Traditional dancers at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong, outside Kuching, on the island of Borneo, on November 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
Traditional dancers at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong, outside Kuching, on the island of Borneo, on November 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Prime Minister Najib Razak recently unveiled a new masterplan to boost investment in East Malaysia, a region composed of the Borneo states of Sabah, Sarawak and federal territory of Labuan. If government spending sways voters’ hearts and minds, it could play a deciding role in this year’s general election.

The ‘Labuan Development Blueprint 2030’ includes plans for the construction of a 11-kilometer bridge connecting Labuan with Sabah, a link which has been mooted for decades but never built. The bridge is part of Najib’s broad US$3.2 billion Pan-Borneo Highway scheme spanning Sarawak and Sabah.

For years, many East Malaysians have felt politically and financially overlooked by the mainland. Others desire more autonomy, including a greater share of natural resource extraction revenues, something they contend the two Borneo states were promised back in the 1960s.

Some surveys project that support in East Malaysia for Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is at its lowest ebb in years, which could prove fatal in the upcoming election that must be held by August. Najib hasn’t been coy about the political nature of his latest financial overtures.

“If you make the right decision, we will deliver real change,” he said on January 18 while launching the Labuan Development Blueprint 2030, with the rub being that a vote for BN at the upcoming polls is the “right decision” for East Malaysians.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak looks on during the 60th Merdeka Day (Independence Day) celebrations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin/File Photo
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak looks on during Independence Day celebrations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia August 31, 2017. Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Labuan, a series of islands off the northwest coast of Sabah, is best known as a low-tax financial hub that grew rich in the 1990s on the back of high oil prices. But recent falling global fuel prices have badly dented the local economy while also hitting the finances of Sabah and Sarawak.

Labuan, home to 100,000 people and with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of roughly US$16,000 in 2016, is the second richest region of Malaysia, trailing only Kuala Lumpur. GDP per capita in the more-populated Sabah, by comparison, was just US$5,400, the third lowest in the country.

In December, speaking at a conference of the Sarawak United People’s Party, a component member of the BN coalition, Najib said East Malaysian states could be given more autonomy, but “firstly there should be no talk of secession. The second red line is that the people must support [the BN].”

For BN strategists, East Malaysian constituencies were long considered “fixed deposits” of votes as the ruling coalition was almost guaranteed to win nearly all parliamentary seats in the states. At the 2013 general election, however, the former opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition won nine of East Malaysia’s 57 seats (Sarawak has 31 seats; Sabah 25; and Labuan one).

Map of Malaysia and Singapore.
A map showing Malaysia’s peninsular mainland and eastern Borneo states. iStock/Getty Images

If the new Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, formed in 2015 after the disbandment of Raykat and now led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, wins double-digit seats in Borneo, it could cost BN the election. BN is already cognizant that the peninsular vote will likely be very close.

Numerous pollsters project that Harapan could rout the ruling BN coalition on the mainland, possibly winning as many as 100 seats. (112 seats are needed to form a majority government).

The opposition’s odds have improved thanks to the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), a new party founded by Mahathir in 2016 – the same year he quit the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the largest party in BN.

Mahathir, 92, served as prime minister between 1981 and 2003 and has recently emerged as Najib’s most strident critic. The PPBM joined Harapan last year and is expected to poll well in the upcoming election in large part because, despite the coalition’s multi-cultural emphasis, PPBM’s ethnic-driven strategy appeals to traditional Malay Muslim voters.

The party hopes many will vote for it instead of UMNO, another Malay-centric party that has long campaigned on affirmative action policies that favor the indigenous majority, or bumiputera, over ethnic minority Chinese and Indian populations.

After Mahathir was named Harapan’s prime ministerial candidate last month, support for the opposition coalition rocketed in Malay Muslim rural areas, according to a recent study by the Institut Darul Ehsan, a Selangor-based independent think tank.

