National Implications of the Sandakan By-Election Results

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant National Director for Political Education for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the 13th of May, 2019

The Sandakan parliament by-election results provided a much needed morale booster to Pakatan Harapan (PH) after 3 successive by-election defeats in Cameron Highlands (parliament), Semenyih (state) and Rantau (state). Sandakan also provides some important lessons and implications for PH at the national level. To deliver Sandakan’s ‘winning formula’ to other parts of Malaysia is definitely more challenging but not impossible.

Summary of Results

The expectation was that with a reduced turnout, DAP would have its majority of approximately 10,000 votes from GE14 cut significantly. But despite overall turnout falling from 71.9% in GE14 to 54.4% in the by-election, DAP managed to increase its vote share by 7.4% from 66.8% in GE14 to 74.2% in the by-election. With this increase in vote share and the presence of independent candidates which siphoned away 5.1% of total votes (presumably from PBS), DAP was able to increase its majority to 11521 in the by-election (See Table 1).

Table 1: Comparison of By-Election and GE14 Results, P186. Sandakan

Note (1): Figures for By-Election taken from newspaper reports, summation may not be 100% accurate

The increase in majority caught many, including myself, by surprise. This was achieved through increasing the level of Chinese support slightly from 90% to 95% and more importantly, increasing the level of support among the Sabah Bumiputera voters by 10% from 43% in GE14 to 53% in the by-election. In a constituency that is approximate 51% Chinese and 49% Sabah Bumiputera, this translated into an increase in vote share of approximately 7.4%.

Results by Polling Districts (PDs) / Daerah Mengundi (DM)

DAP won all 17 polling districts in the by-election compared to 15 for GE14. DAP also INCREASED its votes in 15 out of the 17 polling districts.

In the 9 Chinese majority PDs where the % of Chinese voters is 60% or more, DAP increased its vote share by 5.3%, from 81.6% in GE14 to 86.8% in the by-election. (See Table 2 below).

In the 8 non-Chinese majority PDs, DAP increased its vote share by 6.8% from 60.1% in GE14 to 66.9% in the by-election (See Table 3 below).

Table 2: Comparing DAP’s performance in GE14 and the by-election in Chinese majority polling stations

Table 3: Comparing DAP’s performance in GE14 and the by-election in non-Chinese majority polling stations

National Implications of Sandakan

What was achieved in the Sandakan by-election was indeed surprising. In the context of a significantly lower turnout, it was not expected that DAP’s winning majority would be bigger than GE14. The ‘disappointment’ of the Chinese community over some of the GE14 PH Manifesto promises which have yet to be implemented did not materialize. Rather, the level of Chinese support actually INCREASED slightly to approximately 95%, a level which PH achieved in only 12 out of 24 parliamentary constituencies with more than 50% of Chinese voters  in GE14. Furthermore, the level of DAP support among the Sabah Bumiputera voters increased by approximately 10%, from an estimated 43% to an estimated 53%!

The reasons for DAP’s surprising margin of victory include: (i) The strong campaign support by WARISAN among the Sabah Bumiputera voters (ii) the popularity of Chief Minister Shafie Apdal and his very obvious presence during the campaign (iii) the weak campaigning by PBS and its candidate (iv) the energetic campaign by DAP and its candidate and (v) the irrelevance of the campaign issues highlighted by UMNO.

The key question to be asked post-Sandakan is whether this winning ‘formula’ or key lessons learned can be applied to other parts of the political arena in Malaysia.

Caution should be urged in blindly extending the Sandakan success to campaigns in other parts of Malaysia. Firstly, the voters in Sabah, including the Sabah Bumiputera voters, have a longer history of switching political allegiances, especially in the context where a political party or coalition is no longer in power. PBS experienced this when they went from winning 36 out of 48 state seats in the 1990 Sabah state elections when they pulled out of the BN ruling coalition to winning 25 state seats in the 1994 Sabah state elections and then down to 17 state seats in the 1999 Sabah state elections where it contested as an opposition party at the state and federal levels. This result eventually forced PBS to rejoin the BN just prior to the 2004 general elections. Warisan, DAP and PKR were beneficiaries of this switch in allegiances in the run up to the 2018 general elections.

The same cannot be expected in Peninsular Malaysia since UMNO and PAS still maintains their respective support base even though they are out of power at the federal level and in all states except for Perlis and Pahang for UMNO and Kelantan and Terengganu for PAS. Taking on a weakened PBS in Sabah is a different proposition from taking on the combined forces of UMNO and PAS in Peninsular Malaysia. The issues of race and religion which seems to have less salience in Sabah definitely take on greater political significance when played up in Peninsular Malaysia by UMNO and PAS.

It may also not be realistic to expect that the other Malay Menteri Besars (with the exception of Mukhriz in Kedah) to be able to deliver the Malay votes in the same manner as Shafie Apdal was able to deliver the Sabah Bumiputera votes in Sabah (especially among the Bajau community). Shafie is a known quantity in Sabah and was an influential state politician holding an important federal post while he was one of the Vice Presidents of UMNO while the newer Menteri Besars in Johor, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Perak and to a lesser extent, Selangor, will need more time to raise their respective profiles and to exert their influence within their own states.

Post Sandakan, Warisan and PH are in an advantageous situation to consolidate their popular support in the face of a weakened opposition. The ability to deliver on some of the key promises pre GE14 – infrastructure, energy and jobs – will most likely allow WARISAN+PH to capture a sizable majority of seats in Sabah in the next general elections. A similar formula of better and higher paying jobs, a vibrant economy and an improved delivery mechanism can give PH an advantage in Peninsular Malaysia overcoming some of the racial and religious rhetoric being spewed out by UMNO and PAS. This has to be complemented with firm and focused leadership on the part of PH leaders. Sandakan is a welcomed respite for the ruling coalition and the road ahead seems a little brighter but a lot more work needs to be done as PH begins its 2nd year as government.