From fixed deposits to kingmakers

By Oh Ei Sun | APRIL 09, 2013
The Malaysian Insider

APRIL 9 — Malaysia’s coming general election, widely characterised as a potential “watershed” event, will see many first-time voters play a decisive role in determining which way the country will go. Will they vote to retain the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition or opt for the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat?

Carrying a critical weight in the outcome will be the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Out of the 222 seats in Parliament, more than a quarter are in Sabah (with 25 seats) and Sarawak (31), leading some to label these states as kingmakers in the polls that are expected to be closely contested.

In Peninsular Malaysia, any potential loss by BN of its predominantly non-Bumiputera seats can be counterbalanced by gains in predominantly Bumiputera seats. This would give a net election result in Peninsular Malaysia like that in 2008, when BN only narrowly surpassed Pakatan. Had Sabah and Sarawak not brought in the 56 seats then, there could have been a change of government in Putrajaya.


Sabah and Sarawak enjoy special rights distinct from other Malaysian states, such as state controls over immigration and land matters, as enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 when Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore formed Malaysia supposedly as equal partners.

The ties between the federal government and the two east Malaysian states were sometimes strained in the initial decades after the formation of Malaysia, as each side manoeuvred and tussled over rights and privileges in a new federation.

But as the state governments of Sabah and Sarawak have almost always been formed by BN component parties, the past few decades witnessed no serious contestations in federal-state relations.

This has in part led to the two east Malaysian states being hailed as fixed deposit states for BN, having consistently delivered the bulk of their parliamentary seats to the ruling coalition.

While the majority of the east Malaysian parliamentary seats are likely to return to BN in the coming elections, changes in popular sentiments and heightened awareness of popular rights could translate into an increase in the number of swing seats.

In other words, the slim voting majority could sway to either side of the political divide — what with the Lahad Datu episode throwing into the pot a new factor in unpredictability. It remains to be seen how this swing phenomenon will impact federal-state ties.


In Sarawak, the chief minister, Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, has been in power for more than 30 years. Under his rule, Sarawak remains the only BN-controlled state government that is not dominated by Umno, the largest BN component party nationwide.

In fact, Umno does not even have a political presence in Sarawak.

It is widely understood that the political arrangement between Taib and Umno — and by extension, between Sarawak and the federal government in Putrajaya — is such that as long as Taib consistently delivers Sarawak to BN, his administration is given virtually a free hand to deal with state matters.

But the 2011 Sarawak state election saw Pakatan make significant political inroads, scooping up 15 (or 21 per cent) out of 71 state assembly seats. It is likely that in the upcoming general election, many non-Bumiputera and non-Muslim Bumiputera seats can be swung. As such, Sarawak BN should not count, as it did in the past, on the once almost-ironclad victories in these seats.

Assuming BN is retained as the federal government with a reduced majority because of fewer seats won in Sarawak, this would mean that Taib — and Sarawak BN — can still play the role of kingmaker. But the smaller number of parliamentary seats would mean fewer bargaining chips for Sarawak when it comes to dealing and negotiating with the federal government.

In such a scenario, Sarawak would need to play its political hand shrewdly after the polls to safeguard its rights and privileges.


Sabah presents a slightly different scenario. Its government is dominated by Umno, and while the chief minister, Datuk Seri Musa Aman, has been in power for 10 years and has his own clever ways of preserving state rights and privileges, many political matters ultimately still have to be referred to the federal level.

The political dynamic in Sabah is such that political and often ideological delineation among parties or coalitions is not as marked or rigid as in Peninsular Malaysia or even Sarawak. For example, it would not come as a surprise at all to ordinary Sabahans if elected representatives from whichever camp choose to cross over to the winning side for reasons known only to themselves.

Indeed, the crossing of party lines by elected representatives is both frequent and commonplace in Sabah, but this does not seem to tarnish in the slightest the reputation or electability of the representatives. Musa has led Sabah BN to two overwhelming election victories at both federal and state levels, but defections from BN over the last few years have eroded the number of BN seats.

In recent years also, sentiments over state rights or state sovereignty have reportedly been on the rise in Sabah.

But these have been overshadowed by the recent intrusion into Sabah by southern Filipinos and the consequent need for national unity in times of distress. In any case, the state opposition, which continues to be caught up in internal disagreements over the allocation of seats, has yet to fully capitalise on any changed sentiment.

Ultimately, federal-state relations between Sabah and Putrajaya are unlikely to be strongly affected one way or the other in the near future, as the state winner will still have to work with the federal government for development needs in the state.

In the coming general election, Sabah and Sarawak are no longer fixed deposits for BN; they are poised to assume their crucial roles as kingmakers. This will inevitably alter their bargaining positions in the contest of federal-state relations, with the states hoping to secure a more equitable footing.

Assuming it is returned to power, it will be interesting to see how an Umno-led BN will deal with the changed landscape. — Today

* Oh Ei Sun is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 10 April 2013 - 10:24 am

    Here is the problem: IF Sarawak and Sabah are Kingmakers, the BN warlords has one weapon up their sleaves – they can try and convince their voters that THEY control BN..They get to dictate terms to UMNO and get more..I am surprised that they have not started with the oil royalty issue – demanding more, demanding more allocation, more schools even control over education.. 56 seats is likely HALF of what BN has. If Sabah and Sarawak do a deal, get enough cash together,, one of them can end up as PM..

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 10 April 2013 - 11:33 am

    U don’t get it meh – UmnoB will close eyes on what d S’wak n Sabah kingmakers do in S’wak n Sabah, rape d land n d ppl, b super-super rich, n apa-apa pub boleh; bo chap what they do there, that’s d deal mah

  3. #3 by Shadowss on Wednesday, 10 April 2013 - 3:13 pm

    Do they go for Unity and Justice or Racism and Corruption ? These are the choices to make . Hope Sabah and Sarawak voters make the correct one.

  4. #4 by cinaindiamelayubersatu on Wednesday, 10 April 2013 - 11:08 pm

    Ini kalilah…ayuh undi PR harapan baru rakyat. Tolak Barisan Najis

You must be logged in to post a comment.