KOTA KINABALU: While there is a cinematic ‘coming to a polling booth near you’ air over the soon-to-be-held 13th general election, the people here appear somewhat unmoved and cynical.
In rapidly changing Sabah, the impending 13th GE is seen as nothing more than eyewash.
“It may be a new election but like some movies the plot never changes … in Sabah it will be the same old story,” volunteered a middle aged man, on his way to drop his family of four off at a cineplex here to watch the latest offering.
Like him, the nagging question on most locals’ minds as they prepare to countdown to elect a new government and Parliament anytime between now and 2013 is : “Will the vote be entirely free and fair across the whole country and especially in their own state?”
Known as the Wild East because of its freewheeling business, land grabs, government wheeling and dealing, vote buying, illegal immigrants and a basket-full of shady deals, Sabah is no stranger to controversy and skullduggery.
The sudden interest by the ruling coalition government to form a parliamentary committee to look into how to make elections freer and fairer, is seen as a side show, judging from the talk in the coffeeshops.
Already Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s pledge to give Malaysians the “best democracy in the world” is ringing hollow as soon to be repealed draconian laws like the Internal Security Act that allowed detention without trial and a law requiring a police permit for more than five people to gather together publicly are said to be replaced by even more stringent, all-encompassing regulations.
One of them is a spanking new Peaceful Assembly Act that belies its name.
In Sabah, they call it “wayang”, loosely translated as “show”.
“They are just playing for time,” said John, a father of two who considers himself a politically savvy Sabahan no different from many of those of his generation who were born in the 1980s and who have a healthy distrust of promises by government.
“Why now all of a sudden? They don’t know about this before, meh?” he asked.
Smirking he adds: “They must form a committee first, mah.” His sarcasm is not lost on his wife and his in-laws who giggle as they enjoy the evening out.
Need for international observers
The words ‘committee’ and ‘committee meeting’ have a quirky meaning in the state and it is unfortunate the ‘Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms’ has that tag.
Talk of a RCI (Royal Commission of Inquiry) into how illegal immigrants acquired citizenship and voting rights over the last two decades has also met with skepticism.
“Umno has already said there is no need so what are they (Sabah-based political parties such as PBS, Upko, PBRS and LDP) talking about,” asked a local engineer who requested anonymity because he is working for a company that has government-linked contracts.
“They can’t even agree among themselves on such an important issue and they call themselves a coalition?
The right brain disagreeing with the left brain … how can?”
He believes that the Umno-led Barisan Nasional ruling coalition is attempting to pacify a more demanding public for as long as it can ahead of the next election but will ultimately do nothing to resolve the issue that is at the heart of Sabah’s future.
“They will still use the phantom voters … they can’t help it … that is the only way they can win. All the marginal seats are theirs (BN),” he says.
Pessimism about ever having a clean and fair election runs deep.
Kanul Gindol, a political operative, spoke plainly of the despair when he told Maximus Ongkili, the chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms during a public hearing here last week, that the only panacea to their problem would be to invite international observers during the elections.
He said allowing recognised international observers would go a long way towards helping regain public confidence in the electoral process.
Dr Chong Eng Leong, a political activist who has chronicled the various stages of a virtual takeover of Sabah by illegal immigrants with the help of politicians, was another who alluded to how the electoral system had been subverted to favour the government.
Ongkili, who is the Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation and a member of PBS-led government who was kicked out of power by Umno in 1994, is well aware of how the voters’ rolls have been manipulated by the coalition.
But since the party rejoined BN and he made recipient of a federal cabinet post, he has gagged himself.
People still remember the incident in the 2008 general election when the counting room with the ballot boxes suddenly plunged into darkness when it became obvious that an opposition politician was winning.
When power supply was restored, unaccounted ballot boxes had materialised during the interval and the politician lost the race.
Right on cue this week, word came from the government itself that nothing has changed since the last general election in 2008.
Kalabakan MP Abdul Ghapur Salleh was reported as saying that electricity supply disruptions had been happening repeatedly in recent years and warned the utility company not to take Sabahans for granted.
He may be right.