History of Sabah Elections in 1200 Words

Sabah, one of the two states we have across the waters from Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysians not familiar with the state think they can drive there from East Malaysia and even think that we are required to have passports to get there; it’s undeniable that some of us at the West don’t know as much as we should about “the land below the wind”.

The nation’s second largest state after Sarawak, Sabah is home to over 1.2 million people consisting of Chinese, Kadazandusuns, Bajaus, Bruneis and Muruts. The Sabah Chinese population is half Christian and half Buddhist while Kadazandusuns are a quarter Muslim and three quarters Christian, like the Muruts population.

With the dissolvement of the Sabah State Assembly on July 30th, the position of Chairman/Chief Minister, who has seen 15 changes since 1963, is again up for grabs. The tables for the 2020 Sabah state elections have shown three individuals, Shafie Apdal of Pakatan Harapan/WARISAN while Barisan Nasional/UMNO are still to decide between Musa Aman and Bung Moktar Radin.

To help prepare for the occasion, here’s a history of what we know about the Sabah elections:

Sabah was led to independence by three political parties, the United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Organisation (UPKO) led by Tun Muhammad Fuad Donald Stephens, the United Sabah National Organisation (USNO) led by Datu Mustapha and the Sabah Chinese Association led by Tan Sri Peter Lo Su Yin and Tan Sri Khoo Siak Chew.

Muhammad Fuad Stephens, Sabah’s first ever Chief Minister (1963 – 1964) 

Stephens was Sabah’s first Chief Minister while Datu Mustapha was the first State Governor. Both however, shared different views on how self-governed Sabah should be; Stephens wanted a stronger degree of autonomy for Sabah while Mustapha opt for a watered-down autonomy. The Federal Government at that time, headed by the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) leaned towards Datu Mustapha but Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra maintain a strong relationship with both the Sabahan leaders.

Peter Lo picking up on turbulent times (1964 – 1967)

Stephens was eventually made a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Sabah and Peter Lo of the SCA took up the post of Sabah’s new Chief Minister. As the first Chinese to take the post, he was in charge during one the most turbulent times in Malaysian history as on top of ensuring harmony in a multi-racial state, he had to juggle conflict between the Federal, British and Sabah governments.

Datu Mustapha gets his turn, UPKO is troubled (1967 – 1975)

A few years after discovering oil in Sabah, Mustapha began to demand greater autonomy for Sabah, in which angered Tun Abdul Razak, the prime minister at that time. Stephens who dissolved UPKO to join USNO shortly before, was appointed as State Governor in 1973 and was unhappy with Mustapha for favoring the Bajaus over the majority Kadazandusuns in the political system of Sabah. Now with an agenda, Stephen left his post in 1975 to revived UPKO, but as a multi-racial party, the Sabah United People’s Party (Berjaya).

His list of notable supporters included:

  • Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan
  • Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan
  • Datuk Dr James Ongkili
  • Datuk Seri Maximus Ongkili
  • Datuk Ayub Aman
  • Datuk Seri Musa Aman
  • Datuk Anifah Aman

Two prominent leaders also helped formed Berjaya:

  • Datuk Seri Harris Salleh
  • Datuk Ghapur Salleh

Mustapha steps down, Tun Said Keruak steps into the fire (1975 – 1976)

Keruak was the most known Bajau chieftain of Kota Belud and was USNO’s deputy chief. A year after taking the position, Berjaya routed USNO in the Sabah State election and received full support from Kuala Lumpur. Mustapha and Said later crossed over to the opposition, allowing Stephens a return to the hot seat with Harris and Pairin as his deputies. 

However, this was short lived, Stephens, who was just chief minister for a month, and a majority of his State Cabinet perished in an air crash while travelling from Labuan to Kota Kinabalu on June 6th 1976. Survivors included Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Pairin and Harris.

Datuk Seri Harris Salleh outsourcing labor (1976 – 1985)

Dubbed the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad of Sabah, Harris single-handedly modernised the economy of Sabah; during his time, Sabah developed profoundly and was the second richest State in Malaysia in 1985. Harris was also influential in bringing in migrants from Phillipines and Indonesia as he saw them as a good and cheap source of labor.

Berjaya eventually joined a BN coalition while USNO did not, both remained component parties at Federal level. USNO failed to unseat Berjaya in the 1981 which resulted in the return of Mustapha as USNO chief when Said resigned and began supporting the Kitingans at Berjaya. 

The Kitingans eventually left to form their own Sabah United Party (PBS) with Pairin serving as the president. PBS went on to trounce Berjaya in the 1985 state election.

Pairin Kitingan and the defectors (1985 – 1994)

Harris and Mustapha decided to merge and form the Sabah Chapter of UMNO, the country’s main political party, to unseat Pairin. UMNO Sabah was materialised in 1990.

In 1990, Koding and Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia, quit PBS to from the People’s Justice Movement (AKAR) which later also became part of UMNO Sabah. More top leaders from PBS quit the party in 1994 to create their very own parties, which in the end became BN members. 

This among other defectors such as Datuk Yong Teck Lee, Tan Sri Bernard Tompok and Tan Sri Joseph Kurup formed Sabah People’s united Party (PBRS) and led to the eventual downfall of PBS. Pairin vacated his post in 1994 after serving the longest term as Sabah Chief Minister

Tun Sakaran Dandai slides into the hot seat, courtesy of familiar faces (1994)

Datu Mustapha’s long time assistant, Sakaran was a Murut-Bajau chieftain from Semporna. It was later revealed that Datu Mustapha, the Keruaks, the Amans, Harris and Sakaran co-engineered the defections and downfall of PBS.

Harries joined UMNO Labuan instead but still remained an important advisor for UMNO Sabah. Sakaran spent a mere few months as Chief Minister before stepping down to pick up the position of state governor, the following chief minister’s past role. 

Sakaran spent just a few months in the role of chief minister before his son took over in the same year.

Salleh Keruak, the first of many in a new system (1994)

At this time, BN had introduced a new rotation system for the Chief Minister’s post. An indigenous Muslim [either Kadazandusun, Bajau, Brunei or Murut] would be Chief Minister for two years, followed by a Chinese Sabahan and finally, an indigenous Non- Muslim [either Kadazandusun or Murut].

Salleh became the first of many rotations that was followed by members of PBRS, Yong Dompok, Datuk Seri Osu Sukam, Tan Sri Datuk Chong Kah Kiat and eventually Musa Aman in 2003.

A new beginning with Musa Aman (2004 – 2018)

With Musa at the post, BN decided to scrap the rotation system as they realised it did not give the Chief Minister enough time to carry out his projects. PBS went on to rejoin BN in 2001; Jeffrey quit PBRS in 2004 and went on to be the chief of the Sabah Chapter of the People’s Justice Party (PKR). The Sabah chapter of Gerakan was formed by PBS opposers led by Datuk Kong Hong Ming.

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