By Jaswinder Kaur
The New Straits Times Press (M) Berhad.
When Parti Bersatu Sabah rejoined the Barisan Nasional last year, some thought that Sabah’s legendary political battles would be gone for good. But while the BN is set to win easily, old grudges are re-emerging, writes JASWINDER KAUR. SINCE its formation in 1985, Parti Bersatu Sabah has continued to be the spark that ignites political intrigues and battles.
Sabah politics has never been unexciting. Since the State joined the Federation to form Malaysia in 1963, one dominant party after another has captured the headlines, either for derring do, display of power and wealth, or for the colourful nature of the personalities involved.
First it was "the father of Sabah", Tun Datu Mustapha Harun, who formed the United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) and ruled the State alternately as Governor and Chief Minister for nine years until his own protege, Datuk Harris Salleh, and his nemesis, Tun Fuad Stephens, teamed up to oust him in 1976.
Fuad died in an air crash months later, and Harris took the mantle to lead Berjaya, which ruled the State, again for nine years, until the PBS, led by Harris' own protege, Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, toppled it in 1985.
"The nine-year curse" also fell on PBS, when it was ousted by Umno and a coalition of State parties — all former allies of Pairin — in 1994. Now in its 10th year in power, the Umno-led coalition is the first to outlast the nine-year jinx. Given its strong support, plus the inclusion of the PBS in its ranks, there is no doubt that it will retain power easily in State elections, which must be called by April 12.
Unlike Usno and Berjaya, which have almost ceased to exist, PBS has survived, winning 17 of the 48 seats contested in the last State elections in 1999.
What, then, is the problem? Nothing much, except for the same rivalries, family feuds and egos of recent history. As the smell of elections gets stronger, the war of words between the PBS and another BN component, United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) has gained steam.
The leaders of the two parties, Pairin and Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, were founders of the PBS and close friends until they parted ways in 1994. Today, they are fighting over seat allocations and separate claims of representing the Kadazandusun and Murut communities. They are questioning each other's credibility and old quarrels have re-surfaced.
Upko wants to be considered for the Kadazandusun and Murut majority areas, while PBS is eyeing more than the 17 constituencies it won in the last State election. When the PBS contested as an Opposition party in 1999, 13 of the seats it won were in predominantly Kadazandusun and Murut areas.
Upko won only the Ranau and Kuala Penyu constituencies of the 12 it contested for the BN. Dompok was one of the casualties when he lost in Moyog to the PBS' Datuk Clarence Bongkos Malakun (who has since joined Upko).
"We were on the defensive at that time and this was fully capitalised on by the Opposition, especially PBS. However, people only talk about the State election. They tend to forget the parliamentary election held in November the same year," Dompok said.
"Upko won three of the four seats contested, while PBS only managed to get two seats in Kadazandusun-Murut areas and one in a Chinese constituency. The improvement in the results of the federal election shows that the people appreciate what the Government has done." In that election, BN won 17 of the 20 seats contested, with PBS taking the remaining three. Dompok won the Kinabalu parliamentary seat.
Now that the PBS is on the same side, Dompok does not foresee problems with the parties working together to secure victory for the BN once seats were assigned.
"Once the BN takes a decision, the whole election machinery will start working. The squabbling, which is more of an open debate in the newspapers, is part of the PBS acclimatising to the BN. It will cool down," Dompok said.
Pairin said his party hoped to get a fair share of seats. But it would work with its colleagues in the BN regardless of the decision by the leadership.
However, he said there had been trouble from within the BN when PBS was assisting the coalition to win the Gaya byelection in October 2002. "Despite elements of sabotage in the by-election, we played a positive role. Our re-entry has been positive for the BN." Pairin said the issues pursued by the PBS, even while in Opposition, such as the large presence of illegal immigrants in Sabah, had been noticed by the Government and steps taken to address them.
For the third and smallest player in the Kadazandusun-Murut triangle, the Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS), sticking with the BN through thick and thin has led it to political maturity.
"Of course, more needs to be done. But taking into consideration that PBRS is a small party, we have contributed to political stability in the last decade. We have submitted our request to be considered for seats. I do not foresee any squabble once the seats are allocated," its president, Tan Sri Joseph Kurup, said.
The fact that the party does not have any elected representatives has not deterred Kurup and other leaders.
"Some told me that I was committing political suicide (by standing for the BN) and it's true because I lost in the 1999 State election. Then there was the issue of assemblymen coming and going," he said.
Six assemblymen from PBS, including Pairin's brother Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, left to join PBRS after the election. Kitingan was subsequently sacked after a power tussle with Kurup, while the other five returned to PBS when it rejoined BN.
Seat allocations aside, the three leaders have their own opinions on the future of the Kadazandusun and Murut communities and whether there should be a single party to represent them, as they make up only about a third of Sabah's 2.4 million population.
While Dompok and Kurup feel it would be good for the two groups to be represented by one party, Pairin was more cautious.
"I think we should go forward for greater unity instead of debating on this issue. PBS enjoys good support from the Kadazandusun and Murut because their interests are considered along with that of other races," Pairin said.
Dompok and Kurup, who had conducted merger talks which have since been put on hold, envisage one party for the Kadazandusun.
"We need to first create a relationship that will allow us to discuss things in an informal manner. It is good to have one party but there must be sincerity," was Kurup's reply.
Dompok's view was that one party for both in the BN would make it possible for the Kadazandusun and Murut, who are a minority in Malaysia, to be effectively represented in the Government.
The impending State and parliamentary elections will be the ultimate platform for the three parties to test their strengths, particularly in the two communities, which still require attention in priority areas such as education and economic opportunities.