Sabah General Election 2008. (File photo/tclee9300y)

The 2008 Malaysian General Election saw the BN (Barisan Nasional or National Front) returned to power with less than a two-thirds majority.

It has been observed that this is BN’s worst electoral outing since 1969. The situation is rather different in Sabah, one of the thirteen states in Malaysia, in which BN managed to almost making a clean sweep and thus denying the opposition any chance to making inroads.

Even though it was initially observed that the opposition led by PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) could deny BN a major victory in Sabah, the election results indicate otherwise. At the outset, a major portion of the electorate in Sabah has renewed its support to BN, following the trend in 2004. The article argues that the tide of the “Peninsular factor” (i.e. the combined personality factor of Anwar and Mahathir and other contentious issues in the Peninsular Malaysia) give little impact on Sabah politics. It explains why the voters in Sabah give their support to BN and why they have abandoned the opposition.

At the national level, the BN suffered a major setback since 1969 after failing to retain its two-thirds majority win. The BN even failed to obtain a majority of popular votes cast in Peninsular Malaysia It only obtained 49 per cent of the popular votes cast compared to the opposition 51 per cent (Asian Strategic Leadership Institute 2008). Of all the 140 seats the BN won, 54 came from Sabah and Sarawak. So without the contribution of Sabah and Sarawak, the BN would not have obtained a simple majority.

The opposition also managed to increase its seats in the parliament from 12 previously to 82 this time around. The BN, however, won impressively in Sabah and Sarawak. Of all the 25 parliamentary and 60 state seats contested in Sabah, the BN won 24 and 59 respectively. In Sarawak, the opposition was clearly decimated where it only won one seat in its stronghold in Bandar Kuching compared to the BN 30 seats.

For analytical purposes, we shall divide all the contested parliamentary and state seats in Sabah into three broad categories namely Kadazandusun (or non-Muslim Bumiputera), Chinese, Muslim Bumiputera and mixed areas. From there, we shall analyse the performances of the parties contesting with respect to the popular votes cast and the number of seats won. Where necessary, a comparison with the results in 2004 is also made.

The BN won all the six parliamentary seats in Kadazandusun areas including in Pensiangan where it was won uncontested by Joseph Kurup (BN-PBRS). In terms of popular votes, the BN obtained 58.68 per cent compared to the combined opposition votes 36.40 per cent. Both the BN and opposition had their share of popular votes dropped by 1.2 and 3.71 per cent respectively (Table 2). The BN component parties of PBS and UPKO shared the number of popular votes at 24.55 per cent and 25.33 per cent respectively while UMNO only 8.79 per cent. In 2004, PBS obtained 59.88 per cent while the opposition and independents combined obtained 40.11 per cent. The large bulk of the opposition votes went to PKR (35.02 per cent), followed by BERSEKUTU (0.86 per cent) and DAP (0.51 per cent). The remaining 4.91 per cent went to the independent candidates.

At the state level, the BN won all the 13 Kadazandusun seats, collecting about 59.81 per cent of the popular votes compared to the opposition combined, 34.56 per cent (Table 3). In 2004, the BN obtained 57.88 per cent of the popular votes while the opposition 42.09 per cent. At the individual party level, the PKR managed to collect about 33.59 per cent compared to the PBS 32.91 per cent. The share of the votes obtained by UPKO and PBRS is just 17.54 per cent and 4.82 per cent respectively.

Interestingly, the opposition could have denied the BN a huge majority in a number of areas had it successful in persuading the independent candidates not to contest. For example in Tandek, the combined votes of the PKR candidate with that of the independent’s and BERSEKUTU’s could have reduced the BN’s majority to just 245. In Bingkor, Jeffrey could have won the seat had the independent chosen not to contest. The BN’s majority in Bingkor is only 122. In 2004, Jeffrey was almost able to wrest the seat from Kurup with a 143-vote difference.

The results show that the Kadazandusun voters did not totally reject the opposition’s brand of politics which some quarters say as irrelevant to local people. But one cannot deny the fact that the Kadazandusun voters want local-based parties such as PBS and UPKO to represent them at the federal level. At the state level, the opposition performed slightly better on an individual party basis, looking at the number of popular votes it obtained (33.59 per cent) compared to the major BN Kadazandusun-based party, PBS, 32.01 per cent.

