Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Keeping This Oil-Rich Region Happy Is a Challenge for Najib

Updated on
  • Ex-UMNO vice president has set up own party in key Sabah state
  • Sabah and Sarawak provide bulk of seats to Najib’s coalition

If anyone can break Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stranglehold on Sabah, the Borneo state that holds the key to power in Malaysia, it should be Shafie Apdal.

Shafie’s roots in Sabah run deep. He is the nephew of a former chief minister, and rose from the local branch of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation to become the first national vice president from the state. When Najib dumped him from the cabinet in 2015 amid a dispute over a troubled state fund, Shafie, 59, set up his own party based in Sabah.

A portrait of Najib Razak hangs on the wall at the Putra World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur.

Photographer: Charles Pertwee/Bloomberg

“There is no path to victory for the Malaysian opposition that doesn’t go through Sabah,’’ Rosman Abin, youth chief for Shafie’s new party Warisan, said before a recent party event in the state. “We can’t win without a strong showing here.’’

Yet to help the opposition wrest control of Malaysia from UMNO after six decades of rule, Shafie needs to avoid the problems that have dogged the grouping for decades: public bickering and a tendency to compete against each other. If Sabah’s opposition blocs and parties fail to agree which seats each will contest, Najib’s coalition is all but assured of victory in an election that could come this year.

“Of course BN will retain power in Sabah, it’s almost a given” due to divisions in opposition parties, said Oh Ei Sun, a Sabah native who is principal adviser to the Pacific Research Center in Malaysia, referring to the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition. “Everyone wants to be boss, everyone wants to be the chief minister.”

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A boat ferries passengers to the Central Market in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Located more than 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) across the South China Sea from peninsular Malaysia, Sabah sits on the northern tip of Borneo between Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. Malaysia’s second-largest state by size, the rain-forested former sultanate accounts for more than a quarter of the country’s crude oil reserves.

Sabah and neighboring Sarawak are known in Malaysia as "fixed deposits" for Barisan Nasional. They have long supported the establishment, accounting for about a third of the coalition’s seats at the last general election.

Still, Barisan Nasional retained power in 2013 by its slimmest margin ever, and would have lost if not for the Borneo states. And in about half its seats in Sabah, the winning candidate only got around 50 percent or less of the vote.

Shafie Apdal

Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg

Speaking by phone, Shafie said his party is “looking into" cooperating with Pakatan Harapan, the main national opposition alliance. Warisan now has two members of parliament. It’s not decided how many seats it would contest, and the party does not disclose the size of its membership.

“Whatever it takes to make sure that BN can be defeated -- that is crucial for us,” Shafie said. “There must be a formal compromise, but not at the expense of neglecting the rights of fellow Sabahans.”

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Najib’s party is used to defectors jumping ship: Pakatan Harapan is headed by jailed former UMNO deputy president Anwar Ibrahim and its chairman is Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister who led the party for decades.

“Shafie is actually a non-threat because he’s a loner,” Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, secretary general of Barisan Nasional, said by phone in late June. He said Sabah will stick with Barisan Nasional as it’s “the only coalition in the country which is multiracial, multi-religion, multi-ethnic and multicultural.”

Surveys suggest the state’s 3.8 million people aren’t all that happy with UMNO. A Merdeka Center for Opinion Research poll of 905 registered Sabah voters published in May found just over half were dissatisfied with the state government. But the Merdeka Center added it would be hard for opposition parties to win the state -- turns out voters are also unimpressed ‎with their performance.

Grievances in Sabah include illegal immigration, concerns about autonomy and resentment over a 6 percent goods-and-services tax that has boosted prices. Inflation nationwide is set to quicken to as much as 4 percent this year, from 2.1 percent in 2016.

Jannie Lasimbang conducts poling and counting training in Donggongon in Sabah.

Photographer : Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

The price increases will help the opposition, according to Jannie Lasimbang, a potential candidate in Sabah with the Democratic Action Party, the biggest by parliamentary seats in Pakatan Harapan. “It might finally be our turn,’’ she said while touring a food market in Sabah.

Still, one spoiler might be Yong Teck Lee, another Barisan Nasional defector who was Sabah’s chief minister from 1996 to 1998.

Fuel from an oil tanker is transferred to a Shell Gas Station in Kota Kinabalu.

Photographer : Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Yong has used populist rhetoric to rally support to his Sabah Progressive Party amid concerns the central government isn’t giving the state its fair share of oil and gas royalties. He has hit out at Najib for failing to curb illegal immigration, mainly from strife-torn areas of the southern Philippines and nearby Indonesia.

‘No Such Thing’

Sabah’s population is six times bigger than the early 1970s, with about a third of its residents considered “non-citizens.” The opposition accuses the government of giving undocumented people identity cards in exchange for votes.

The government has said the Immigration Department detained at least 5,173 undocumented workers across the country in July. In the year to July 25, more than 125,000 workers were sent home, it said.

“There is no such thing that we were giving ICs to people to come and vote for Barisan Nasional,” said UMNO’s Tengku Adnan. “You can apply for citizenship, for permanent resident according to rules and regulations of the country.” Najib’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Islamic insurgency in the southern Philippines may also worry some voters. “Following the declaration of martial law in the southern Philippines in late May, the Eastern Sabah Security Command has been on high alert,” Lynette Lee, an analyst at RAM Rating Services Bhd., said in a report this week.

Speaking at his party headquarters, Yong said locals should control everything in Sabah apart from foreign affairs and defense.

One of the main grievances in Sabah is the 6 percent goods-and-services tax.

Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

“The keyword that we use is autonomy for Sabah,’’ Yong said. “Let us run our state in the way we know best.”

While Shafie sees value in a relationship with the federal government, he also wants greater autonomy for Sabah.

“What is due for Sabah, and Sabahans, we must fight for it,” he said. “It’s nothing to do with being parochial, it’s about fighting for what is due for Sabah.”

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