Sabah by-election: Covid-19 caution and KL’s grip on power

OCTOBER 8 — Shoot the flares, Peninsula politicians head to Sabah next month!

A Covid-19 enforced travel ban to and from Sabah operates until October 25, but if numbers dip by then the skies open up.

Just in time for the Batu Sapi by-election triggered by the untimely demise of former minister Liew Vui Keong.

Parliament informed the Election Commission (EC) of a vacancy on October 6, obliging a by-election before December 5. Likely late November polling day, if not sooner.

Holding hands and kissing babies

The aftermath of the Sabah state election cast a dark cloud over the impending parliamentary contest.

A highest ever Covid-19 spike is ongoing.

While Semenanjung residents are petrified of Covid-19 cases associated with Sabah, less is said that the state’s disease surge was contributed significantly by the polls.

Sabah’s the victim too.

At the onset of the pandemic, over six months, Malaysia shut down and opened up in stages and managed the pandemic. Even letting people fly from April onwards without outbreak. How did Sabah’s election turn into a massive multiplier?

Build-ups to elections, even before the campaign period, involve a lot of people — politicians, officers, supporters and operators — travelling all over the state to reassure fan bases, win new friends and negotiate support, all of which involves embracing local characters. And at speed. Unsurprisingly, Sabah numbers began spiking early September, about a week to nomination day on September 12.

If some restraint is possible during build-ups, all hell breaks loose from nomination day.

About a month of intense close engagements involving daily travels across the state and crisscross back and forth to Kuala Lumpur within the period — public health officials can do the math better — turned calamitous.  

They got the power

The question this column asks — while many are distracted by the spectre of large infection numbers in Sabah and accelerating numbers around Semenanjung: were Peninsula-based political beasts essential for the state election?

Or rephrased — because it's true for all prior by-elections — are the real political movers and shakers in regional contests actually from Kuala Lumpur?

The Malaysian economy flows through the capital, do politics and life also flow only through Kuala Lumpur?

These require examination.

When elections end, winners tend to brag to losers they were more in-tune with voters at the hamlet, village or district. However, the brutal truth is that all winners, losers and their posse are effectively out-of-towners.

Political operators who swarm in and run the show, as staff workers, politicians and even candidates.

Let that sink in.

Not overdoing the semantics, yet it’s difficult to denounce the reality that mandate is extracted from all over the country, but unfortunately, power is only exercised at the capital.

There’s a link between democratised states and local governments, and their ability to stand better on their feet. Kuala Lumpur’s unnatural supremacy over the rest of the country has choked off political vibrancy and growth in our states and local governments.

The current mayhem, even if the lessons via infectious disease spread are cruel, underlines how insidious, deep-rooted and toxic central control is to the federal spirit of our nation.

Batu Sapi fears mount

It is highly unlikely Warisan gets a free pass for Batu Sapi.

The two state seats under the parliamentary seat, N53 Sekong and N54 Karamunting were safely won by Warisan last month.

However, with “I’m the real PM” game ongoing all throughout 2020, every MP seat is gold. Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) as state government have to contest, and Usno Baru and Parti Cinta Sabah despite losing all 73 state races each must enter being Sabah-exclusive parties. Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) like seats with healthy numbers of ethnic Chinese (37 per cent for Batu Sapi), and they need to continue their defeat run, after 47 losses last month.

At N02 Bengkoka last month, 11 candidates vied and BN’s Harun Durabi snagged it with only 32 per cent of the votes — or one in three ballots. That and expected even lower voter turnout because of Covid-19 can turn the by-election into a free for all.

No Peninsula interference reduces cross state transmissions

And Sabah’s Batu Sapi is only a prelude to the largest state Sarawak’s state election. With a June 2021 deadline, this is not Sarawak being angsty, just their term expiring.

With Covid-19 vaccine’s presence worldwide no sooner than second half of 2021, Bumi Kenyalang will have state polls — a month of action — in the middle of a pandemic.

Rather than a Pause Malaysia move, maybe an only Sarawak election?

Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional can agree to restrain their troops — Semenanjung politicians and operators — from participating in the state election. Let Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), the various Sarawak-based parties opposed to GPS like Parti Sarawak Bersatu, and any number of Semenanjung-based parties’— PKR, DAP, Pribumi Bersatu, PAS etc — Sarawak branch contest against each other without Malaya’s involvement.

While there would be considerable movement of Sarawakians during the campaign, the absence of Semenanjung-based politicians would cut cross state transmissions.

Granted, Semenanjung-based voters would return to vote, but they go home for days only, see limited friends and family and return to Semenanjung without going from one crowded venue to another.

They’d behave like regular voters, not like election campaigners.

If PN, BN, PAS and Pakatan Harapan feel, as they often repeat, Malaysians' well-being is paramount, they might want to shake hands virtual high five on this deal.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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