By Anil Netto
August 24, 2012
PENANG – The defection of two key ruling coalition parliamentarians to the political opposition has shifted Malaysia’s pre-election equation and highlighted the importance of the crucial swing states of Sabah and Sarawak in what is expected to be a neck and neck contest.
Historically a “fixed deposit” of votes for the Barisan Nasional (BN), the coalition that has ruled the country consecutively since independence from colonial rule, Sabah and Sarawak are expected to play a prominent role in the coming general election pitting Prime Minister Najib Razak versus opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
BN won 140 of 222 federal parliament seats at the 2008 elections, a result that saw the Pakatan Rakyat opposition win control of five of 13 federal states. After the recent defections, BN holds 20 of 25 federal parliament seats allocated to Sabah and 29 of 31 in Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
If the recent defections signal a gathering trend away from BN, as some political analysts suggest, the two states have the potential to swing the next general election in favor of the opposition. The present parliamentary term expires in April 2013 and general elections must be held by October, although Najib has the prerogative of calling a snap election at any time.
Opposition leaders recognize that they cannot win federal power without making sharp inroads in the BN’s Sabah and Sarawak strongholds, as well as in Johor and Pahang on the peninsula. There are certain indications, including not least the recent parliamentary defections, that Pakatan Rakyat may be chipping away at the BN’s historical grip on these states.
One of the two Sabah parliamentarians who crossed over recently was reported as saying in an opposition party paper that three more lawmakers may follow suit. Leveraging into rising grassroot sentiments against peninsula-based parties, Pakatan Rakyat leaders have made efforts to cultivate local Sabah-based politicians.
Of the 20 federal parliament seats in Sabah now held by BN, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the coalition’s dominant party, holds 12, with the remainder controlled by BN component parties representing other indigenous and ethnic groups.
Issues that could swing votes in the two states include a large influx of migrants from neighboring countries that has bred resentment among locals, relatively high poverty rates despite Sabah’s rich oil resources, and the rising belief that the country needs a viable two-party system to check official corruption and abuse of power.
Opposition leader Anwar seems eager to exploit the recent defections to spur Pakatan Rakyat’s bid to win the crucial swing states at the next elections and demoralize BN supporters.
An earlier Anwar-led attempt to lure enough parliamentary defections to topple BN in the aftermath of the 2008 polls ultimately failed and raised questions about the credibility of his earlier claims to have sufficient numbers to take power. With the lost political momentum, BN managed through legal maneuvers to seize back control of one of the opposition won states.
This time, however, Anwar is playing his cards closer to his chest. His political supporters have cautioned him about party hoppers whose loyalties may be suspect over the long run. Party stalwarts fear defectors could act as UMNO Trojan horses, who would hop back to BN either during the election campaign period or soon after they had won seats on a Pakatan Rakyat ticket. The recent defections in Sabah, others argue, could be interpreted as a betrayal of the Sabah people’s mandate at the last polls.
BN is not taking the threat lightly, however. Prime Minister Najib, realizing the widespread resentment among many Sabahans over a recent influx of immigrants, including from the neighboring Philippines, has moved to ward off further defections of lawmakers through the announcement of the formation of a royal commission of inquiry to probe the problem.
Allegations of widespread and systematic granting of citizenship and identify cards (ICs) to immigrants surfaced in the early 1990s, soon after UMNO’s entry into Sabah mainstream politics. The irregular citizenship allowances were later dubbed “Project IC” or “Project M” by the opposition, as they occurred under the administration of then premier Mahathir Mohamad. The suspicion at the time was that these immigrants would vote overwhelmingly in favor of the BN, cementing its electoral hold over the state.
Entrenched poverty is another long lingering sore point. Despite its substantial oil wealth, Sabah’s rural poverty rate stands out compared with other states in the federation. Other bumiputera, indigenous groups apart from ethnic Malays situated mainly in Sabah and Sarawak, account for about half of Malaysia’s poor even though they make up only 11% of the national population.
“The incidence of poverty among other bumiputera increased from 14% in 2007 to 17% in 2009, and their contribution to total poor households rose from 41% to 51%. Also in 2009, the intensity of poverty was most visible among other bumiputera,” noted a Millennium Development Goals report in 2010.
Some Sabah and Sarawak politicians hope the emergence of a viable two-party political system will allow them to play a more decisive role in ensuring their states’ grievances are addressed at the federal level. One of the key focal points for Sabah and Sarawak is the question of oil royalties, fixed by the BN-led government at a meager 5% of petroleum revenues.
Opposition politicians like Anwar have indicated that if they win federal power, Pakatan Rakyat would raise the royalty to 20%. The campaign pledge nods towards larger unresolved issues of state autonomy and decentralization, aspirations in Sabah and Sarawak that the BN-led government has never seriously considered.
Certain BN politicians have questioned the economics of Anwar’s royalty pledge for Sabah and Sarawak.
“My view is if Anwar intends to stick to his promise, he has no choice but to eventually cut allocations meant for the non-oil producing states,” wrote Abdul Rahman Dahlan, a BN parliamentarian from Sabah. “Of course, the other alternative is to cut allocations to critical sectors like education, rural infrastructure, health and security across the board, which is equally a disastrous scenario.”
BN leaders, meanwhile, are apparently rethinking their electoral strategy for the two swing states, seen in policy flip-flops seemingly aimed at stemming further parliamentary defections in the run-up to the polls.
Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud said on Monday that his state would soon discuss with the federal government the need to review the 5% oil royalty rate. A day later, Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman said a new petroleum sharing formula is “negotiable” after earlier this month describing Pakatan Rakyat’s 20% pledge as “illogical.”