First By-Election in The Land Below the Wind
The land below the wind witnessed its very first by-election after the 14th General Election due to the passing of Datuk Stephen Wong, Member of Parliament for Sandakan and Minister of People’s Health and Wellbeing of Sabah.
The Sandakan by-election was hotly contested. It was a multi-cornered fight with the appearance of candidates from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), United Sabah Party (PBS), and three independent candidates. Major national opposition parties like UMNO and PAS stayed away from this by-election, but they showed their supports to PBS in the endorsement of a shared ideology to fight for “hak Bumiputera” (Natives Rights). PBS is also a member party under the United Alliance (Gabungan Bersatu Sabah – GBS), a fresh opposition coalition at the state level that pro-BN formed after GE14. However, when Sulaiman Abdul Samad, an independent candidate promised that there will be no Oktoberfest if he was elected, it seemed that the political discourse of “secular versus religious” that is rampant in the Peninsula has affected Sandakan as well. Above all, it was a tough battle for the DAP as the ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan has been defeated in the last three by-elections held in Peninsula. A victory would therefore reverse these electoral setbacks.
The Sandakan constituency consists of 39,684 eligible voters. It comprises of 51% Chinese voters, 45% Muslim Bumiputera of various ethnicities, including Bajau, Suluk, Sungai, Bugis and Javanese, and the rest are mainly KadazanDusun and other races such as Filipinos and Indians. It is a “Bumiputera – Non-Bumiputera” balanced parliamentary seat.
Triumph was on the PH side upon polling night. DAP’s candidate Vivian Wong, the late Stephen Wong’s daughter won a landslide victory with a majority of 11,521 votes over her rivals, despite the lower voter turnout (54%) in comparison to the GE14 (72%). In addition, DAP won in 91 stations from a total of 93 polling stations. What caused such a howling success?
1) Incumbent advantage
Borneo political environment is somewhat distinct from the Peninsula due to the degree of differences in socio-political and socio-economic development. The differences are more pronounced in the following sub-factors. Incumbents have a few advantages over challengers. For instance: More visibility (they are in the spotlight due to their earlier term in office), better access to resources and well-oiled machinery, an existing base of supporters and connections with political actors and media outlets. Moreover, patronage-style politics is greatly reflected in Sabah politics. Voters have the tendency to choose the ruling party or coalition due to political incentives. The combination of Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) led by Sabah’s Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, DAP and PH was seen as a very attractive choice and it means stable governance to voters. Not to mention that Shafie is a very influential state politician with extensive administration experiences. Voting for the ruling party or coalition means development directed from the federal and state level can be ensured.
2) Sabah BN’s Dissolution
Eleven Members of Parliament have quit Sabah’s BN since GE14. The defection has brought casualty to the coalition, and five out of eleven MPs have joined PH. Furthermore, the opposition coalition GBS has only three MPs. The reduction of Sabah’s BN MPs signifies the weakening of opposition parties/coalition political machinery, electoral mobilisation of grassroots supporters and weakening of financial sources during election campaigns.
3) Protest against the BN-PAS coalition
Sabah is a tolerant society that embraces adherents of all other faiths. The Muslim community comprises the largest demographic followed by the Christian community with very significant numerical make-up. BN-PAS coalition’s Malay-Muslim narrative would be hard-pressed to an extent to make a dent in the heart of Sabah voters as the society there is more inclusive and tolerant. Furthermore, Sabah PAS has the record of issuing a memorandum to protest the Christmas and New Year Eve celebrations which eventually upset the local Christian community. Such an event in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia served to further divide the people, creating unnecessary fear, suspicion and tension. Consequently, Sandakan voters did not subscribe to the narratives of ethnoreligious dominance, and the by-election result has shown that there is a clear rejection of racial and religious politics by Sandakan people.
In short, the abovementioned factors have brought victory for PH in Sandakan. However, the impacts and winning factors in Sandakan are less likely to be further duplicated or prolonged at the national level due to varying circumstances of different localities. Therefore, PH must be cautious as well as make extra efforts to ensure strong and good governance – the only key to capturing future elections.