KIMANIS, Jan 8 — Like any other town in the state, Kimanis is largely an agricultural district populated by blue collar workers.
However, after a leisurely 45-minute drive around the town, you cannot help but notice the imposing specialised oil and gas terminal looming over the more rustic surroundings.
Flanked by the districts of Papar and Beaufort along the west coast, it is arguably the least developed of the three, with little to show in terms of tourism or produce.
Quaint, quiet and laidback, Kimanis consists of the state constituencies of Membakut and Bongawan. Both small towns which have not changed much in decades, save for the newer township of Membakut where modern concrete shoplots have replaced wooden shophouses.
Mom-and-pop businesses still flourish here, although there are pockets of youthful energy from young entrepreneurs who have stayed behind instead of looking for work in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive away.
The south-western district of Kimanis has 29,664 registered voters. Out of these, 52 per cent are Muslim Bumiputera consisting of mostly Brunei Malays, 41 per cent are non-Muslim natives (mainly of KadazanDusun ethnicity) and 6 per cent are Chinese and other ethnicities.
Like in any semi-urban (or semi-rural, depending on who you ask) community, the people here want development and want their lives to be easier.
For them, this means better roads, cheaper goods and a leader who cares and genuinely wants to deliver on his promises.
They are to choose between two former Bongawan assemblymen — one with Parti Warisan Sabah which is aligned with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) national government, and the other from Barisan Nasional’s (BN) Umno — for their representative.
Datuk Karim Bujang, 66, is the more senior candidate and largely considered the favourite, with five terms’ experience as Bongawan assemblyman since 1990.
The Brunei Malay from Kampung Brunei, Bongawan, was a BN stalwart until he was dropped in the 2013 state elections in favour of Datuk Mohamad Alamin, his younger opponent in this straight fight.
The businessman kept a low profile until 2018 when he emerged as a candidate for Warisan for the parliamentary seat. Going against the incumbent three-term Datuk Seri Anifah Aman, Karim lost by a whisker of 156 votes.
He later contested this result and won his election petition, which is the reason for this by-election.
By his own admission, he has the upper hand now, having once been in the government seat and with the experience and machinery to back him.
Meanwhile, Mohamad Alamin, 48, an International Islamic University Malaysia-trained lawyer was Bongawan assemblyman elected in 2013. He also has local credentials — his father is KadazanDusun, while his mother is Brunei Malay. He grew up in Kampung Kelatuan, Kimanis.
He is Kimanis division chief, having taken over from Datuk Anifah Aman who left the party in September 2018. Mohamad Alamin also rose from the ranks as Kimanis Umno youth chief.
Almost every known BN leader at the national level including Umno’s number one and two, and “Bossku” himself, former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, showed up to support him on Nomination Day.
How the candidates stack up
The two contenders are both desperately seeking some form of redemption after having lost in GE14 and it is in their interest to provide the relevant rhetoric that can woo voters who are more likely to back candidates rather than parties.
Here, Warisan will have to convince people to give them more time to come through with promises for the Pan Borneo Highway that is half-completed, and also solve bread-and-butter issues that have been wearing down most Sabahans.
Like any small town, a politician’s charisma and ability to win over voters is important. Being able to relate to the people and build a good rapport is crucial and Karim’s experience may have the edge here.
However, the contention here is that for all his experience in Bongawan, the town has not seen much growth, not even compared to the adjacent Membakut town, which at least has its own district office.
According to observers, Alamin, on the other hand, is not close to the grassroots, having relied on the BN name and machinery to win his first term in office, and losing in the last GE14 to Warisan’s Dr Daud Yusof.
Kimanis has been a BN stronghold largely due to its government status, which is no longer there now that Pakatan is in power. This puts Umno at a disadvantage.
“For now, a one-to-one personal touch might do wonders. ‘Personalised politics’ is the answer. And this is where Datuk Seri Anifah Aman and the ‘Bossku’ phenomenon could come in very handy. If the Umno candidate’s popularity is amplified by both, one could say that Umno Sabah has already half-won the by-election,” said Asri Salleh, Universiti Teknologi Mara Sabah senior lecturer in the faculty of Administrative Science and Policy Studies.
Local issues at play
Analysts also say that the recent controversial Sabah Temporary Pass, or Pass Sementara Sabah (PSS), will play a big role due to the political mileage it is getting from both sides.
Asri said that Warisan cannot avoid the thorny subject but the PSS could very well be either instrumental or detrimental depending on the rhetoric being peddled and how it is handled.
The PSS has been used as ammunition by the Opposition to some success.
“For Warisan, this by-election provides the chance for the party to go all out addressing the concerns raised by the people.
“Apart from standardising all the cards/documents the illegals have i.e. IMM13, Kad Burong-Burong, and Sijil Banci, the PSS is meant to be the first in a series of steps that the government will take to solve the issue of illegals in Sabah once and for all.
“Yet, judging by the preliminary assessments on the ground thus far, the prospect looks gloomy. Many are not convinced.
“Many are still not in favour of the PSS... even accusing it of being the backdoor for illegals to obtain citizenship,” he said.
“Warisan will need to kill the argument that says the PSS is just another ill-conceived plan and state unequivocally that Warisan is in no way an illegal-friendly government.
“Otherwise, the PSS could backfire. In other words, this could very well be Warisan’s Achilles’ heel,” added Asri.
Aside from the PSS, other issues that will strike a chord with the voters are everyday, recurring ones — floods, drainage, infrastructure, the availability of automatic teller machines, asphalt roads, street lighting, housing for the poor, rising price of daily consumables, price of commodity, petrol price and also handouts, also referred to as Bantuan Sara Hidup, or more popularly known by its previous name of BR1M.
In both state constituencies, young voters only make up a small demographic — 11 per cent in Bongawan and 13 per cent in Membakut — but the issue of study loans such as PTPTN and minimum salary may play against the ruling government here.
The other minority group is the Chinese — 6 per cent — of which most have migrated to the city.
Despite being small in number, their votes are also worth wooing if analysts’ observations are correct. If the native vote is split 50-50, the smallest of margins could mean all the difference between winning and losing.
Universiti Malaysia Sabah lecturer Lee Kuok Tiung believes that out-of-town voters may play a significant role with their heightened political literacy but the non-Muslim natives will be the kingmaker as the Muslim Bumiputera vote — spread across the Brunei, Bisaya and Bajaus — will be almost evenly split.
This is also where the Warisan government’s explanation of the PSS will be crucial in convincing the critical KadazanDusuns to vote for it.
While national political issues hold less sway here, the Malaysian Agreement 1963 (MA63) will still be close to the hearts of many Kimanis voters especially in matters involving oil royalties, land ownership and the state’s infrastructure.
The Warisan government will again have to prove its mettle in negotiating these issues to fruition with the federal government.
“In short, blaming the poor and unequal treatment of Sabah by the federal government, arising from MA63, has long been contentious among the Kimanis voters. Acknowledging the issue and accepting the fact that there is much to be done is the best way forward,” said Asri.