Dragnet over Sabah politician

Sabah’s leading opposition party Warisan has been rocked by the arrests of some of its top leaders in connection to MACC’s probe into allegations of embezzlement. 

The Star

DATUK Seri Shafie Apdal stepped out of the arrival hall at the Kota Kinabalu airport wearing a big smile.

The Warisan president’s smile widened when cries of “Lawan Barisan” and “Undi Warisan” rose from the group of supporters and top Warisan leaders waiting for him.

But reporters waiting for him could sense that he was not quite his usual self.

The saying that money makes the world go round applies beautifully in Sabah’s politics and the arrests had sent jitters through political circles in the state.

“Outwardly, he seemed in control, but there was something in his voice, some kind of tension there,” said The Star’s Sabah bureau chief Muguntan Vanar who has, over the years, learnt to read Shafie like a book.

Jamawi: Bad time for ambitious Umno Youth politician.

Jamawi: Bad time for ambitious Umno Youth politician.  

Shafie was obviously upset that fingers were being pointed at him. As reporters crowded around him, he riffled through the black backpack of his Youth chief Azis Jamman and held up several sheaves of letters to show the high KPIs during his time as Rural and Regional Development Minister.

“Out of 10 in 2009, we scored 8. See, signed by Najib (Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak). And this one, congratulating the ministry. When I was in the Government, my performance was good but now, I did something wrong?” he said, holding up the letters.

The former Cabinet minister was in town for a political gathering in Tenom. The next day, he and several other party leaders took a train from Beaufort to Tenom.

The train broke down midway and Shafie had a field day on stage, holding up his train ticket as he poked fun at Sabah’s infrastructure. He said that if he wins, he will build a high-speed train from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom.

Tenom is a fertile valley synonymous with the Murut community and one of the oldest Chinese settlements in Sabah. His party is eyeing the Tenom parliamentary seat which Barisan Nasional won by about 4,000 votes in a five-corner fight.

The ceramah drew a massive crowd and he gave what his vice-president Junz Wong described as a “powerful speech”.

Shafie is ordinarily soft-spoken and gentle but put him on stage and suddenly, there is this big voice coming from this slight-build man. It was also quite an angry speech, a sign that he was anticipating the political storm ahead.

Azis: The Warisan Youth chief is also Shafie’s nephew.

Azis: The Warisan Youth chief is also Shafie’s nephew.  

He defended Peter who had been brought to the Kota Kinabalu court that very morning in handcuffs and wearing that dreaded orange lock-up t-shirt.

He told the crowd: “Don’t make judgement while the investigation is still on. I have said we will comply and cooperate with MACC.”

He called Peter “my young brother”. The media had referred to him as Shafie’s “key ally” but everyone knows that Peter is the “money man” in Warisan even though the party treasurer is Terence Siambun, the Moyog assemblyman who hopped over from PKR.

The media had zeroed in on Peter when he appeared in court whereas Sabah insiders said the person to watch is the nondescript-looking but well-connected businessman, Yu Sin Kong, who was also remanded for questioning.

Peter’s arrest had been the talk of the town. He is quite a colourful character in Kota Kinabalu where everyone knows about what everyone is up to. He is said to have worked for Shafie when the latter was a minister although it is unclear what kind of job he did.

Peter, 46, started out working at a local nightclub known as Strawberry Lips where he got to know the who’s who in town. With his boyish good looks and agreeable personality, he made friends easily and by the time he was in his mid-30s, he was rubbing shoulders with people who mattered in politics and business and, as they say, he was on a roll.

There were also stories about an exclusive penthouse where people would go to unwind, network and make deals.

“We used to call him Nokia – you know, good at connecting people,” said a former Umno MP from Sabah.

Peter made news several years ago for waving his pistol at the Kapitan Cina in the Lido commercial enclave over a parking problem. He is also the managing director of Asli Jati Engineering which gets lucrative projects which he claimed was through competitive bidding.

