Are Sabah's political old-timers suiting up again for a comeback?

Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat is expected to return as the leader of the LDP and may contest either in his hometown again or one of the state capital’s urban seats. — Picture by Julia Chan
Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat is expected to return as the leader of the LDP and may contest either in his hometown again or one of the state capital’s urban seats. — Picture by Julia Chan

KOTA KINABALU, Sept 5 — The premature Sabah state election next month could see the return of several local political warhorses, some of whom have been absent from the arena for decades.

With parties now scrambling to appear or rebrand themselves as multi-racial, these veterans have begun making plans for their comeback or hinted at the possibility.

This is Malay Mail’s compilation of the state’s political doyens who may feature in the election.

Tan Sri Harris Salleh

Arguably the most significant is former chief minister Tan Sri Harris Salleh who, at the age of 90, could be the oldest candidate in this election.

He is expected to use native Bumiputera rights as his vehicle, under the United Sabah National Organisation or better known as Usno Baru now.

Harris had been a prominent leader of the Berjaya government in the mid 1970s to 1980s and saw through the early development boom of Sabah and its timber industry; he is widely credited with bringing economic progress to the state.

Harris took over as chief minister barely three months after Berjaya came into power following the tragic plane crash on June 6, 1976, that killed then-chief minister Tun Fuad Stephens.

The party and the state was seen as successful until a rift with then-rising Kadazandusun leader Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan saw Harris’ party lose power to the fledgling PBS in the 1985 state election.

He has been out of the political limelight since the late 1990s, after a failed comeback attempt through a rebranded Berjaya and later Barisan Rakyat Sabah Bersekutu (Bersekutu) parties.

Since then, he has remained in retirement, only appearing occasionally when invited to local political forums or commenting in local papers.

Harris has remained coy over his participation in the coming election, but said he was being courted by several parties and that a change in government was necessary to return economic progress to Sabah.

Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat

A former CM under the rotation system Tun Dr Mahathir Mahathir had implemented, Chong was one of three ethnic Chinese leaders to ever hold the role in Sabah’s history.

He had also been the president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a senator and federal minister, a deputy chief minister, and Sabah’s tourism, development, environment and science and technology minister at various points of his career.

Chong and several Chinese leaders founded LDP in 1989, and he was made its president in 1991.

He became the 13th chief minister of Sabah in 2001, and was later appointed deputy chief minister holding the tourism, culture, and environment portfolio after Tan Sri Musa Aman succeeded him in 2003.

In April 2007, Chong resigned from office after falling out with Musa, believed to be over a project to construct the world’s tallest Mazu, Goddess of the Sea statue in his hometown of Kudat.

The project was meant to catalyse Kudat’s tourism but faced objections from the Muslim community; Musa later revoked the approval and offered a different site.

Since his resignation, Chong has kept a low profile until now.

He is expected to return as the leader of the LDP and may contest either in his hometown again or one of the state capital’s urban seats.

The former Barisan Nasiona component has said it will contest over 40 seats, flying its own flag instead of working with other Malaya-based parties.

Datuk Amir Kahar Mustapha

Amir Kahar is a Bajau politician and the son of the late Tun Mustapha Datu Harun, one of the fathers of Sabah’s independence.

His father was prominent for having negotiated the state’s independence and later becoming a chief minister and governor, but Amir Kahar has had relatively less profile as a politician.

He was the Banggi assemblyman for 22 years, first under the United Sabah National Organisation (Usno) until he moved to PBS and, eventually, Umno.

He was also a deputy chief minister and once won the Kudat federal seat, which paved the way for his appointment as Malaysia’s agriculture minister in the 1990s.

However, he was among those dropped for the 2008 general election amid a push then for new faces.

Now 70 years’ old, Amir Kahar may no longer be a major player but local media have suggested that he could emerge to lead another local-based party, Parti Kebangsaan Sabah (PKS), which will contest in 40 seats with the aim of forming the state government on its own.

The Sabah election this time will be for 73 seats, up from the previous 60 prior to the redelineation that has been adopted.

While it is still unknown if Amir Kahar will feature in the poll, he will likely run in his former stronghold of Kudat if he does.

Can they appeal to today’s voters?

While these names were political juggernauts in their era, many of Sabah’s younger generation may not be familiar with them after their period of obscurity.

Their political peaks occurred before state’s youth were even born, which political analysts said would limit how influential their political pedigree would be with younger voters.

“They will be well advised to introduce themselves afresh to many of the young voters who were born after they retired,” said Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Dr Ei Oh Sun.

While he believed they could still count on some old loyalties from those reminiscing about Sabah’s hey days, they were unlikely to sway voters in a significant way.

“I think most of them would win some sympathy or nostalgic votes in their respective long-standing constituencies where some degree of personality cults have developed surrounding each of them, as feudalistic mentality still prevails among many voters especially in more remote constituencies.

“It remains to be seen if such personality appeal could extend beyond their respective traditional power bases,” said Ei.

UITM Sabah’s Tony Paridi Bagang agreed that this state election was seeing the emergence of many interesting characters both young and old, which he said was a hallmark of democracy.

“No doubt that they have their own political loyalists due to their previous good record such as TS Chong Kah Kiat. This could pose a greater challenge to others. The question is, to what extent they could capture the votes remains a puzzle.

“Through their political comeback, it is also a strategy to revive their political party. For example, Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat, with his good reputation, could win a seat at least for LDP,” he said.

He said it was also an attempt to refresh the “mood of change” akin to the 14th general election, during which former prime minister Dr Mahathir mounted the unlikeliest comeback.

The state election is being held because Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal sought the dissolution of the state assembly after predecessor Musa mounted an attempted takeover of the state government via defections.

The Election Commission has set September 12 for nominations to allow for two weeks of campaigning before polling on September 26.