Doing a Liverpool in Sandakan

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on May 9, 2019.

The Sandakan by-election was called following the sudden death of its member of Parliament Datuk Stephen Wong on March 28.

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KUALA LUMPUR: As I write this, the Liverpool Football Club had just beaten FC Barcelona 4-0 for a historic come-from-behind win and qualified for the Champions League final.

Liverpool carried a three-nil deficit into the match and although they were to play at home, Jurgen Klopp’s players were not given much of a chance. After all, to overcome a three-goal margin and beat a side boasting the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez is always a tall order, even when playing at Anfield.

But win Liverpool did — prompting many a football fan to say the English club had pulled off the impossible.

Moments after the win, Parti Bersatu Sabah’s (PBS) information chief Datuk Joniston Bangkuai posted a message on Facebook that Liverpool’s stunning win “could inspire PBS to pull off an upset against DAP” in Saturday’s by-election in Sandakan.

“As in football I reckon that it is also the same in politics. Anything is possible,” said Joniston.

The Sandakan by-election was called following the sudden death of its member of Parliament Datuk Stephen Wong on March 28. The late Wong was also Sabah DAP chairman.

He first won the Sandakan seat in the 13th general election (GE13) and in last year’s GE14 defended it with a thumping 10,098-vote majority over Barisan Nasional’s (BN) Lim Ming Hoo.

Against such a backdrop, PBS candidate Linda Tsen is trying to wrest the parliamentary seat of Sandakan in a five-cornered fight. The others in the line-up are three independents and DAP, represented by Wong’s youngest daughter Vivian Shir Yee.

PBS has support from several parties in the Sabah opposition including Umno, led by Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin who was recently charged with corruption together with his wife.

Campaigning for PBS a few days after he was charged in court, Bung Moktar brought out so-called national issues, hitting out at the federal government for its “unfulfilled election promises”.

And to show Umno’s determination to help PBS, Bung Moktar had earlier indicated that former premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak would be coming to Sandakan to campaign.

Now Najib is expected to come on Friday when his trial over the RM42 million of SRC International Sdn Bhd funds stands down.

Whether Najib’s presence will help PBS is debatable. To DAP Perak chairman Nga Kor Ming it would not be good for PBS in the light of the various charges against Najib.

He was quoted by Malay Mail Online as saying “this shows PBS was an accomplice in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal as they failed to make their views on it known”.

And Najib in Sandakan would also see him face Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal whom he sacked as federal minister following the latter’s outburst on the 1MDB scandal.

Shafie is now Sabah chief minister and also founder of Parti Warisan Sabah, an ally of Pakatan Harapan. Warisan is campaigning for the DAP candidate to persuade the Malay voters in the Chinese-majority constituency.

Vivian is the favourite to win. Still the DAP and Pakatan are not taking things for granted, judging from the big names who will hit the campaign trail. Among them are Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Gobind Singh Deo and Yeo Bee Yin.

I was told there are not many local issues for the by-election, meaning issues related to Sandakan directly. But Sabah has had a long-standing problem with non-citizens, who have been a thorny political issue for decades.

The PBS is accusing the federal government of not doing enough to solve the problem. The PBS critics say the problem began years ago and the BN government had ample time to overcome it but did not.

To Vivian, in the interim, stateless children must be allowed to get an education and the Pakatan government is making that possible for the children on condition at least one parent is Sabahan. That is short term of course before other matters are resolved  “one at a time”.

Having said all that, the question to ask obviously is, will DAP win? Very likely, says Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

According to Oh, who is a Sabahan, the majority of the Chinese voters who make up more than half of the voter base still support the DAP. Hence he says it is only a matter of the winning majority.     

This, as Oh sees it, has somehow become a measure of bumiputera support for the ruling coalition of Sabah, especially the Warisan party “which derives their support from the bumiputera community”.

The issue, says Oh, is relevant on at least two fronts.

“Firstly, it pitches Warisan and Umno in the ring. Warisan must once again defeat its arch rival conclusively in this by-election to convince the bumiputeras that they are the party to go for in future,” he said.

Secondly, according to Oh, “a handsome winning majority in Sandakan will send a signal to Bersatu (which made its foray into the state not too long ago) that the existing Sabah coalition can actually deliver a much-needed win for Pakatan following three consecutive by-election defeats (in Cameron Highlands, Semenyih and Rantau) without much peninsular political help.

Now that’s talking about the bigger picture.

Shafie has vowed that Pakatan’s lean spell following the three by-election losses in Peninsular Malaysia will end in Sandakan.

Many agree with him, which is to say they do not see a Liverpool taking place in Sandakan, notwithstanding a recent survey showing many voters are still “undecided” days before polling day.

Mohsin Abdullah is a contributing editor at The Edge Financial Daily.