Rumblings in the land of beauty and danger

There were several pictures of him with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who, by the way, is disliked in Sabah. The Kadazandusuns have not forgiven him for “Project IC”, a covert operation granting citizenship to illegal immigrants so as to offset the Kadazandusun population.

Joceline Tan, The Star

DATUK Seri Shafie Apdal had not been getting enough sleep and his eyes looked a little puffy in the dim lighting of his late mother’s house in Semporna. He sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, surrounded by dozens of men talking in hushed tones among themselves.

The former minister had buried his mother two days earlier and several hundred people had joined the family for tahlil prayers in the evening. Most of the crowd had gone off into the night and all was still outside under the star-studded sky. The men who stayed behind were among his closest supporters.

Shafie, who is Semporna MP, is normally a chirpy personality but he was in a pensive mood that evening. There was this air of vulnerability about him because when one loses a loved one, all those past forgotten moments tend to come flooding back.

The house in Semporna has been Shafie’s political base for years. It is simple, functional and built on high stilts with top quality timber by his late father who was a well-off trader.

Photographs depicting his political career line the walls. There has obviously been some “redecorating” because there was not a single picture of his ex-good friend Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. He merely smiled and rolled his eyes when asked about that.

Eastern dreams: The Muslim-dominated seats along the east coast of Sabah have to fall before the opposition dream of ruling Sabah can come true. Shafie (top, left) faces challenging times 

There were several pictures of him with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who, by the way, is disliked in Sabah. The Kadazandusuns have not forgiven him for “Project IC”, a covert operation granting citizenship to illegal immigrants so as to offset the Kadazandusun population.

Shafie, 59, is the second of eight brothers and sisters. They are educated and good-looking with pleasant manners.

The family is quite colourful and there are relatives with names like California, Hamburg and Samuto.

Every now and then, his sisters appear from the kitchen with trays of kopi-O and pisang goreng for the guests while his elderly stepmother sits quietly in a corner.

It has been a tumultuous time for Shafie – a death in the family and a year when everything familiar was turned upside down. He was sacked from the Cabinet, then he quit Umno in a huff and he is now president of Parti Warisan Sabah, the latest opposition party with ambitions to become the next state government.

Politics has split the family down the middle. His uncle Tun Sakaran Dandai, the elder brother of his mother, is a big name in these parts who went on to become Chief Minister and Governor of Sabah.

Sakaran has refused to have anything to do with Shafie’s new party. It is seen as a sign of disapproval and a huge blow to Warisan. Sakaran, now 86, is not as influential as he used to be but he is the east coast’s most famous son and his name still carries weight among the older generation.

“It’s okay, I understand. He is still my uncle,” said Shafie.

All of Sakaran’s 12 children are also with Umno, including assemblyman Datuk Nasir Sakaran, whose Senalang seat is one of the three state seats in the Semporna constituency.

The kinship network is extensive, intricate and makes you want to pop a Panadol.

For instance, Shafie’s younger brother Yusof, who is the Lahad Datu assemblyman, is married to one of Sakaran’s daughters. Yusof did not join Warisan but the two brothers are still very close.

Another brother Hamid Apdal used to be married to the niece of the Chief Minister.

The only Umno YB who followed Shafie into Warisan is his cousin and Sulabayan assemblyman Datuk Jaujan Sambakong.

Incidentally, when Sakaran’s first wife died, he married her step-sister. As a result, the offsprings of both marriages are cousins as well as step-siblings.

Just imagine – Hari Raya gatherings for them must be like attending a political convention.

Family politics is the name of the game but it is a different ball game now that Shafie is with the opposition.

“Thirty years he was with us. I am his friend but now he wants to kill us,” said former Libaran MP Datuk Akbarkhan Abdulrahman.

Sabah’s east coast has been an Umno political bedrock since the day it arrived in Sabah. Umno has never lost a single seat along this eastern belt that sweeps across the parliamentary areas of Batu Sapi, Libaran, Sandakan, the coastal stretch of Kinabatangan, Silam, Semporna and Tawau.

Opposition leaders from the peninsula who brag about capturing Sabah have probably never ventured into the rural stretches where people associate according to ethnic groups and where the common denominator is Islam.

