Kota Marudu Member of Parliament

A 'giant responsibility' awaits Pairin's successor

Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan resigned last week as president of Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), the party he founded and led since 1985.

Pairin took his state by storm that year when his upstart party unseated the then ruling Parti Berjaya of Chief Minister Tan Sri Harris Salleh in a stunning political upset. As chief minister, Pairin continued the tradition set by his immediate predecessor of leading a single, multiracial party in government. But, the Achilles heel of the PBS state government led by Pairin was its often tempestuous relationship with the Federal Government then led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

That was to lead to a rather fateful decision by Pairin to cast his party’s lot with the opposition, then led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, following a split in Umno. The PBS alliance with Razaleigh, of course, backfired spectacularly when not only did Razaleigh fail to unseat Dr Mahathir’s government, but Dr Mahathir answered Pairin’s provocative move by moving Umno into Sabah, in the process signing the death warrant for the PBS government eventually.

Ordinarily, losing the state government in 1994 ought to have written Pairin’s political obituary. That it did not speaks to the enduring political astuteness of Pairin, who was able to recover from the personal treachery of key political allies (including his own brother, Datuk Seri Dr Jeffrey Kitingan) — a constant in the rough-and-tumble of Sabah politics — and have himself and his party remain relevant and significant in the Sabah political scene till today.

There is little doubt that the continuing political appeal of PBS owes much to Pairin’s personality and his stewardship of the party, and it is to his credit that he is afforded the luxury of orchestrating the leadership transition in the rather deliberate and drawn-out fashion it has been. Pairin has intimated his desire to retire for sometime. But, as the only president his party has ever known in three decades, he knows as well as anybody that his departure will leave a gaping hole in the party.

Pairin has intimated his desire to retire for sometime. But, as the only president his party has ever known in three decades, he knows as well as anybody that his departure will leave a gaping hole in the party. Acting PBS president Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili noted as much in his first statement about the leadership transition, describing his taking over as “a giant responsibility to take PBS forward and fill in the shoes of Tan Sri Pairin” and the imperative “to reinvent, restructure and refocus both in terms of party administration and recruitment of members”.

It will be an understatement to say the PBS leadership transition will be smooth-sailing. Sabah politics roils today as it always seems to. New parties coming onto the state political scene will test not just existing parties, but perhaps even the current political status quo in the state.

A quest for Sabah’s political rights under federation has always been a constant and even overriding feature of the struggle of its political parties. That recurring theme will be front and centre, yet again, as all parties in the state gird to outdo each other to prove their respective worth in the coming general election. That political battles in Sabah keep getting fought over and over again against the same overriding themes, perhaps, suggests useful political lessons are never fully learnt and taken to heart.

PBS offers up some of those lessons. 

Lesson No. 1 must be that while taking on the Federal Government may be a vote-winner for Sabah political parties, the unintended political consequences cannot and should not be underestimated.

Lesson No. 2 will be that adopting populist stances vis-à-vis Putrajaya may be the easy part. The real test comes later in translating those stances into actual policies, which necessarily require complicated negotiations and deals with federal authorities.

Latter-day political upstarts wishing to replicate PBS’ political trajectory should be seriously queried by sceptical voters if such parties are seeking just to burnish their respective parties’ prospects or the state’s. That PBS retains its standing as a credible political force at the very heart of both the state and federal administrations despite its searing history owes much to the statesmanship of the party’s leadership under Pairin, and the abiding faith of Sabah voters that the party has learnt its lessons well.

It is political institutions, such as PBS, that have been tested in the crucible of Sabah politics over decades, which stand the better chance to carry forward the legitimate political aspirations of Sabahans than new parties promising they can do better. Those aspirations will be realised and incrementally under parties which have already earned stripes with each other as credible negotiating partners.

John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak 

Source: New Straits Times