Kota Marudu Member of Parliament

In Kota Marudu political merry-go-round, BN’s Ongkili seeks to keep seat for sixth term

KOTA MARUDU, May 3 — The giant replica of a cob of corn atop the traffic circle at the intersection between the northern Sabah districts of Kudat and Kota Marudu has long been a landmark to visitors amid the forest of oil palm plantations that stretch as far as the eye can see.

But the signature crop of the Rungus ethnic community has been barely visible this past week. Political party flags and posters, bearing the faces of electoral contenders for the Kota Marudu district 130km from Kota Kinabalu, have encircled the giant cob entirely.

There are flags from at least five different political parties and eight candidates’ posters surrounding the area, with incumbent Kota Marudu MP Datuk Seri Maximus Ongkili and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) flags dominating in numbers.

It is indicative of the PBS’s deputy president’s will and desire to retain the KDM seat he had narrowly won by a 842-vote margin in Election 2013.

KDM is the political term used to describe the voting bloc of Kadazandusun, Murut and Momogun ethnic groups. They are also generally, but not always accurately, known as non-Muslim Bumiputera.

Ongkili’s closest challenger in the last election was PKR’s Maijol Mahap, who is again contesting, but this time on a Parti Harapan Rakyat Sabah ticket. There is also Parti Warisan Sabah’s Barlus Mangabis and Parti Cinta Sabah’s Paul Porodong, making it a four-corner fight for this seat.

Before the elections, political observers predicted that Ongkili, who is the caretaker federal energy, green technology and water minister, would be able to defend his seat for the sixth term if internal political factors could be avoided.

But a closer look on the ground suggests that party sabotage is not the only factor to consider as Ongkili, one of six Sabahan federal ministers in the recent Cabinet, has some hit and misses with the voters of Kota Marudu.

A divided constituency

In the agricultural town of Kota Marudu, the tallest building in town is four floors high and there is one KFC and Pizza Hut where families go when they feel like splurging. There are people in their 50s sitting around in coffee shops, and young children running around, but very few young adults are seen.

In a rural community where 80 per cent of the people are small-time farmers, a candidate’s ability to meet voters and make personal contact is imperative and generosity is even more appreciated.

A 55-year-old businessman who did not want to be named due to his position as a PBS branch chief, lamented that he does not see much of Ongkili in the constituency in the last five years.

“Since he became a minister, he’s been hard to come by. During his open house, we didn’t get to see much of him. In a small town like this, people remember small gestures of generosity, especially when they’re going through tough times, like now.

“Say for instance, you help repair or fix a church here. There are about 10 to 20 families who go there. When people notice the change, they’ll ask, and they’ll hear your name. We remember things like this, no matter how small,” he said.

Another voter, a 52-year-old from Kampung Marak Parak, said that his entire life in Kota Marudu, the socio-economic status of the people has not changed and have perhaps gotten even worse as living costs shoot up.

“Most of us are subsistence farmers or fishermen. We sell some of the produce but by and large live very modestly. Ongkili has been the elected rep for over 20 years now, and not much has changed,” he said.

The two are part of the 32,382 or 69 per cent of non-Muslim natives of Dusun and Rungus groups in Kota Marudu while about 28 per cent, or 13,395 are Muslim natives of Bajau descent.

Along Jalan Langkon-Pitas roadside, a Bajau family is selling some fish caught from Kudat and homemade penjaram and donuts. When asked, they were quick to say that they will likely vote for the “scales” again, referring to the BN logo.

“We’ve been doing that all this time. I don’t feel like we have a choice. We don’t really know the Opposition. And we’ve been with BN all our lives,” said Jenali Ali, 60.

When asked what she liked about Ongkili and the ruling government, she chewed on her betel leaves for a long time before answering.

“I don’t really know. I haven’t met him. Our kids get school books and uniforms, I think. We get BR1M, so that’s something. To say we don’t get anything from the government is not right.

“But at the same time, life is tough. Some days we earn just RM20 from selling kuih. From the time I was young, till now, we are still like this,” she said, adding that it was still a peaceful place to live.

But not everyone is complaining. Just a few hours earlier, chief minister Tan Sri Musa Aman presented long-awaited native communal titles to some 6,739 acres of land to people from five villages.

Another 407 individuals from three villages received native titles under the Sabah Native Land Services programme totalling some 1,076 acres.

“I’m so relieved. We were worried that our application would not be granted and the land would be given to the timber companies around us. As it is, they surround our kampung now,” said Rimi Majahit.