He has been on MACC’s radar screen since 2012 when allegations surfaced about his company making false claims of up to RM45mil for a Universiti Malaysia Sabah contract. He claimed that MACC has cleared him of wrongdoing.

It has been a dramatic week for Warisan but Umno politicians are also nervous, unsure how far the MACC dragnet will be cast.

The Rural and Regional Development Ministry which Shafie headed from 2009 till 2015 was like an octopus whose tentacles spread far and wide in Sabah. Many politicians benefited from it. Some used the money correctly, others less so.

Wong: Slammed the arrests as political intimidation.

Wong: Slammed the arrests as political intimidation.  

Sabah is not one of those places where bridges are built where there are no rivers. But as Datuk Lajim Ukin, president of Parti Harapan Rakyat Sabah pointed out, there have been instances where roads are built in the middle of nowhere, electric poles erected without cables and water pipes installed with no water.

“Umno politicians got a lot of projects from his ministry. He was generous, that’s how he won the Umno vice-president post,” said the above Umno politician.

The latest scandal allegedly involves the siphoning of RM1,5bil from an allocation of RM7.5bil meant for rural development funds in Sabah over the last six years. MACC is also investigating some 60 companies many of which have Umno connections.

MACC has seized cash amounting to RM150mil from 15 locations and frozen assets amounting to RM29mil. There are all kinds of gossip about these locations, the personalities behind them and even what RM150mil looks like.

“The way I see it, the ‘taps’ have been turned off, the funds will dry up. Without funds, it’s hard to mobilise or campaign in Sabah because you are not going to get votes talking about 1MDB. And this is only the start,” said CENSE think-tank CEO Fui K. Soong who is from Sabah.

On Sunday night, Azis, who was sending off Shafie at the airport, received a call that the MACC wanted to meet him. The alarm bells went off and his deputy president Darell Leiking who was at his cousin’s wedding rushed to the MACC office.

The tall and handsome Azis whose father is Shafie’s cousin, was detained the next day and by Tuesday, it was his turn to wear orange when he appeared in court to be remanded.

The orange t-shirt does not seem to have the same connotation in Sabah and a defiant Azis flashed a cynical smile and held up his handcuffed hands to show the “W for Warisan” hand sign – outspread palms with thumbs joined in a “W” shape.

Two Umno politicians – the Youth chiefs for Temom and Tawau, Jamawi Jaafar and Ariffin Kassim – were also arrested in connection to the same scandal but they kept their heads down.

Jamawi was a former aide to Shafie and the arrest could not have come at a worse time. He had contested the Umno Youth No. 2 post in 2013 and is actually quite a good grassroots man but his arrest may have put him out of the running as a candidate in the general election.

Warisan’s Wong, who is also Likas assemblyman, has slammed the arrests as political intimidation and selective prosecution.

“It’s to discredit Warisan leaders as the general election gets nearer,” he said.

Shafie likes to tell people that he does not have deep pockets but his Warisan events all over Sabah suggest that his party is not short of funds or organising skills.

Their events often feature an impressive stage with a fancy backdrop, a fantastic sound system with music, and air-blowers to cool those onstage. There are also big tents and lots of chairs filled by people who try to kiss his hand.

His party does things in style and even in far-flung villages, Shafie will be escorted by party officials in their Warisan shirts, with party flags fluttering in the wind and even a kompang in the background.

It is not surprising that in Sabah, Umno versus Warisan has been likened to Cash versus Money.

The Warisan logo denotes a sailboat floating above a pair of hands and rice stalks. The boat carries the people’s hope, the hands are to unite the east and west of Sabah while the rice stalks are about the needs of the people.

The sailboat is in stormy seas and a recent Facebook posting of the party logo was tweaked to show a MACC gunboat in pursuit of the Warisan sailboat.

Shafie’s younger brother Hamid Apdal has also been arrested and the question on everyone’s lips is whether the net is closing in on Shafie.