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The PAS factor in Sabah polls

Bridget Welsh

COMMENT | There is a myth that Islamic party PAS does not matter politically in Sabah. It is understandable why this is so.

In 2018, the party captured a paltry 1.3% of the vote, losing its deposits in all the seats it contested. This was down from 2.8% of the popular vote in 2013, where under the Pakatan Rakyat label, PAS had its best performance in the state.

The general view is that Sabahans reject this Islamist party, opting for more harmonious, less religiously polarising politics. Based on a closer look at the seats, the campaign and voting patterns in 2020 - PAS did make an important contribution to the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) victory in the state, one that destabilises the coalition and has national implications for relations within the political alliance.

Already there are open calls to reject PAS in the GRS government and in the state assembly, made first by DAP’s Jannie Lasimbang of Kapayan. In response, newly-minted Sabah Deputy Chief Minister Jeffrey Kitingan of Star has called the issue ‘fake news’ and PBS president Maximus Ongkili has openly expressed misgivings, noting serious repercussions for Sabah.

Given that Kitingan and Ongkili and their respective parties were elected largely by the Kadazan-Dusun-Murut communities, which has large numbers of Christians - Sabah has second-highest number of Christians in Malaysia after Sarawak - the appointment of a PAS representative in GRS would not be well-received among their core supporters. It will provoke strong responses. This is the case especially so after an election where calls for unity and outreach across faiths was a core of the defeated Warisan Plus campaign.

At the time of writing this piece, the decision on whether PAS will become a representative remains contested, with expectations among the Islamic party that it should be given one of the appointed positions. They have nominated Universiti Malaya graduate Norsah Bongsu, a Brunei Malay born in Sipitang and living and working in Sandakan, for the position. She heads the women’s wing of the party in the state and contested as a PAS candidate in GE14 in Batu Sapi.

In nominating a woman, PAS has tapped into the call for greater female representation in the male-dominant GRS government.

Delivering on deals

It is worthwhile unpacking why PAS would believe they deserve a seat at the GRS governing table. In doing so, this showcases how competitive electoral contests in Sabah were and how important PAS was for GRS’ victory and the role it continues to play on the national stage.

There are two dimensions to PAS’ push for an appointed representation position. The first is that the party agreed not to contest in the 2020 polls to allow non-Muslim partners to not have to explain to voters why they were in partnership. This came on the heels of inappropriate and insulting remarks about the Bible made by a PAS leader. This was the first election that PAS did not contest in since 1986.

The quid pro quo, it was believed, was that if indeed GRS won, the party would take one of the six appointed seats. Keep in mind this is not just about Sabah, as deals over seats and representation involve where PAS will contest across Malaysia – in states where there are differences within Muafakat Nasional such as Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan, for example. Umno and PN need PAS help to win seats and accommodating the party’s request is part of broader national negotiations setting the stage for national elections.

Delivering in Sabah campaign

The second factor is PAS delivers votes. PAS support is crucial for Umno and Bersatu to win seats nationally, as PAS supporters are among the most organised, mobilised and loyal. This was also the case in Sabah as well.

At the start of the campaign, PAS supporters in Sabah were not given clear guidance on who to support. This meant that many were in fact supporting Warisan. As the campaign evolved, reflecting a realisation of how competitive contests were, PAS did two things - it mobilised its supporters with clear instructions to vote for either the Umno or Bersatu (PN) candidate and it openly campaigned in the state.

Visits by party vice-president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man and Terengganu Menteri Besar Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar were targeted in the last few days of the campaign to pull out the PAS vote in close contests. These built on a ratcheting up of campaigning by PAS Youth and Sabah-based party representatives.

PAS electoral support in Sabah, while small in numbers, is concentrated in certain areas. Writing about GE14, scholars Mohamad Shaukhi Mohd Radzi, Syahruddin Awang Ahmad and Nordin Sakke trace the support for PAS over time, showing that PAS support has increased and has been concentrated in seats around Kalabakan, Tawau, Putatan, Sandakan and Kota Belud.

PAS support takes two forms - among those from Peninsular Malaysia who are part of the army/police/civil service stationed in Sabah and among a growing number of PAS party faithful comprised of Sabahans. The number of PAS branches in Sabah has grown to 20 as PAS has become a more prominent national party. Applications for other branches in the state are awaiting approval. PAS has also set up hundreds of religious schools and day-care centres in Sabah, and is active in social welfare activities.

It is not a coincidence that PAS leaders in the recent election campaigned in places such as Sandakan, Putatan, Kota Belud and around Tawau. These are areas where they have been developing a base for some time.

Delivering on numbers

Based on the results, PAS traditional concentrated strength and their engagement in the campaign, the party did affect the outcome of the election. Without PAS participating and mobilising in the campaign, GRS would not have won three seats: Karambunai, Pintasan and Liawan - a mixed seat in Keningau with a large number of civil servants where PAS campaigned especially strongly in this election.

PAS also meaningfully contributed to victories in two other seats, Tempasuk and Tanjong Keramat, that were won more comfortably - Tempasuk was where an independent was strong, and Tanjong Keramat was where traditional PAS opponent Amanah was fielding its candidate.

In both Karambunai and Tanjong Keramat, there are also a sizeable number of navy/army votes, which were impacted by PAS campaign and the inappropriate comments by Warisan leader Mohammadin Ketapi. PAS campaigning also made the contests in Tawau and Kalabakan more competitive. Here, however, Warisan held onto their seats. Given these electoral contributions, PAS is arguing that they should be rewarded with representation and initial deals delivered.

Resolving tensions

GRS now faces a difficult decision, one that splits the governing coalition.

Accommodating PAS with a seat appointment will seriously compromise Star and PBS politically with their base. It also will change the fabric of politics in Sabah, bringing an Islamist party into the government, which will create deep resentments, and for many Sabahans, deepen anti-federal sentiments. Many Sabahans still resent Umno coming in, and similar resentments against PAS will emerge.

Bringing PAS into the Sabah government will be seen as a further extension of importing peninsula politics into the state. A majority of votes in Sabah rejected polarising politics of race and religion and voted for Warisan.

Umno and Bersatu are caught however, as it has been brought home to them that even in Sabah, PAS is influential. Weak and divided, these parties need to accommodate this Islamist party for their own political fortunes.

A deal may in fact be reached to give PAS seats elsewhere in Malaysia, in states where it is demanding more representation, to reduce the risks of adding to tensions in Sabah. National political deal-making may make the issue of PAS representation in Sabah moot. Whatever deals that are reached however, the situation remains where PAS is shaping the direction of Malaysia’s national politics, even in Sabah.


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