Loner to contender: the man who could pull a surprise in Sabah and upend Malaysian politics

A celebration marking Sabah’s entry into Malaysia. Photo: Reuters
Shafie Apdal at an election rally in Penampang, Sabah. Photo: SCMP Photos
Shafie Apdal at an election rally in Penampang, Sabah. Photo: SCMP Photos

Shafie Apdal’s political rivals – ex-colleagues in Malaysia’s ruling coalition – may not have foreseen that he would become a major thorn in their side when they wrote him off as a “loner” following his acrimonious sacking as a minister in 2015 by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

With less than 24 hours to go before Wednesday’s general election, the high-profile defector’s late push to take provincial power in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s bastion of Sabah, in the island of Borneo, has turned a sideshow into a battle to watch alongside the main duel between Najib and opposition chief Mahathir Mohamad.

In a place best known for being home to top diving sites and some of the world’s oldest rainforests, the call of “Sabah, Kita Punya” or “Sabah is ours” is resonating and the man making it heard loud and clear is Shafie, an indigenous native of the state.

Few took notice when Shafie formed the breakaway Parti Warisan Sabah (Sabah Heritage Party) in 2016 after being fired by Najib for publicly criticising the premier on the 1MDB financial scandal that has dogged him. The BN secretary general Tengku Adnan Mansor, a top Najib lieutenant, in an interview last year dismissed Shafie as a “non-threat because he is a loner”.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak listens to his supporters during a campaign event in Pekan, Pahang. Photo: AFP

Now, with images circulating that show thousands thronging to Warisan rallies across the state, Adnan, his boss Najib and others in BN appear to be taking notice.

Najib has visited Sabah several times in recent months and twice since official campaigning began on April 28, promising new jobs and millions of dollars of development funds if his bloc prevails come May 9.

Insiders in Shafie’s Warisan, made up mostly of fellow ruling bloc rebels, say they are hoping to win at least 10 out of the state’s 25 seats in the country’s 222-seat national legislature, along with a simple majority of the state’s 60-seat legislative assembly.

Victory for Shafie in Sabah could hand federal power to Mahathir – Warisan is informally aligned with the opposition – but also upend politics in the Bornean state, which BN’s stranglehold on power has given a reputation for being the bloc’s “fixed deposit”.

Independent observers continue to view BN as a favourite to win nationwide and in Sabah, but Warisan insiders are adamant odds are in their favour.

The party’s central message is simple: hand…

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