Malaysian state's shot at multiracial politics could have nationwide impact

The East Malaysian state of Sabah is conducting a bold new experiment in multiracial politics. In state assembly elections this past weekend, the ruling Sabah United Party (PBS) won a strong mandate from Christian, Chinese, and some Muslim voters, to bring about changes in this oil- and timber-rich state. The election was held following a year of political turmoil.

The experiment could have important implications for the rest of Malaysia, where races typically have their own political parties and power is nominally shared through party coalitions -- although the ethnic Malay Muslims in fact control the national government behind a ruling coalition called the National Front.

Although PBS's original constituency was the predominantly Christian Kadazan tribe, the party won the majority of Chinese votes and also made strong inroads into the Malay Muslim community -- to win 35 of the 48 seats in the state assembly. PBS was formed last year as a Kadazan counter to the Muslims' political and economic domination. In its debut in the April 1985 state election, PBS won a 26-seat majority.

PBS's evolution pretty much fits the Sabah political pattern. The previous government was headed by the nominally multiracial Sabah People's Union (Berjaya), which had been formed seven years before for the explicit purpose of ousting the Muslim-dominated United Sabah National Organization from power.

In last year's election, USNO gained 16 seats and Berjaya six. But, despite their minority showing, they tried to outflank PBS. USNO and Berjaya leaders made a post-midnight visit to the state governor and persuaded him to swear in veteran USNO leader Tun Mustapha bin Datuk Harun as the state's new chief minister. Hours later, the governor, claiming he had been coerced, revoked the appointment and swore in PBS leader Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan.

That move, as it turned out, solved nothing. Angered at PBS's refusal to let them share in the pie through a coalition government, USNO and Berjaya boycotted the assembly and worked assiduously to encourage defections from PBS.

Tun Mustapha went to court to promote his claim to be rightful chief minister -- an action that was dismissed just before last weekend's election. The federal government in Kuala Lumpur also played its part. Berjaya was part of the ruling National Front headed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad, who campaigned strongly on its behalf in the April 1985 election.

After PBS's victory, Dr. Mahathir refused to admit the party into the National Front -- composed of parties separately representing all of Malaysia's major racial groups -- on the grounds it was not multiracial. Translated, that meant it didn't look after Malay Muslim interests.

Pork-barrel politics has always been the name of the game in Sabah, and the power shift was seen as undermining Malay economic interests. Soon the cry went up that PBS was pursuing anti-Islamic policies -- an issue that Mahathir, under fire from Islamic fundamentalists in peninsular Malaysia for alleged heretical behavior, could not afford to ignore.

The agitation culminated this March in an outbreak of rioting, arson, and bomb explosions. It was carefully orchestrated. The bombs, often exploding on deserted country lanes, were reportedly designed to create an image of instability and persuade Dr. Mahathir to declare a state of emergency and impose federal rule.

This he steadfastly refused to do. But he did attempt to restore peace by proposing a coalition government for Sabah comprising PBS, USNO, and Berjaya.

Rank-and-file members of PBS, angered at the way their election victory was being diluted, refused to let PBS leader Pairin accept the proposal. Instead, the electorate was urged to pass judgment.

After all their earlier fire, the two opposition parties waged a desultory campaign. Tun Mustapha stayed away in Kuala Lumpur, eventually announcing his retirement from politics and leaving USNO without a dominant personality to lead the campaign. Berjaya, with former Chief Minister Datuk Harris bin Mohammed Salleh also keeping a low profile, was equally ineffective.

The result was predictable. Berjaya was almost eliminated, winning only one seat, while USNO held onto 12. But USNO Secretary-General Tun Datu Haji Mustapha bin Datu Harun, Tun Mustapha's son, admitted that the party in its present form might be seeing the end of its days.

``I can foresee a time when there will be no USNO, even though Kuala Lumpur may not like the era of multiracial politics in Sabah,'' he told reporters.

He said politics in peninsular Malaysia were easily defined. ``There are the Malays, Indians, and Chinese. But in Sabah, we have 24 different races. We cannot have a political party for each race.''

One of PBS leader Pairin's first acts was to appoint three deputy chief ministers of equal rank, one each from the Kadazan, Chinese, and Malay communities.

But even while he tries to make PBS a multiracial party, the chief minister faces a vocal minority within the party who want to stress their Kadazan roots. Kadazans, they argue, are the true natives of Sabah, and government policies should reflect this -- just as the Kuala Lumpur government is promoting the interests of Malays on the peninsula.

There is much bitterness over the former Islamic domination in Sabah. During Berjaya's rule, a day was officially set aside each month for the mass conversion of Christians and animists, who are the majority in Sabah.

Prime Minister Mahathir maintained a low profile in the Sabah election campaign and accepted the overwhelming PBS victory with good grace in public.

But his failure to have his way in Sabah raises fresh doubts about his own future. He faces critics on all sides and has been actively campaigning nationwide to shore up his sagging popularity.

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