The Shafie opening

JULY 2 — Pakatan Harapan surprised many this week. It floated the idea of Shafie Apdal as its prime minister candidate.

What was still true to style was the uncertainty over consensus within the perpetually inconsistent coalition for the proposal, more so with a displeased PKR President Anwar Ibrahim.  He’s wishing they’d prefer him as the truer saviour.

Many see this as the work of ex-PM and till late, candidate for said position Mahathir Mohamad. An ill-disguised stratagem to thwart Anwar’s ambitions and strengthen son Mukhriz Mahathir’s hopes as the designated second deputy prime minister. So, many claim.

However, neutrals cannot deny the freshness of the proposition. The Mahathir-Anwar leadership contest stupor has left Pakatan supporters numb. This may radically rejuvenate the cause as many pundits expect the coalition to struggle in a general election. A leg up, finally!

Yet, this remains premature, as Shafie asked for time to consider and Anwar’s agreement is pending.

Boleh bah, kalau kau

But if it’s him, the Sabah chief minister, can he undo the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government?

Quick fact, he’d be the first Borneo candidate vying to lead the country at a GE — or an improbable Dewan Rakyat ouster. Which goes beyond symbols.

Pakatan is at its lowest point.

With the 165 Peninsula parliamentary seats, securing 70 is a minimum to remain substantial, and hundred to run the table. That’s the game, for whichever Semenanjung coalition to reach that target and then to lean on Borneo to cross the 112-majority line. We’ll return to this, after a look at Borneo.

The last time Semenanjung-based coalitions had full control was in 2004, when the euphoric Abdullah Ahmad Badawi Barisan Nasional (BN) team secured 146 — or a 34-majority at least — before factoring Borneo’s 57. 

The coalitions have wooed Borneo MPs since 2008, which is when no coalition was supreme in Malaya.

The events since February which include a government change relied heavily on support from across the sea.

If PN decimates Pakatan in Semenanjung akin to BN’s 2004 dominance, then Borneo factors less. East Malaysia would toe the federal line to self-preserve.

Still, while Pakatan’s west coast base will likely shrink, if they get enough from Selangor (22), Kuala Lumpur (11), Perak (24) and Penang (13), and pinch enough from the rest, they can cross the 75-seat threshold. Which is when attention turns firmly to Borneo.

The last 20 years has been a steady rise of state identity and demands. It’s no accident the Sarawak government defends steadfast religious plurality and asserts autonomy on oil and education for instance, or simply put, reminds all and Malaya that in Borneo things are different. Ruling coalition GPS has also ceased to contest as a BN party. Similar in Sabah as a first-time party, Warisan won on a state-first platform. 

If the Malaya coalitions are in a relative stalemate and Borneo decides, will it pass the opportunity to pick the first prime minister from East Malaysia?

Power truly emanates from Putrajaya. A Borneo-based PM would mean for the first time in history Sarawakians and Sabahans can negotiate all development matters with one of their own. Regardless whether their parties are government or opposition in either states, all Borneo parties might find huge comfort to know their PM is from their island.

In that case of a draw, all 57 MPs will be tempted to support Shafie, the Pakatan PM choice. Politically, and from a personal place inside their hearts. It’ll be monumental to the six-decade struggle for equal partnership inside the Federation of Malaysia.

The Malaysian experience

Shafie Apdal’s Kota Kinabalu office might be close to a three hour flight from KLIA, but he has long roots in Semenanjung.

Before being sacked — along with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin — from Umno in 2015, he was a two consecutive term party vice-president. To add context, he’s the first Borneo rep to hold the position.

This also means he has longstanding ties within that party and Bersatu, which invited him to set up the Sabah wing before he reinvented himself with Warisan.

Coupled with his decades in Parliament and Cabinet, he’s neither new nor strange to the power centre in Klang Valley where he attended secondary school.

Shafie appeals in Malaysia’s West as much as he does in the East.

Before the 2018 election, Pakatan was pressed to name a prime minister nominee to inspire confidence and they’d agree today the name at the top of the ticket has a major bearing on voters’ attitudes and reactions around the country.

Naming Shafie can shift close contests especially on the west coast where there are resettled Borneo families and influencers. The lack of development in Sabah and Sarawak out of federal neglect caused decades of economic migration to the Semenanjung cities. Many return to Borneo to vote, many also now vote in Malaya. Also through marriage, there are Borneo roots all over Semenanjung.

But even if the argument does not point to blind region loyalty leading to votes, the co-mingling of Malaysians from East and West probably leads to a normalisation of the idea all citizens matter within the country.

And therefore, a sense of affront that no East Malaysian has yet to lead the country may permeate, encouraging voters to alter that fact at the polling booth.

That the combination of Shafie’s federalist credentials and Malaysians growing in acceptance of a country with two halves and sharing power between those halves, may hasten this Borneo PM candidate’s ascension. If he was the pick.

Be yet wiser

Five years ago, two men were cast off to oblivion by Najib Razak.

One chose to play second fiddle inside a new party, and when the pieces were aligned struck well and is the prime minister today.

The other went to the end of the country, or as he’d call it, home. He rebuilt his base and helms his state. 

It’s tantalising to frame Shafie in the prime minister race as the Pakatan PM-designate. For now, he’s considering the proposal, while waiting for more comprehensive support from all Pakatan leaders.

I can’t decide for the Pakatan leaders, or one leader in particular, but the Shafie option excites. And holds promise. At a time where Pakatan is becoming overly predictable and petty to voters, that’s a good thing, to rally behind a traditional outsider.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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