These east coast seats have to fall before Sabah can fall to the opposition.

Shafie recently concluded his Warisan tour of Sabah to introduce the party to the people. It was a 20-stop tour that began in Semporna and ended in Penampang.

He has been drawing record crowds and wowing them with his fiery oratory. Many people are still surprised that such a big, fierce voice can come from this small-framed man.

Sabah has a total of 60 state seats of which 35 are Muslim-majority, 18 are Kadazandusun, four Chinese and three mixed. Another 13 state seats will soon be added to Sabah of which 18 are Muslim-majority.

In short, the Muslims will be calling the shots in Sabah.

The Chinese and Kadazandusuns seats appear ripe for harvesting, but what about the Muslim seats especially those on the east coast?

Shafie needs to capture the 16 or so state seats along this eastern belt or else he will end his career as an opposition figure instead of the Chief Minister.

Can Shafie persuade them to leave their comfort zone for the unknown? Can he convince them that their religious priorities will not be sidelined by the Kadazandusun interests in Warisan?

It is a spectre made more daunting by the fact that you need helicopters and motorboats to campaign in Sabah. The Kinabatangan parliamentary seat alone is the size of Pahang.

The Shafie circle claims that Warisan can capture 48 of the 60 state seats in a best case scenario.

“BN can promise the sun and the moon, but the people can think for themselves,” said Hamid.

Shafie’s name is synonymous with Semporna. He is well-liked and generous, he never turns away people and he goes around to the kampung including those in the outlying islands.

“He is very close to us. He will win again even though he is no longer in the government,” said a college student whose father supports Shafie but cannot do so openly because he works for the local authority.

Shafie claimed that although the ground is quiet, “I know people want to change their baju”.

“If BN is so confident why have an early election? I am not afraid. The faster the better, my pocket is not deep,” he said.

According to political observers, Shafie imagines himself as some sort of modern-day equivalent of Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan whose David-versus-Goliath defiance against the then Berjaya government saw the Kadazandusun community rise behind him.

The Warisan circle argue that with the young voters, the Kadazandusuns and the Chinese behind them, all they need is for the Muslim seats to swing and Sabah will fall. Moreover, Shafie’s deputy is Penampang MP Darrell Leiking, the former PKR vice-president.

It looks wonderful on paper even if it needs to be swallowed with a big pinch of salt. But the devil, as they say, lies in the details.

Sabah has some 27 political parties and there was a galore of multi-cornered contests in the last general election which resulted in Barisan Nasional wining with a two-thirds majority.

There will be a repeat performance unless the opposition parties can set aside their egos and reach a consensus.

The opposition’s ambitions also need to be measured against that of the ruling coalition. Barisan is not perfect but it is not as though the wakil rakyat have been loitering around, shaking legs.

The state government has brought development and change.

East coast towns like Lahad Datu which used to be gloomy and dead after sunset, have been transformed with dual carriage roads, modern street-lights and urban amenities. The federal government has sent in security personnel to make the coastal zone safer and bring peace of mind to the locals.

Sandakan has grown into a modern and well-planned urban centre, outclassing peninsula towns such as Sungai Petani, Kuala Terengganu and Kota Baru.

Shafie is also up against Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman, the man who has taken Sabah into the modern era. Musa, whose seat also lies in the east coast, is no pushover. He has an immense war-chest, he has the machinery and manpower, he has a war strategy and he will go all out to win.

After completing the final tahlil prayers for his mother, Shafie headed for Tawau about 70km from Semporna to fly back to Kuala Lumpur. There was the usual entourage in the VIP lounge although it seemed smaller these days.

His loyal press secretary Zamri Maulan, whose uncle is Mohd Khir Toyo, hovered around waiting for last-minute instructions.

Shafie waved and flashed his handsome smile as he went into the plane. He seemed rather too sanguine given that he is up against the biggest challenge of his career – he has to take on the mighty Barisan machinery, the rivalry between him and Musa is about to come down to this moment and there is the family that is divided by politics.

A big prize awaits if he wins but if he fails, it is goodbye to his dreams.