Commentary: Sabah state election ignites fresh Game of Thrones jostling in Malaysian politics

UMNO would like to see an UMNO-dominant win for GRS, to build on the momentum of frustration against the old Pakatan Harapan (PH) and further force Muhyiddin’s hand for federal snap polls.

Oh Ei Sun, Channel News Asia

Sabahans will go to the polls on Saturday (Sep 26) to determine their state government but what’s at stake are questions over national-level politics, says Oh Ei Sun.

“We are here to build a nation, not a particular race or religion,” a slogan boldly emblazoned across billboards at many major traffic junctions in Kota Kinabalu declares.

These bold words are seen next to Obamaesque portraits of Shafie Apdal, the caretaker Sabah chief minister leading his Warisan Plus coalition into another state election, barely two years after the historic 14th General Elections.

And indeed, the outcome of the upcoming Sabah state polls will determine much, not only for the resource-rich and multicultural state – potentially reshaping the political landscape of the nation as a whole.

The larger political game played out on the national stage has already made itself felt since the onset of this untimely election season in Sabah.


After all, we would do well to remember Shafie certainly did not go out of his way to call for the state polls, especially not during this COVID-19 pandemic in Sabah.

It was in part imposed upon him by his predecessor and erstwhile main political rival, Musa Aman, the former chief minister for 15 years, who saw it fit to flip some 13 state assemblypersons from Shafie’s camp to claim majority support for him to unseat Shafie in late July.

Musa’s almost triumphal return to chief ministership was foiled by Shafie who was left with few viable choices except to advise the Sabah governor to dissolve the state assembly, thus paving the way for the current state polls.

Hence, Musa found himself outfoxed. From an advantageous perch of political surprise, he now finds himself in a pretty awkward predicament and has himself to blame.

Musa Aman Malaysia Sabah
Former Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman (File photo: Bernama)

Musa reportedly did not even involve the state leadership of UMNO, the previous federal and state ruling party to which he still belongs, in his attempted power grab. And now UMNO central leadership has passed over him in choosing Bung Mokhtar, a parliamentarian more renowned for his rough antics within and outside of parliament, to lead the UMNO state party into the impending electoral battle.

In fact, Musa was not even put forth as an election candidate when UMNO listed its picks.

Yet Musa has been making his rounds during the campaign period, mainly rooting, curiously, not for his old party UMNO, but for candidates from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Bersatu party.

Then again, most of Musa’s previous state UMNO faction supporters, including his own parliamentarian son Yemeni Aman, are now in Bersatu.  But it’s 2020 and the dynamics between the fresh Sabah opposition coalition is awkward to say the least, if only because of the brewing rivalry between UMNO and Bersatu.


Since Muhyiddin assumed the premiership in coalition with UMNO in early March, UMNO has been assiduous in trying to marginalise Muhyiddin’s leadership. It wants its own leaders to achieve primacy over the ruling coalition as is befitting UMNO’s status as the component party with the largest number of parliamentarians.

Muhyiddin, on the other hand, has been carefully building up Bersatu’s parliamentary numbers and gradually consolidating his power base. Bersatu is almost on par with UMNO. It is an open secret that UMNO is in locked horns with Bersatu in battling for the pole position in the ruling coalition.

This internecine power struggle between the two major component parties of the federal ruling coalition filters down to Sabah.  UMNO and Bersatu were ready to go at each other’s throats in many state constituencies, diffused only by the last minute mediation of Muhyiddin, who hastily cobbled the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) and the Bersatu-led Perikatan Nasional into a Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS).

Muhyiddin also backed Bersatu’s state chief Hajiji Noor for Sabah’s next chief minister should GRS win the election, only to be refuted by UMNO’s president Zahid Hamidi who called for the focus to be on winning the election first.

Sabah Political Wrap 03
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) president Muhyiddin Yassin (third from right) praying together with Sabah Bersatu chief Hajiji Noor (third from left, in red attire), and Sabah United Malays National Organisation leader Abdul Rahman Dahlan (second from right) during the omination day of Sabah state election on Sep 12, 2020. (Photo: Facebook/Muhyiddin Yassin)

Muhyiddin would ideally like to see a huge GRS win in Sabah, but with his Bersatu significantly outperforming UMNO.  This would help solidify his federal leadership position.

Muhyiddin’s carefully cultivated fatherly image has been consistently employed as a counter-narrative in Sabah to counter Shafie’s considerable appeal.

Should Muhyiddin’s gamble pay off, a win would help suppress UMNO’s mounting pressure for him to call for federal snap polls.

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