PKR supporters campaigning for the Batu Sapi seat in Sabah in the 2010 elections. There has been a spate of defections in the party since the May general election.A feudal political culture and an underdeveloped economy are the two factors that will see the party-hopping of the past few months among Sabah Pakatan Rakyat state assemblymen continue for at least the next 10 years, say politicians and academics.
They believe the latest batch of defections among Sabah PKR and DAP is part of the maturing process for Sabah’s political landscape.
Changing party affiliations has been a feature of Sabah and Sarawak politics since both states joined the federation in 1963.
The practice has seen the Sabah government change hands between coalitions at times within a period of several months, such as in 1994.
Political scientist Dr Zaini Othman said Sabah’s political culture was still largely feudal where support and membership networks revolve around personalities.
Communal leadership titles, such as the Kadazandusun Huguan Siou and Bisayak Janang Gayuh, still carry a lot of weight. Members of those respective communities tend to support and vote for politicians with those titles, said Zaini.
“There are also strong family dynamics that chart political developments,” said Zaini, who is senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah.
He said this was borne out in the numerous examples of illustrious local family names who became leaders in both Sabah Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat component parties.
In their case, feuds and family interests can be a greater motivator than ideals when it comes to their future in politics.
“So when Pakatan attempts to bring in a new political culture, it has to struggle to break this local culture,” said Zaini.
The recent defections started on September 27, when DAP’s Luyang assemblyperson Hiew King Cheu quit the party and declared himself an independent.
A month later, two Parti Keadilan Rakyat assemblymen Jelani Hamdan of Matunggong and Jeremy Malajad @Malazad of Kadamaian quit their party and declared themselves independents.
Weeks after Jelani and Malajad quit, 11 Sabah PKR division leaders left the party and announced their allegiance to BN.
A Pakatan leader, who requested anonymity, claimed that part of the reason was that some of the three component parties tended not to screen the backgrounds of new members.
“Some want to build their party bases quickly, so they go for quantity instead of quality when it comes to accepting members,” said the veteran Pakatan leader.
“When you do that, you get all sorts of characters coming into the party. Sooner or later, they start causing problems,” said the Pakatan leader, who claimed his party had stringent background checks on new members.
Stringent background checks, however, mean that it takes longer for a party to grow, especially in Sabah and Sarawak where the local talent pool is small compared with the peninsula.
A Sabah-based Pakatan leader claimed that such a talent crunch meant that the coalition’s parties, especially during their inception, were staffed and led by individuals who could not make it in BN.
This is worsened by the fact that these individuals attempted to climb the ranks in the BN for financial gain.
“When Pakatan started out, there was no one who wanted to be in the opposition. So it was these people who became leaders because they had experience running a political party.”
It’s also these individuals who run Pakatan divisions like fiefdoms by appointing their family members into division posts, such as secretary, information chief and treasurer.
“But this is not the culture of Pakatan. So they’re not used to it,” said the Pakatan leader.
But as a bigger middle class and younger generation of professionals emerge from Sabah and Sarawak’s growing economies, Pakatan parties are getting an influx of better educated, financially secure members.
According to Sabah PKR chief Datuk Lajim Ukin, this is behind the recent defections of the 11 division leaders, although he claimed that only three were “real” division leaders.
“Some division leaders were reluctant to accept new members because they were afraid that these professionals were a threat to their positions.
“There were also those who could not adapt to the changes I introduced since I took over three months ago,” claimed Lajim, who is also Klias assemblyperson.
Some of the changes, he claimed, were the requirement that divisions hold regular meetings and introducing key performance indicators.
Sandakan MP Wong Tien Fatt believes that camp switching was not a bad thing as it cleansed Pakatan parties of individuals from the old political culture.
“There will always be the temptation of money politics. It won’t go away and it’s a good thing when people who get bought go because they are bad for the party.”
In the end, said Lajim, the process of creating a new political culture was not unique to Sabah.
“After the 2008 election, five PKR MPs left. But the party did not go down, did it?” – December 1, 2013.