The collapse of the state government in Sabah: Back to the drawing board

The Warisan-led state assembly in Sabah has been dissolved. If Malaysia's Perikatan Nasional coalition manages to claw its way back to power, the state might give a second wind to the embattled ruling coalition

Kevin Zhang and Dr Lee Poh Onn
August 4, 2020
The collapse of the state government in Sabah: Back to the drawing board
Sabah Chief Minister Shafie Apdal (centre) at a press conference announcing the dissolution of the state legislative assembly, July 30. Photo: Shafie Apdal, Facebook

Sabah in Malaysia, nicknamed “the land below the wind”, bore the brunt of a strong gale last week.

On 30 July, Sabah Chief Minister and Warisan President Shafie Apdal announced the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly to pave the way for a snap election, which must be held within 60 days. Former Chief Minister Musa Aman had declared a day earlier that he had obtained sufficient support from state assemblymen to form a new state government in Sabah.

It would not be surprising if Sabahans get a sense of deja-vu. The collapse of Warisan-led state government is reminiscent of the events leading up to the 1986 Sabah snap election. Then, Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) won the 1985 state election, which dislodged the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) from the state government.

For the first time in Sabah’s political history, BN was relegated to the opposition, even as the party remained in control at the federal level. As numerous PBS assemblymen defected, PBS was at risk of losing its majority in the state assembly. A snap election was declared in 1986.

Even though Bersatu terminated its alliance with Warisan in March 2020, the Warisan-led state government commanded 47 of the 65 seats in the state assembly – a remarkable two-thirds majority.

At the state level, Warisan is allied with the United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (UPKO), the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Given that the National Trust Party (Amanah) does not hold any seat in Sabah, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in the state is represented by PKR and DAP.

However, the strength of Warisan and PH in Sabah should not be overstated, as seen from the 2018 General Election results. At the state level, BN and Warisan-PH each won 29 seats with the remaining two held by the independent Homeland Solidarity Party (STAR).

Following the elections, BN looked set to form the new state government, as it had secured the allegiance from STAR. However, BN soon suffered numerous defections which benefited Warisan. In addition, UPKO terminated its alliance with BN and instead pledged its support to Warisan.

Crucial events since the start of 2020 have indicated that Shafie Apdal was beginning to lose his grip in Sabah. In the Kimanis parliamentary by-election held in Sabah on 18 January, Mohamad Alamin from BN (United Malays National Organisation) garnered 12,706 votes, defeating Warisan’s Karim Bujang by a comfortable margin of 2,029. This is a reversal in BN’s fortunes: in the 2018 General Election, BN had secured a razor thin 156 majority.

On 9 June this year, former Chief Minister Musa Aman was acquitted of all 46 criminal charges against him involving corruption and money laundering relating to timber concessionaires. Now that he is free from corruption charges, Musa Aman is once again eligible to run for the Chief Minister position. Musa Aman served for more than a decade as BN Sabah chairman, and was expected to stage a comeback as Perikatan Nasional returned to Putrajaya.

Speaking to reporters at a hastily called press conference at his Seri Anggerik residence on 29 July, Musa Aman mentioned that he will be meeting the Yang Di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) and present him with the relevant statutory declarations to confirm the support of assemblymen behind him.

Musa, an assemblyman for Sungai Sibuga, will need a total of 33 assemblymen to obtain a simple majority in the house. According to media reports on 30 July, a sizeable defection has occurred within Warisan. One state assemblyman each from DAP, PKR and UPKO have also defected and pledged their support for Musa Aman.

At the federal level, the return of Musa Aman may shore up symbolic support for Malaysia’s prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, whose majority in parliament is razor-thin and has consistently faced threats of a “no confidence” motion from the opposition PH and Warisan. With the fall of Sabah, PH only controls three state assemblies – Selangor, Penang and Negri Sembilan – a drastic reversal from the outcome of 2018 General Election, when it bagged eight state legislatures.

If Musa Aman triumphs in the forthcoming state election, the political pendulum will swing again, such that there will be some support for Perikatan National from Sabah. This will be seen in Sabah parliamentarians transferring their alliance to PN, and bolstering support for the embattled prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

As Sabah’s chequered political history has shown, defections and collapse of coalitions are par for the course.

Kevin Zhang is Research Associate, and Lee Poh Onn is Senior Fellow with the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

This story was originally published on ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s website.

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