This could be attributed to two reasons. First, many saw PBS as gradually losing its image as “champion” to the Kadazandusun and state rights. They might also want an opposition voice in the legislative assembly which the PBS and other state BN parties failed to provide. Second, Pairin’s silence on a number of pressing local issues such as fake ICs and illegal immigrants since becoming a “BN man” (as the opposition called him) has slightly affected his reputation as Huguan Siou (Paramount Leader). Jeffrey’s scathing attack on Pairin’s character as well as his revelation of Musa’s alleged corrupt practices might also contribute to the swing of the Kadazandusun votes.

All the BN Kadazandusun-based parties campaigned along the issues of development and continuity. The PBS chose to depart from its strong Kadazandusun outlook while UPKO emerged to become a “new” champion to the Kadazandusun community. The UPKO vowed to fight for the Kadazandusun rights as it is the only “pure” Kadazandusun party in the state. It even stated that it had “[stuck] its neck out” in speaking about the Kadazandusun problems in Sabah. The PBS, long associated with the Kadazandusun, chose to play “safe politics” as it has painful experience being in the opposition until it was re-admitted into BN in 2002.

The PBRS’s electoral strength particularly at the parliamentary level is generally untested because it won the Pensiangan seat uncontested. Despite the win, the PBRS president Joseph Kurup would have to face a lot of uncertainties ahead as there is a strong possibility that a by-election would be called in Pensiangan. Unlike in Pairin’s and Dompok’s case, Kurup had to choose the “hard way” to remain in power, that is, not to re-nominate the popular incumbent in Pensiangan Bernard Maraat whom he saw as the type of leader “who likes to work alone”.

At one time, Maraat vowed to contest as an independent but only to change his mind later. To say which among the Kadazandusun-based parties that is more popular among the Kadazandusun voters warrant another close observation but PBS has the advantage because many Kadazandusun still regard Pairin as a symbol of unity and strength due to his role as Huguan Siou and president of the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) (Luping 1984, p. 83-87).

The Chinese support for the opposition appeared to be strong in urban areas. The popular votes obtained by the opposition in the parliamentary seats of Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan is 57.41 per cent compared to the BN 35.62 per cent. Overall, the popular Chinese votes gained by the opposition saw an increase by 13.76 per cent (Table 2). Both the DAP and PKR candidate managed to defeat the BN candidate with a majority votes of more than 1000 and 900 respectively. Had the DAP, PKR and independent joined force to face the BN, they could trounce the BN candidate with well more than 10000 votes. The same scenario could be drawn in Sandakan which saw the LDP candidate facing a tough fight from the DAP and independent. Had the DAP and independent decided to contest as a single pact, they could have defeated the LDP with more than 2000 votes.

Even though the BN managed to win five of the six Chinese seats contested at the state level, the opposition’s performance could not be underestimated. The PKR, for instance, managed to deny a big majority to the PBS candidate in Api-Api who obtained only 174 votes while in several areas the huge number of votes obtained by the opposition showed that the Chinese voters were generally unhappy with the BN and that they were looking for a different party platform to represent them. The total votes obtained by the BN at the state level is 53 per cent while the opposition 49.99 per cent (Table 3). Following the trend at the parliamentary level, the opposition votes at the state level also registered a significant increase of 18.91 per cent.

The opposition could have won another one parliamentary seat and two state seats had it chosen to contest one-on-one with the BN. The table below explains this possible scenario (*sorry not table is included in this posting)

Clearly, the Chinese voting pattern could be partly explained by the rational choice theory. Rational choice theorists hold that “voting decisions are based on cost-benefit analyses where voters match their individual issue preferences with party platforms” (Andersen and Heath 2000, p. 3). The opposition’s promise to abolish affirmative action policy and to provide equal economic opportunities to all Malaysian irrespective of race and religion might be appealing to the Chinese community.

