By Bridget Welsh
An estimated 172,000 Chinese voters will head to the polls on September 26 in Sabah. Chinese Sabahans currently comprise 15% of the electorate. Historically, Chinese Sabahans have been the political 'kingmakers' in their state's politics. Over the years, their political influence has declined as their vote has been diluted in the creation of new seats and share in the population reduced with migration and other demographic shifts.
From 2013, the shift in voting support among the Chinese community broadly underscoring a change in Sabah. After GE13, the electoral terrain became more competitive, with an estimated 82% of Chinese Sabahans voting for Pakatan Rakyat at the time. Of this support, only an estimated 6% went to independent candidates, with the BN only winning an estimated 12% of Chinese support. Among the many different ethnic communities in Sabah, the Chinese were the leaders of the contemporary political change.
In 2018, Chinese support swung further away from Barisan Nasional, with an estimated 93% of Chinese Sabahans voting for Warisan-Plus parties – Warisan, PKR and DAP, an estimated swing of 11% away from the then Musa Aman UMNO-led BN government. Support for BN was cut in half, to 6%, a record low in the history of Chinese Sabahan voting behavior. While swings were large in other communities, especially among the Bajau and Suluk communities, the swing towards Warisan among Chinese Sabahans was instrumental in securing the seats that would be necessary for Warisan and its allies to position themselves for power in May 2018. More Chinese came out to vote as their voter turnout increased modestly 2% to 74%, also making a difference. Chinese were united in their support for Warisan and its allies. Comparatively, Chinese Sabahan support for change was even higher than other parts of Malaysia – from an already high number, 85%.
Estimates Voting Behavior in Sabah State Elections*
This 2020 snap state election will be a test of whether Chinese support remains high. In Peninsular Malaysia over twelve by-elections Chinese support for Pakatan Harapan dropped, with the November 2019 Tanjong Piai by-election being a turning point where support dropped by 25%. In the two recent by-elections Chini and Slim of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, seats with only a modest share of Chinese voters, support level dropped further. There has been a move away from Pakatan Harapan parties, with particular disappointment in the leadership of Tun Mahathir Mohamad.
The Sabah poll remains highly competitive. Chinese Sabahans will determine the outcome. A study of the seats comprised of Chinese voters shows that Chinese Sabahans comprise more than 20% of voters in 13 seats, or 18% of the seats. The seats with the most Chinese voters are Luyang and Likas in KK, Sri Tanjong in Tawau and Elopura and Tanjong Papat in Sandakan. In nearly a fifth of total seats, Chinese Sabahan turnout and voting patterns will be decisive. Given the closeness of margins in Sabah seats in multi-cornered contests, Chinese Sabahan voters also determine the result in another 22 seats, with more than 5% of Chinese voters. This means in 35 seats, 48% of all the seats, Chinese Sabahans will continue to set the outcome for Sabah.
Chinese Voters in Sabah Seats
On the ground, the sentiment among Chinese Sabahans is not the same as it was in GE14. The economic slowdown, even before COVID-19, has had an effect. Some voters are disappointed with the previous Pakatan Harapan government. Even more voters are growing cynical about the frogging or political defections by those elected. Sentiments vary across Chinese Sabahans with those in Kota Kinabalu more Warisan Plus friendly than in other parts of Sabah, such as Sandakan and Tawau. This is in part due to different economic issues, such as palm oil, different voting practices and types of contests. The mood however is being evolving as polling day draws nears.
In the campaign, five issues stand out as among the main concerns of Chinese Sabahans – economy, leadership, inclusion, COVID-19 and Sabah rights. Economic realities are by far on the mind of voters, as livelihoods matter. They want a government that will stimulate the economy. Some look to the BN period of Musa Aman more favorably, while others recognize the economic slowdown is a global phenomenon.
There are concerns about who will lead the state. Shafie Apdal's leadership is seen as bringing more certainty and competence, less instability. BN's state leadership alternatives are largely unknowns.
For other Chinese Sabahans, the issue of respect for the community predominates, with attention to religious freedom in particular. Warisan Plus has focused its narrative on moving away from race and religion, implicitly empowering minority communities.
COVID-19 has also cast a shadow over the election, with increasing numbers creating fear and potentially impacting turnout, an issue especially among older Chinese voters. The PN's handling of COVID-19 also comes into question as numbers in Sabah increase.
Finally, Chinese Sabahans are Sabahans, and remain concerned about the autonomy of the state and how it has been (mis)treated by the federal government. Comments by BN politicians about denying an increase in oil royalty and an increase in federal party representation more generally creates unease, for some, anger.
Chinese Sabahans are weighing these different factors. Some are increasingly just fed up with the current situation of politics altogether – its lack of deliverables as well as instability. The majority however are concerned and will vote.
Two trajectories are important to watch: turnout and support levels. Both are likely to drop, but how much is not yet clear. Early indicators suggest a potential drop in Warisan support is most significant in shaping the result. It should not reach below that of 60% on Peninsular Malaysia.
Independents will face an uphill fight against the main alliances. Of special interest is Liew Yun Fah contesting in Merotai whose political fortunes will be shaped by army voters. Former Chief Minister Chong Kah Kiat of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) may be caught up in the big fight among different parties, as independents struggle to win support among Chinese Sabahans whose voting has focused on main parties.
The campaign is still ongoing and highly competitive. Among Chinese Sabahans, it will be the young Chinese, around 50,000 voters, who will set the direction for the community. The appeal of the Warisan Plus campaign has been strong in this community.
What is sure, however, is that Chinese Sabahans can make and break the political fortunes of Warisan Plus and in doing so set the direction for Chinese representation across Malaysia. As voters explained to me, they are deciding whether they will accept a 'little change' or return to the 'same old,' less than ideal choices. Every vote will count in the close contests. Chinese Sabahans remain kingmakers.
*Estimates of voting behavior are calculated looking at the polling station results and using a method called ecological inference.
(Bridget Welsh is a political scientist based in Malaysia. She is Senior Research Associate at the Hu Fu Centre for East Asia Democratic Studies and a Senior Associate Fellow of The Habibie Centre. She tweets at @dririshsea.)