The 29-year-old from Kampung Binontungan Suyad said he had applied for the land title “his whole life” from his parent’s time and was immensely grateful to the government after receiving it.

He said the next big request he had for the government was to upgrade a 55km stretch of road to his village that on bad days, took half a day to go through.

“We badly need this road to be tarred at least. It’s been like this since I was a primary school kid. You can’t go in without a good four-wheel-drive vehicle. I use a motorbike and it’s usually ruined within two years from using that road,” he said.

Majahit, however said that the village had tap water provided by the government and solar electricity from a non-governmental body.

Politics at play

The Kota Marudu parliamentary constituency consists of the state seat of Tandek and Matunggong.

Tandek incumbent assemblyman Datuk Anita Baranting from BN will contest Datuk Baintin Adun from Parti Warisan Sabah (Warisan), Johnson Assan from Parti Cinta Sabah (PCS), and Joel Masilung from Parti Solidarity Tanah Airku (Star).

In Matunggong, PBS has chosen newcomer Julita Mojungki to contest the seat against PKR’s Sazalye Donol Abdullah, PCS’s Jornah Mozihim, Star’s Marunsai Dawai and Parti Kebangsaan Sabah’s Rahim Madhakong. Incumbent assemblyman Datuk Jelani Hamdan, who won on a PKR ticket but since defected back to Umno, will not be defending his seat.

Baranting is expected to retain her Tandek seat with ease, having previously won on a 5,275 majority in 2013 and also credited for helping with the granting of the land titles, which are mostly for villages in her constituency.

“She’s been seen to have contributed a lot to the community in the last five years. She has been visiting churches, going to weddings and funerals. She has a good track record,” said Gustin Sangki, a local political observer from Kampung Marak Parak.

“The problem lies with the Matunggong constituency. The incumbent’s history has created some ripple effects as a result, people are hesitant about voting for them now,” said Sangki.

PBS’s loss to Jelani was largely blamed on internal party strife whereby Jelani, a former Umno member had won on a 320 vote majority. He left PKR shortly after GE13 and declared himself a “pro-BN independent” until returning to Umno.

But Umno threw a wrench in BN’s takeback plan when its acting deputy president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi proposed that PBS “lend” the Matunggong seat, angering the PBS grassroots. But that public dispute has since been declared shut, and the local Umno division has been seen campaigning alongside the PBS candidates.

“With Julita being new, people don’t know her yet, so she needs party support. Whether she wins or loses, it will likely be on a narrow margin again. Hers in also a five-way fight, so that is also in her favour as people are confused about who to vote for,” said Sangki.

The two state constituencies are almost equal in terms of number of voters, — Tandek has 24,101 while Matunggong has 22,906. In these two areas, especially the latter, the Muslim bumi vote might be the decider.

Another case of split votes

Shop owner Ella, a Dusun Tobilung from Matunggong, said that she was a PBS member before but left politics because she was “fed up” of the nepotism in the ruling party.

She said that she had supported the party for years but when her house was razed in a fire three years ago and she asked for help from the Village Development and Security leader, she got nothing.

“I’ve given up on these politicians. I don’t mind voting for a regime change, after all it’s just for five years but it’s hard to make a decision who to vote for because there are so many parties around and you don’t know who to trust,”, she said.

In 2013, Ongkili’s narrow win was partly due to a split in votes from his four-way fight. Maijol had garnered 14,326 votes to Ongkili’s 15,168 while STAR’s Majamis Timbong took 2,228 votes.

This GE14 may see a repeat of the same with another four cornered fight, but Ongkili is facing tougher competition.

Maijol, a lawyer by profession and deputy president of Harapan has since come back for another shot at the seat.

“People recognise him by now, and he has a real shot at the seat especially with waning support from some people,” said the PBS branch chief.

Competition also comes in the form of Barlus, a former teacher from Kampung Marandang who has been in PBS and Umno before finding his political home in Warisan.

“Observing the current political scenario, I wanted to play a bigger role. I think the time is right for me now,” he said when contacted.

Barlus’ biggest draw is his party, which, although making waves in some areas of Sabah particularly in the east coast town of Semporna and Kadazan heartland of Penampang, has yet to be tested by battle.

Little known PCS, which plays on local KDM sentiments, has former Universiti Malaysia Sabah anthropology lecturer Paul Porodong using his Rungus roots to garner support.

Porodong, a newcomer to politics has substantial knowledge of the people’s culture and sentiments but voters have yet to respond to the party, who is also making its debut this GE14.