Sabah contributes a major chunk of cash to the federal coffers and that's the reason why Umno must keep its grip on its 'fixed deposit'.
KOTA KINABALU: Politics in Sabah is never boring and it is again taking on the air of a soap opera complete with prima donnas, villains, scoundrels and clowns waiting in the wings before going centre stage in the second biggest state in Malaysia.
Come Feb 16, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak will be in Sabah again for specific programmes in Sipitang, Tawau, and of course in the state capital where he will get the chance to meet all Barisan Nasional leaders.
But, insiders claimed, it is not always the public functions that matter, but what goes on away from the spotlight and in the shadows where such skulduggery belongs.
Sabah has only 25 parliamentary seats, a mere fraction of the 222 nationwide, but it has a crucial power that can make or break the BN and Najib.
Apart from being one of the three richest states in term of natural oil and gas resources and contributing a major chunk to the federal coffers, Sabah is considered a BN “fixed deposit” and if it falls so will Putrajaya.
BN currently has nearly total control in Sabah, having lost only the state capital seat to DAP in 2008 and then later another two in Tawau and Sepanggar when one-time Umno ally, the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), left the coalition soon after the last general election.
SAPP had tried to use a revolt against former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to call for the overthrow of the BN, but the move fizzled and hastened Najib’s ascendance to power.
Rivalry within Sabah Umno
Many believe it will be smooth-sailing for the BN again in Sabah. On the surface yes, but a deeper study shows that there could also be disaster ahead for the BN if Najib mishandles Sabah in the coming polls.
Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR, many observers believe, mishandled Sabah matters on the approach of the last general election, which resulted in Sabahans, especially Christians, deserting the opposition camp.
BN’s current concerns in Sabah are the sizeable native Kadazandusun population who control a substantial number of parliamentary seats and could be shifting support to the State Reform Party or STAR brought in by former PKR leader Jeffrey Kitingan.
If the Kadazandusuns move en masse to the opposition it could spell trouble for the ruling coalition.
Najib’s other concern is the “rivalry” within Sabah Umno.
Political analysts and insiders said the issue involves Chief Minister Musa Aman, Umno vice- president Shafie Apdal and, to a certain extent, State Legislative Assembly Speaker, Salleh Said Keruak.
“Musa, buoyed by solid support from peers like Salleh, still wants to serve as chief minister but Shafie, having been elected Umno vice-president, also wants to show his ability to develop the vast state,” said one analyst.
Another analyst, who also requested anonymity, added: “Mind you, Shafie is the envy of Musa and others as his Rural and Regional Development Ministry carries no less than RM4 billion yearly worth of development funds and he is quite independent in disbursing some of the funds in Sabah.”
Thrown into this mix is Umno stalwart Lajim Ukin, who is rumoured to be moving to another small Sabah political party.
Lajim matter settled
But Lajim has already missed a few dates “to announce an important decision”. Some supporters have now brushed him aside saying he has been placated. Word has it that Lajim has just received a RM150 million road contract.
The fact is Lajim never needed a “panadol” as Sabah is Najib’s headache.
The moment Lajim got news that he would be “dropped”, news of him leaving Umno began surfacing everywhere. During Christmas last year, Lajim was said to have visited Sabah PKR division leader John Ghani’s house and and had urged those present to support Pakatan Rakyat.
He had also apparently met with PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim to discuss possibilities.
A few weeks ago, the road to his constituency in Beaufort was the only road that had the most flags of the Sabah Peoples’ Front (SPF), an opposition party, flying despite barely having the finances to make them.
But even if Lajim’s revolt has been defused and other Umno would-be deserters discouraged, Najib is left with the Musa, Shafie and Salleh intrigue.
The trio want payback for helping Najib retain power in Putrajaya. All three have ensured Sabah has remained a BN fixed deposit.
While Musa and Shafie delivered and were rewarded in 2008, Salleh, though not renominated, remained loyal to Umno.
Had anyone of the trio left, the power equation after the 2008 could have been different.
Musa’s strength is in winning allies in other component parties. He has Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) at his command to deliver the Kadazandusun votes and Upko, too, was listening to Musa though occasionally barking for attention, only to be swiftly soothed by Najib.
“Upko was smart and kept repeating its tactic. They learnt that when you make threats, something good would come to cool you down,” said an observer.
He noted that recently Upko-linked entities were awarded oil and gas works worth billions of ringgit.
“We don’t know for how long this will happen, but it seems it is the order of the day; everything will be settled, either through money, projects or positions.
“That is how it is when you are needed by Umno and BN,” he said.
Shafie, who hails from Semporna, a small coastal town in the east coast of Sabah now boasting many successful contractors and entrepreneurs, is of course waiting in the wings.
Some said he has the tacit support of Najib and is also close to Najib’s deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, who ironically is also waiting in the wings to take over from his boss.
One wrong step, and Muhyiddin comes in, maybe with the support of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who still wields some clout in the Umno hierarchy.
Najib cannot afford to let Shafie drift too far from him. Perhaps that is why he has such a cash-laden portfolio in Najib’s Cabinet that allows him to negate Musa’s riches.
But will Shafie be contented there?
It an open secret that his boys are lobbying Najib and of course smartly enough Muhyiddin for him to be fielded in a state constituency in the coming polls.
The political grapevine also has it that Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, who also wields enormous influence in the government, in Umno as well as at home, is said to be averse to Shafie but fond of Musa.
It is because of her, some say, along with the backing of PBS, Umno’s strongest ally in Sabah, that Najib retained Musa as chief minister after the 2008 general election.
But PBS is said to be losing its power base to new kid, STAR, something that is yet to be tested beyond the consistently overwhelming attendance at STAR political ceramahs.
STAR is headed by Jeffrey Kitingan, who is the younger brother of PBS chief Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
It’s a gamble in Sabah
STAR’s membership in Sabah is said to have reached the 100,000 mark only weeks after it was launched here on Jan 6 this year, and this is a worry to PBS, and perhaps even Musa.
“It appears that if Najib decides to replace Musa as chief minister, the post looks likely to go to Shafie as Salleh has been there before.
“Salleh may be Musa’s deputy in Sabah Umno but he is junior to Shafie who is an elected vice- president, a position that no other Sabahan has been able to attain in Umno before.
“But (if it was a choice) between Salleh and Shafie, the leaders of PBS and Upko would likely choose the former as their preferred boss.
“The reason is simple: Salleh has Dusun blood in him, and his wife is a Dusun from Tuaran so he has a fair understanding of how to work the Kadazandusun mind,” said a BN insider.
The big question is, with the Kadazandusun grassroots supposedly shifting to STAR, would it be worth Najib’s while to listen to PBS and Upko or even PBRS?
The next question on Najib’s mind would be how to win over Jeffrey’s STAR, if it does snatch seats from PBS, Upko and PBRS in the coming election.
Analysts said Jeffrey would be able to work with either Musa or Salleh forcing Najib to sacrifice Shafie and depend on the two to win STAR’s co-operation and at the same time contain any opposition gains in Sabah.
With these odds, Sabah is a gamble. Without Sabah and Sarawak, Putrajaya could drift out of reach of Najib’s grasp.
The ultimate goal of both BN and Pakatan Rakyat is winning a simple majority in Parliament and both have a fair chance at the prize.