The sudden withdrawal of Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) from the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition on Sept 17 injected some excitement and drama into the series of political ripples in Sabah in the Year of the Rat (2008).

The pullout came three months after SAPP declared it had lost confidence in the leadership of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, sparking speculation that it would join Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance amid claims of defection of lawmakers from Sabah and Sarawak to PR.

The timing of the announcement by SAPP president Datuk Yong Teck Lee also generated curiosity and interest not only among Sabahans but also among Malaysians in general as it happened a day after the failed, but much-talked about, Sept 16 deadline for PR to seize power from the ruling coalition.

Ironically, Sept 16 concides with the date of the formation of Malaysia, a large federation that includes Sabah and Sarawak whose lawmakers now play a pivotal role in determining BN’s survival in the political arena.

In justifying the SAPP’s decision, Yong claimed that Sabah had been shortchanged all this while, including in the oil royalty issue, and highlighted an eight-point declaration seeking a better deal for the state.

In a dramatic turn of events, former SAPP deputy president Datuk Raymond Tan Shu Kiah — who disagreed with the decision to leave the BN — revealed a sort of “political secret” that Yong was actually unhappy when no additional seats were given to SAPP in the last general election.

Tan, who chose to remain in BN and continued to hold state cabinet posts as Deputy Chief Minister and Minister of Infrastructure Development, is said to be in the process of forming a new party that would eventually apply to join the BN.

The SAPP’s pullout had somewhat overshadowed BN’s thumping victory in Sabah, the Land Below the Wind, where it won 59 of 60 state seats at stake.

Sabah voters rewarded Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman, who led the BN’s return to power with a convincing victory, losing only the Sri Tanjung seat to DAP but recaptured the Kuala Penyu seat that eluded BN’s grip in the 2004 state election.

BN’s victory in 24 out of 25 parliamentary seats in Sabah made the victory all the sweeter, living up to Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s assertion that Sabah is and will always be a “fixed deposit” for BN.

“We thank the people of Sabah for giving us the trust once again,” Musa said after the announcement of results of the March 8 general election.

A week after the SAPP’s pullout, another BN component party — the United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) — threatened to review its position in the BN, igniting the political temperature in the country, with some speculating that Upko might possibly follow suit.

Upko appeared to be unhappy with the way the National Registration Department (NRD) handled the plight of 78-year-old Yong Lee Hua, a Sino-Kadazan, who was issued with a red identity card (IC) with a status of a permanent resident when she went to replace her blue IC that she lost in a supermarket in Penampang last year.

However, the problem was quickly resolved in the BN’s way when Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar made a surprise visit to the state NRD office and reinstated Yong’s Mykad.

He also announced the appointment of a local senior civil servant, Abdul Jaffear Henry, as the new director of the state NRD, following complaints about alleged inefficiency and discrepancy in the issuance of MyKad.

Upko had also objected to the construction of a gas pipeline from Kimanis to Bintulu, but when its president Tan Sri Bernard Dompok raised the issue at the federal cabinet meeting, a decision was reached to continue with the project, but only excess gas would be piped to Sarawak.

The federal cabinet also agreed to create a full-fledged petrochemical industry in Sabah, thus putting the issue to rest.

Another interesting happening in this eventful year was the Kota Kinabalu Election Court’s decision on Sept 8 to declare null and void the election of Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS) Tan Sri Joseph Kurup as member of parliment for Pensiangan.

The petition was filed by Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PKR) Danny Anthony Andipai whose nomination papers were rejected by the returning officer on nomination day.

In the days after the court’s decision, talks about the preparations for a possible by-election in Pensiangan by PKR and BN took centre stage in the local media.

However, the media hype fizzled noticeably four days later when Kurup filed a notice of appeal to the Federal Court in Putrajaya against the Election Court’s decision.

The then Election Commission chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman was quoted as saying that the appeals court would have to dispose of the case within six months from the date of appeal.

Although the appeal is pending, the battle on the ground to win the hearts and minds of the electorate in Pensiangan — a BN stronghold — has already begun albeit on a small scale.

When Anwar came to Sabah on Nov 21, the issue of Pensiangan by-election resurfaced and the PKR adviser, who was optimistic of wresting the seat from the BN, said the party would definitely field a candidate if there was a by-election.

At least two names — Andipai and PKR vice-president Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan — emerged as the clear frontrunners to take on the BN.

On development, Musa said, Sabah received huge allocations from the federal government including RM20 billion under the Ninth Malaysia Plan and RM2.3 billion for the Sabah Development Corridor.