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COMMENT | Old and new politics blend in Sabah

Bridget Welsh

Published
Modified 18 Sep 2020, 11:06 am

COMMENT | The Obama-styled "unity" posters of Mohd Shafie Apdal face off against the #kitajagakita slogan appropriated Perikatan Nasional posters of "abah" Muhyiddin Yassin. On the surface, this is a battle of communication strategies and messaging. At its core and on the ground, the first week of the Sabah election campaign has seen an ongoing blending of Malaysia’s old and new politics. Modern and traditional methods of campaigning coexist and are shaping the engagement with voters.

The media favour the "modern" style, the idealism and creativity of the "new", but among voters, the "old" reliance on personal connections, local influence with resources and social trust networks has considerable sway. Do not be fooled by what is on the surface of the campaign – empty ceramah for convicted "Bossku" and creative new songs and videos do not necessarily reflect the varied realities of how this campaign is being waged, and, ultimately, will be won.

Sabah has been the Borneo vanguard of new campaigning and strategies for some time. In GE14, millions of ringgit spent failed to deliver a BN victory – this traditional method failed. The mood for Warisan and "change" was strong in GE14. This time around the Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) partners have increased is game in its goal to take back power, recognising that Warisan Plus no longer has the same wind advantage. We see many different features of this campaign at odds with each other. Despite the media reports favouring Warisan’s messaging, the fight on the ground remains intense and close.

The most covered campaign theme comes from the "Obam-apdal" poster. Warisan Plus is pushing a "unity" message. There are two dimensions to this unity message – one is along race and religion across Sabahans. The second is unity in Sabah leadership for the state.

The first aspect involving race is not as easy a narrative to sell as many would like to believe. Warisan faces persistent suspicions on the issue of illegal immigrants, especially among Kadazan Dusun Murut voters, and this issue remains prominent in the campaign in labels of candidates and underlying anxieties, regularly circulated on WhatsApp. One cannot underestimate long-standing appeals and emotions surrounding ethnic identity in Sabah.

In contrast, Warisan’s appeals to a "Sabah" identity vis-à-vis federal intervention and clear state leadership are stronger, especially among middle-class voters and in urban areas, who are concerned about the instability that a GRS majority could bring with unsettled leadership for the state. There are real worries that a ... 

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