Sabah’s political gamblers: game not over yet

Don’t bet on the situation settling down in the Bornean state anytime soon.

Philip Golingai, The Star

SUPPORT from 19 Parti Warisan assemblymen. Support from 18 Umno assemblymen. Support from three Parti Kesejahteraan Demokratik Masyarakat (KDM) assemblymen. Support from five Pakatan Harapan assemblymen. And not to forget, support from the powers-that-be in Putrajaya.

With these aces, you would be holding a winning hand in Sabah’s political card game to bring down its Chief Minister.

That’s Warisan 19 + Umno 18 + KDM three + Pakatan five = 45 assemblymen. The number is more than enough to form a government in the 79-seat Sabah assembly.

That is what Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, Sabah Umno chief Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin, KDM president Datuk Peter Anthony and seven Sabah PKR chiefs thought.

But the high stakes lap lap fu (13-card) game ended pai ulung – a phrase referring to when a player places his strongest bet upfront but loses. The phrase, coined by SAPP president and former chief minister Datuk Seri Yong Teck Lee, is also used to tease someone for making a foolish mistake in Sabah-style humour, which is not meant to be offensive, vulgar or demeaning.

Shafie, Bung Moktar and Anthony miscalculated their numbers. They didn’t consider that five out of the 18 Umno assemblymen and all seven Pakatan assemblymen would support Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor to remain as Chief Minister.

“We got played out,” a Warisan leader told me.

The seasoned politicians who bet they could grab power from Hajiji lost pretty badly politically.

Shafie lost his reputation for the political deftness that saw him oust Tan Sri Musa Aman after the 14th General Election in 2018. Bung lost his deputy chief minister I and work minister posts, and Umno is now the Opposition in Sabah. Anthony burnt his bridges with GRS (Gabungan Rakyat Sabah coalition), of which Hajiji is the chairman.

Also losing out a little were the powers-that-be from Putrajaya who flew to Kota Kinabalu on Monday, as they failed to push their unity government formula on the Sabah politicians who supported Hajiji.

After the failed plot, Shafie claimed that Hajiji reneged on a deal to form a state unity government that had been backed by Prime Minister and Pakatan Harapan chairman Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Despite the pressure from the Prime Minister – who was universally described as displaying hostile body language when he met the 44 assemblymen at the chief minister’s residence in Kota Kinabalu – Hajiji and his lawmakers stood their ground. They did not want to get into bed with politicians who could potentially stab them in the back if political fortunes changed.

Another politician who might have lost out is Umno president and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Despite flying to Sabah – separately from Anwar – he could not convince his five assemblymen to go along with Sabah Umno’s decision not to back Hajiji as chief minister. So you could say that under Ahmad Zahid’s leadership, Umno lost power in Sabah days before the party’s annual general assembly 2022 (which ended last night) in Kuala Lumpur.

For neutrals in Sabah, Umno, Warisan and KDM were seen as seeking the help of the “big brothers” in KL after losing in a fight among Sabah politicians. Most of us locals prefer Sabahans to settle things among ourselves as we have seen a history of political bullying by Putrajaya.

On Wednesday, instead of adhering to Anwar’s request for a three-day cooling off period, Hajiji swore in three assemblymen – one each from Umno, DAP and PKR – as ministers to replace Umno politicians who were either sacked (like Bung Moktar) or quit their posts.

With 44 assemblymen, Hajiji won the lap lap fu political game against Umno, Warisan and KDM. So naturally, the parties holding the pai ulung hand complained that Hajiji ignored Anwar’s unity government proposal.

But if the GRS/Pakatan Sabah government had accepted Anwar’s formula, it would be sleeping with the enemies plotting to bring down Hajiji from the inside. The plan was to force a power-sharing formula on Hajiji, with each party in Sabah getting a percentage of positions in government based on their number of assemblymen.

The political lap lap fu is not over yet. Expect politicians to reshuffle the cards.

The PKR card could join those against Hajiji if party HQ in KL orders it. Some of the cards in the hands of Umno, Warisan and KDM could end up in Hajiji’s hand.

Note that there is no anti-party hopping law in Sabah.

Negotiations are ongoing with the usual suspects of potential jumpers to join the state government “demi rakyat” (for the sake of the people).

This time, Shafie has to work harder to convince his assemblymen that he can return to power after losing the chief minister post in the 2020 Sabah polls and failing to become prime minister in the chaos of 2021 at the federal level.

I’ve heard there are sleeper Umno politicians in the pocket of an influential powerbroker who returned from overseas to Sabah because of the political crisis. They, too, might join the government.

GRS, which comprises a new local party that Hajiji will launch, plus PBS, Sabah Star, SAPP and Usno, faced a baptism of fire and survived this crisis. It wants to be the Gabungan Parti Sarawak of Sabah — a solid local coalition that dominates state politics.

Will there be political stability in Sabah after the pai ulung power grab?

Don’t bet on it. Some Sabah politicians are political gamblers.