When we were young: Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and his deputy Anwar Ibrahim (L) pray during the United Malays National Organization party's 50th anniversary celebration in a 1996 file photo. Photo: AFP / Francis Silvan
Then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) and his deputy Anwar Ibrahim (L) during UMNO’s 50th anniversary celebration in a 1996 file photo. Photo: AFP/Francis Silvan

But despite the PPBM’s appeal in peninsular Malaysia, some analysts think East Malaysians are unlikely to want to see Mahathir return as premier given widespread perceptions that he treated the region unfairly during his premiership.

Poverty levels in Sarawak and Sabah were upwards of 30% in the 1980’s, much higher than other parts of Malaysia, which many locals felt was caused by Mahathir’s lack of attention to the Borneo states.

The PPBM has so far made few efforts to appeal to East Malaysian voters, leading to suggestions that it is deliberately eschewing Sarawak and Sabah. Its Democratic Action Party (DAP) and People’s Justice Party (PKR) coalition partners, however, are now busy activating their political ties in the region.

The DAP holds two parliamentary seats in Sabah and five in Sarawak. The PKR has just one in Sarawak. The DAP, however, lost five of its 12 seats at the 2016 Sarawak state assembly elections, indication perhaps that the opposition’s strong momentum at the 2013 general elections is not guaranteed at the upcoming polls.

What makes the Borneo states so problematic for opposition coalitions is the sheer number of local parties, most of which prefer not to enter coalitions. In past elections, this has led to a horse-trading free-for-all that often benefits the ruling BN. National and state level elections will be held simultaneously this year.

13th Malaysian General Election
Political signs and banners at Malaysia’s 2013 general election. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Last month, Harapan announced which of its composite parties will contest the 165 seats in peninsular Malaysia. The PPBM, for example, will contest 52 seats, while the DAP 35. This is commonplace in Malaysian elections as it ensures coalition partners do not cannibalize votes from their allies in certain constituencies.

So far, however, there has been no such national-level agreement over Harapan’s seat distribution in East Malaysia, leaving it to state-level members to sort out. Last month, it was reported that the DAP’s Sabah branch was trying to negotiate an election seating framework strategy with the local Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan).

One DAP lawmaker recently projected optimistically that Harapan will win 100 seats in mainland Malaysia, which would mean the coalition only needs to secure another 12 seats in East Malaysia to win the election.

Chong Chieng Jen, Harapan’s chairman for Sarawak, said last month that he thinks the coalition can win 10 of the state’s 31 parliamentary seats. There is no indication yet of how many more seats the BN hopes to win in East Malaysia on the back Najib’s big Borneo investment promises.

Politweet, a Malaysian research firm, recently conducted a simulation taking the opposition Raykat coalition’s 2013 election results as a base level and giving the new opposition coalition an additional five percentage point boost in support.

Its statistical simulation found that Harapan could win between 115 and 117 seats nationwide, potentially giving it a razor thin majority in parliament.

A Malaysian woman waits in the queue to cast her vote at a polling station in Kuching on May 7, 2016. Malaysia's largest state went to the polls in an election that poses a test for a ruling coalition deeply shaken by allegations of massive corruption linked to Prime Minister Najib Razak.  / AFP PHOTO / STR / Malaysia OUT
A Malaysian woman waits to cast her vote at a polling station in Kuching on May 7, 2016. Photo: AFP/Stringer

However, that simulation didn’t factor in the threat posed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which split from the opposition Raykat coalition in 2015 and is now likely to compete in the upcoming general election with its own coalition that could fracture Harapan’s Malay Muslim vote.

“A stronger swing of support and victories in East Malaysia would still be important for [Harapan]. Due to the high-risk seats, [Harapan] would need to target an additional 10 or more seats in East Malaysia,” the pollster’s report said.

Winning an additional ten seats for Harapan in East Malaysia, taking its potential total number up to 19, will be an uphill struggle, despite the electoral optimism expressed by its regional coalition representatives.

A survey taken late last year by Invoke Malaysia, an opposition-leaning think tank, projected that Harapan would win eight and five seats in Sabah and Sarawak, respectively, for a total of 13 seats.

But if the results in peninsular Malaysia are as close as some analysts predict, a handful of seats either way in East Malaysia could decide who wins and who loses at the upcoming polls.

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