Sabah and the genesis of frog politicos

By Erna Mahyuni, Free Malaysia Today

Malaysians who associate democracy with decency and fair play are still bitter about the coup Umno pulled off in Perak last year. But 15 years before Perak, there was Sabah.

In 1994, Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), then a Barisan Nasional rival, won the Sabah state election, but did not even have time to uncork the champagne bottle. Umno moved in and, almost in the twinkling of an eye, engineered a coup through defections. They say Anwar Ibrahim led the charge.

Sabahans were the first Malaysians to denounce their statesmen as “katak” (Malay for “frogs”). Among the high-profile politicians who hopped out of PBS were Joseph Kurup and Bernard Dompok. Kurup is now the MP for Pensiangan and Dompok is the Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister.

But PBS chief Joseph Pairin Kitingan had to face a more heartbreaking betrayal when his brother, Jeffrey Gapari Kitingan, left PBS to form his own party. Currently vice-president of PKR, Jeffrey hopped through three other political parties – PBRS, Akar and Upko—and even applied twice to join Umno, only to be rejected.

Kadazans divided

Though the Kadazandusuns, the majority community on Sabah, hold Pairin in high regard, his party no longer commands their support. The locals see no reason why they should support a party whose members’ loyalties are suspect.

It was rumoured that the frogs were offered up to RM3 million each to defect.

James Chin, writing about the 1994 election in Asian Survey, notes that despite strong regional sentiment and tribal nationalism in the state, these factors were not enough to withstand “the onslaught of the BN’s national political machine with its almost unlimited funds and resources”.

Those resources include local television and radio stations. The BN campaigns through them, and one of the campaign messages is the “Binalah Sabah Baru” TV commercial that shows people living in abject poverty. We are supposed to believe they are Sabahans, but they are actually illegal immigrants living in shanties.

It was telling that in the closely contested 1994 election, PBS won all 15 Kadazandusun majority constituencies while BN won the 18 Malay/Muslim constituencies. The remaining seven seats were predominantly Chinese. PBS won four of them and the rest went to BN’s SAPP.

PBS is now a shadow of its former self as other parties, including Upko and PBRS, jostle for Kadazandusun support. With Pairin’s inevitable retirement looming and Jeffrey’s image as a turncoat persisting, no candidate has yet emerged to unite the now-splintered Kadazandusun electorate.

Anwar was allegedly the prime mover behind Sabah Umno’s victory in the state. It is said that he was behind negotiations with the defectors, setting the wheels in motion for PBS’ dethroning.

We must forgive Sabahans if they are wary of PKR. After all, it is Anwar’s party and its head honcho in Sabah is Jeffrey.

What both Umno and PKR have failed to realise is that the racially charged politics that we associate with Peninsular Malaysia does not apply in Sabah. For one, the majority race is the predominantly Christian Kadazandusun and the brand of Islam practised in Sabah is far more moderate than that of West Malaysia.