SANDAKAN, Sabah: The crowd was ecstatic when the most powerful man in Malaysia emerged from a black SUV. For a moment, they forgot about the scorching heat and focused on what was probably the most high-profile visit to Batu Sapi in a long time.
Hundreds of people erupted into cheers. They waved and held out their smartphones while craning their necks for the best view of incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Sporting gold-rimmed glasses and a bright blue shirt, the 64-year-old statesman smiled at supporters who had reserved the good spots along his path hours before. Some were lucky to get a quick handshake and brief greeting. Others far behind fought for a glimpse of him moving slowly through the excited crowd at Kampung Bahagia School.
It was a rapturous welcome for the political veteran who has held on to the prime minister’s chair for nine years and is doing everything in his power not to let it slip to the Opposition come May 9, when Malaysia holds its 14th general election.
“With wisdom, we’ll choose the party that can change our lives,” Najib told the cheering crowd on Monday (Apr 30) during his campaign in the semi-autonomous state of Sabah. In front of him were hundreds of blue-cladded supporters. Many children were holding placards with “We Love PM” printed on them.
Only one party will make our lives better.
The “party” he referred to is Barisan Nasional, the world’s longest-ruling coalition which, along with its predecessor Alliance Party, has governed Malaysia for 61 years since its independence from the British. Its core member is Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Najib is the sixth prime minister and running for his third term. This time, however, he is racing against a prominent UMNO defector and 92-year-old former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Once Najib’s mentor, the nonagenarian is probably his harshest critic this election. He quit UMNO for the second time in 2016 when it faced a corruption scandal involving his own protégé, who was accused of channelling nearly US$700 million from state development fund 1MDB into his personal bank accounts – a claim he has denied.
Since the controversy broke out in 2015, Najib’s popularity has taken a hit. So has his coalition’s. Still, the public backlash seems incomparable to the anti-government sentiment following the implementation of the 6-per-cent Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the same year.
Today the bitter frustration is still echoed in Sabah, the country’s third largest electoral bloc in terms of parliamentary seats after Sarawak and Johor. It holds 25 of the total 222 and, for decades, the majority of seats has been secured by Barisan Nasional.
A similar scenario is played out in nearby Sarawak – which holds 31 parliamentary seats. As a result, the two East Malaysian states are often viewed as the linchpin to Barisan Nasional’s electoral victories. Maybe not this time.
“Barisan promises. For 50 years, they promise and promise. And now they promise again,” president of the Sabah Heritage Party Shafie Apdal told Sabahan voters in Tawau on Tuesday (May 1).
Locally known as Warisan, the party is a Sabah-based opposition group. Prior to its foundation in 2016, Shafie – a Sabahan from Semporna – was serving as UMNO’s vice president and federal Minister of Rural and Regional Development. He was later removed from a cabinet reshuffle by Najib.
"I advised him as a friend to take action and do something about the 1MDB scandal. And for all it was worth, he got rid of me from the Federal Cabinet just to try and shut me up,” said Shafie, who is defending his Semporna seat for the sixth term.
“The UMNO of today is not the same party that I joined and promoted. Back then, they helped the people. But now they’re only burdening the people and it's getting worse.”
WARISAN: SABAHAN UNDERDOG
Warisan is widely perceived as an underdog against Barisan Nasional’s perennial rule of the eastern state. Its support comes from Sabahans dissatisfied with Najib’s administration, particularly its implementation of the GST.
A survey by Merdeka Centre last year found 52 per cent of 905 participating Sabah voters were unhappy with the state government. About 49 per cent of the respondents thought Najib’s coalition was leading Malaysia the wrong way. They were mostly concerned with the cost of living and the GST.
Meanwhile, Shafie’s popularity has grown in his home state, with an overall favourability rating of 42 per cent, according to Merdeka Centre’s survey. He also attracted the highest level of favourability among younger Sabah voters, with 62 per cent of 20-year-olds feeling positive towards him.
