as a solution to a headless PKR in Sabah. Clearly, the Sabah opposition’s problem is that it has no charismatic local leader of any kind to take reign, althogether failing to see that the the average age of its cadres does not reflect new Sabah.
Since Yong Teck Lee’s myopic misjudgment in Bati Sapi Parliamentary by-elections, the Sabah Opposition has been groping in dark for a leader. There is a great clamour for Lajim Okin now however, even if we grant him administrative acumen (not slot-machine acumen!), his ability to give the Sabah opposition a direction is limited. Despite Lajim giving up his RM30,000 salary as a Federal Deputy Minister and resigning as Umno Supreme Council member, Beaufort Umno Division chief and Beaufort BN chairman, justifying his actions by way of an epiphany (Lajim claims, after 18 years, to have come to a realisation that Umno/BN had not done anything for the welfare of Sabahans) still makes him a polarising figure. Lajim has got too much political baggage. He will have to come up with some spectacularly convincing gesture of contrition to be acceptable to Pakatan Rakyat and Pakatan Rakyat’s potential allies in Sabah. There is also a curious and potentially fatal omission in his strategy to make himself acceptable. Sabahans still see him as an UMNO member and Lajim has not made any special initiative to campaign in Sabah. If he is a potential chief minister, his energies would have been directed to mass engagement across the state. He remains a question mark in everyone mind.
The only long-term solution for the Sabah opposition front is to have a serious institutional reform on how they are run. But no incumbent leader wants this and there is the paradox that a leader must first acquire authority to do this within current institutional rules. It is said, with some justification, that any party that wins in Sabah will look a bit like the Barisan National. But the real issue is, which Barisan National: the idea or its debased version?
At the moment, the Sabah opposition is looking more like the debased version: it matches the Barisan National’s petty-mindedness with its own display of small egos. We can debate structural issues to death. The Sabah opposition will get a lot of advice from its faithful on what to do. But the harder issue to come to terms with is this: there is a kind of inchoate lack of will that characterises the Sabah opposition parties, it is as if it is not sincere. Much of its leadership is doing what it does, not because it sees a point to it, but because it does not have anything else to do. This is an ultimate kind of nihilism, politics as casual play, increasingly disconnected with everything around it especially the economy. They are unable to show that if they capture the state they could run it prudently and efficiently like how Musa Aman has, a cash reserve of RM3.3 Billion, and a state budget getting bigger and bigger to a tune of RM4 billion a new record, which was never heard of before Musa Aman.