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Sabah Election and its Implications on Malaysian Politics

28 Oct Sabah Election and its Implications on Malaysian Politics

The political turmoil in Malaysia since the stunning 2018 election results have highlighted the complexities and multi-faceted nature of Malaysian democracy. The state election in Sabah at the end of September 2020 was a manifestation of this turmoil and will continue to have lasting implications on federal politics.

On 14 October 2020, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) held a webinar on “Sabah Election and its Implications on Malaysian Politics”. The session featured views from Dr. Oh Ei Sun, Senior Fellow from the SIIA, Datuk Pang Yuk Ming, Deputy Chairman of Parti Cinta Sabah party, former Assistant Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment of Sabah and Mr. Liew Chin Tong, Senator in Dewan Negara, Former Deputy Defence Minister of Malaysia. The full recording is available as premium content on the website for SIIA members.

A fragmented political landscape

Dr. Oh Ei Sun, Senior Fellow, SIIA, opened the discussion by highlighting how the Sabah state election was unlike any other state election – over 400 candidates vied for the 73 seats in the state assembly. This depicts the fragmented political landscape in Sabah in particular and in Malaysia.

The link between federal and state politics was further emphasised by Datuk Pang Yuk Ming and Mr. Liew Chin Tong. Both speakers highlighted how the “Sheraton coup”, which led to Dr. Mahathir Mohamad being replaced by Mr. Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister, set the stage for the outcome of the Sabah election. Jostling for power at the federal level was mirrored at the state level in Sabah and led to former Sabah Chief Minister, Shafie Apdal, calling for a snap election.

Split in the ruling coalition

Dr. Oh argued that the win by the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition in Sabah, led by PM Muhyiddin, catalysed the power struggle between the two major parties in the ruling coalition: UMNO and Bersatu. Even though UMNO won more seats in the Sabah state election, the chief minister was ultimately chosen from Bersatu. This instigated dissatisfaction among UMNO leaders who are now exploring potential alliances with other political parties. Furthermore, opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim’s claim of a majority in parliament may lead to destabilising consequences on PM Muhyiddin’s political position. A key question going forward is whether Muhyiddin can find a formula to coalesce various parties and hold on to power for the next few years.

Process of democratisation?

While UMNO remains an important political player in Malaysia, it is not a single, coherent unit. There are talks that some within the UMNO party are supporting opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Meanwhile, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, while no longer a national party it used be, continues to play an important role. This was observed during the Sabah election, where PAS worked closely with local state parties.

Mr. Liew emphasised that the “messiness” observed in Malaysian politics today is due to the move away from the one-party dominance Malaysian politics used to be characterised by. Without one party dominating Malaysian politics, smaller parties are jostling for power and influence until a new equilibrium is reached and this is part of the process of democratisation.