“Warisan is particularly strong in the East Coast’s Muslim-native areas, where, in the past, Barisan Nasional enjoyed 70-80 per cent of the support,” research manager from Merdeka Centre Tan Seng Keat told Channel NewsAsia.
With the shift, these seats all become competitive in this general election.
Calls for change are reverberating in Sabah State but based on previous elections, it is not something new.
"The Barisan Nasional's political stability has been challenged since the 2008 election Tsunami," said Regina Lim, head of capital markets research, Southeast Asia at JLL. She referred to Malaysia's 12th election when much of the ruling coalition's power was unexpectedly swept away.
In 2013, Barisan Nasional also suffered a drop in parliamentary seats from the eastern states, compared to the previous 2008 polls. While maintaining 85 seats in the peninsular, it lost two in Sabah and five in Sarawak.
Like any other Malaysian states, Lim said, Sabah will make or break the ruling party if more seats are added to the overall opposition coalition on May 9.
“Any loss this time will close the gap between Barisan Nasional and the Opposition,” Tan added. “Then the federal picture will be interesting.”
“DON’T BE FOOLED”
Najib is not taking any chances. He spent one full day campaigning around Sabah.
Monday morning, he met a throng of supporters at Kampung Bahagia School. At midday, he gave a speech to members of Sandakan’s Chinese community. Later that afternoon, he flew south to Tawau to meet some 10,000 people from the Kalabakan and Tawau parliamentary constituencies.
“Don’t be fooled. Don’t risk losing all the good things we have today,” Najib warned hundreds of Chinese-Malaysians gathered at a hotel in Sandakan.
This is a bit like oxygen in the air. Quite often you take it for granted. But once you lose it, then only you will realise how important it is.
For Najib, the oxygen is Barisan Nasional – the ruling coalition that he said has brought Malaysia peace, harmony, stability and prosperity. Without it, he implied, Malaysians will suffer.
“So cherish it, my friends. Cherish it. That’s the Malaysia I want to build and I want to strengthen – Malaysia that’s more prosperous, more united. But you have to give us the rights. That’s important.”
During his campaign, Najib also cast doubt on his rival party Warisan while promising to develop Sabah and make it “well-known throughout the world” for tourism as well as economic and industrial development.
As proof, he cited funds worth nearly US$1 billion for various development projects in Sabah, including the Pan Borneo Highway, renovation of rundown schools, Tanjung Aru Eco Development and Sabah International Convention Centre.
Still, his promises of better lives and future prosperity fail to please sceptical Sabahans. One of them is Ramli. He cares more about the present, with his financial burdens doubled by the GST.
“The GST goes to the government. The people in Sabah get nothing,” he told Channel NewsAsia in front of a small restaurant in Sandakan where he works.
“Barisan Nasional was good before. But as time goes by, it has changed. The poor have become poorer and the rich have become richer. Najib has made promises before but he did nothing. So I want change.”
“LET US PROVE OUR WORTH”
Come May 9 Malaysians will find out if any dramatic change in government is on the horizon. The campaign period has already come half way. Each party has five more days to win as much support as it can.
In Sabah, Warisan’s members are confident the people know how to navigate their votes. The party is contesting 16 parliamentary seats and 45 state seats. It is working with other opposition parties on an electoral pact basis and campaigning hard for a chance to prove themselves.
“Barisan Nasional has long overstayed their presence as the government or Sabah and the federation,” Warisan deputy president Darell Leiking told Channel NewsAsia.
Give Warisan the mandate and let us prove our worth. We’ve tried Barisan Nasional and here we are. Why not stand firm and make Warisan the choice in this 14th general election?
On Tuesday, Warisan chief Shafie defied his former leader Najib’s warning that Sabah would suffer without Barisan Nasional. He criticised the incumbent prime minister for “repeating the same old song” each time he visited the state and “false promises”.
“A Warisan government will follow up on all our promises and the people will see change for the better.”