Other than that, the opposition’s promise to reform the country and to tackle the high cost of living particularly in urban areas could also contribute to the swing of the Chinese votes. It appeared that the Chinese were not too concerned about the Ma Tzu issue because it was seen as a personal problem between Musa and Chong. Chong’s decision to remain in the BN and to leave the matter to court to decide explains why some Chinese remain loyal to the BN. Had Chong decided to join the opposition, the voting pattern in the Chinese area could have seen a swing to the opposition.
Muslim areas

The BN remained strong in the Muslim areas. It won all the 15 parliamentary seats contested (including the Kalabakan seat which was won uncontested) and obtained about 66.06 per cent of the popular votes compared to the opposition 27.25 per cent (Table 2). A major share of the Muslim votes went to UMNO 53.26 per cent, followed by PKR 24.12 per cent, and the independent candidates combined 6.67 per cent. The BN repeated the similar massive victory at the state level, winning all the 36 seats contested.

The popular votes the BN obtained is 68.78 per cent while the opposition 27.58 per cent. Again, a major share of the popular votes went to UMNO 63.61 per cent while the PKR only managed to scrap through with 25.58 per cent. The Sabah UMNO really did a commendable job than its counterpart in Peninsular Malaysia which shared the number of popular votes with PAS and PKR combined at 35.5 per cent and 34.8 per cent respectively (

Clearly, the Muslim electorate rejected the PKR as an alternative party to them. The tide of the Anwar factor in Peninsular Malaysia did not seem to give much impact. Despite the chorus of attacks on Musa’s leadership and Sabah UMNO practising blatant cronyism, the Muslim electorate solidly backed Musa and gave BN a convincing win. Apart from the explanation above, the Muslim might not have any choice but to vote for the UMNO as there is no credible Muslim-backed party in Sabah. Even though there is speculation that a group of UMNO dissenters would form an alternative Muslim party, it remains just speculation. Musa was also quick to devise a plan to ensure his position in Sabah UMNO continues to be unchallenged. This included the awards of lucrative contracts to UMNO’s divisional heads and those identified to be a threat to his leadership (Malaysia Today 2008).

Another observation is that non-Muslim voters become the decisive factor in ensuring the victory to non-Muslim parties contesting in Muslim areas. For example in Putatan, Batu Sapi and Tawau parliamentary seats. Putatan has a significant number of Kadazandusun and Chinese voters (roughly 36.72 per cent) while Batu Sapi and Tawau have a substantial number of Chinese voters (37.33 per cent and 44.37 per cent respectively).

These reinforce the claim once again that the Kadazandusun and Chinese voters outside the urban areas clearly rejected the opposition particularly the PKR. The same pattern is also obvious at the state level. Non-Muslim parties such as PBS and UPKO managed to wrest the Tanjung Aru and Kuala Penyu seats respectively. Tanjung Aru has strong Chinese population at 36.59 per cent while Kuala Penyu has a large number of Kadazandusun voters at 38.77 per cent.

A mixed area can be loosely described as an area where there is no one particular ethnic group commanding a population majority of more than 50 per cent. The BN obtained about 62.14 per cent of the votes in mixed areas compared to the opposition 36.27 per cent at the parliamentary level (Table 2). A major share of the popular votes went to UPKO and SAPP in Tuaran and Sepanggar respectively while PKR obtained about 29.59 per cent. While the battle in the parliamentary mixed seat is not as decisive, the situation is different at the state level.

The opposition could have won in Inanam and Kapayan if DAP and PKR had not contested against each other. In Inanam, for instance, the combined votes of the DAP and PKR candidates could have easily toppled the BN’s candidate by well over than a thousand votes. In Kapayan, the opposition could have won the seat by a convincing majority of a thousand or so votes had it decided to contest one-on-one with the BN candidate.

Overall, the BN obtained about 51.24 per cent of the popular votes while the opposition 40.69 per cent in all the mixed seats at state level. On an individual party basis, the PKR fared relatively well, obtaining about 27.18 per cent of the votes, followed by its counterpart DAP 13.28 per cent.

By Arnold Puyok, PhD.
A lecturer in political science at Universiti Teknologi MARA Sabah Campus