KOTA KINABALU, July 12 ― Former Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal’s recent departure from the party will threaten Umno’s hold on Semporna, but the ripple is unlikely to widen beyond the Sabah seat, analysts said.
The 58-year-old Semporna MP, who helped build Umno’s presence in the north Borneo state, has strong support on its east coast front, but pundits also said the limited backing is insufficient for him to establish a new party.
Opinion was split on what should be his next move to secure his political career.
“It is possible for him to work with local opposition leaders as his next best option,” said Dr Arnold Puyok, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (Unimas) politics and international relations department head.
Puyok noted Shafie’s fiery July 4 speech in Semporna where photos showed thousands who turned up for the talk carrying the Sabah flag.
He believed the 58-year-old politician will adopt a Sabah-centric strategy to galvanise support and added that Shafie will likely choose to associate closely with former rival party New United Sabah National Organisation or USNO Baru, a Sabahan Malay-majority party that was formed when the original USNO disbanded to allow Umno entry into Sabah.
However, the Unimas academic said Muslim voters in Sabah will likely support Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman and Bajau leader Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) associate professor Dr Mohd Faisal Syam Abdol Hazis said Sabah, and especially Semporna, are the epitome of patronage politics ― the wealthiest, most influential and powerful patrons are also the ones who attract the biggest network of loyal supporters.
“Political parties are just shells. Sabah voters and politicians don't have any sense of party comradeship and discipline. So when Shafie leaves Umno, which provides him a source of patronage, it will severely limit his influence,” he said.
In contrast to his Unimas peer, the UKM political scientist said Shafie with his seniority and leadership style would do better in a national opposition party than one that is state-based.
“He should just join PKR. He shouldn't be forming a new political party which needs years or even decades to build. But if he join forces with other opposition parties and leaders in Sabah, he might offer leadership that is lacking there.
“Local opposition parties are weak and usually don't last long. National-based opposition parties offer stability and durability,” Mohd Faisal said.
Puyok said that Shafie will most likely take a while to assess his options and think of his next move.
“He will keep his options open ― to have a chance of making an impact, he must widen his political appeal,” he said.
Shafie recently announced his resignation from Umno in a spirited speech from his Semporna residence, declaring he is no longer aligned to the party’s leadership after his suspension from office 10 days earlier for alleged misconduct.
The veteran lawmaker was silent on his future political plans, other than to assert he will fight for Sabahans and will mount a blitzkrieg against Sabah Barisan Nasional (BN) and long-time Umno rival Musa, whom he blamed for his suspension.
Shafie has been Semporna MP for over two decades and is among the Umno pioneers in Sabah. He was the first Umno vice-president from Sabah, garnering the second highest votes in the party elections for the position.
He has held several federal Cabinet positions, including his last post as rural and regional development minister last year, but was among the first casualties following his criticism of the government’s handling of the controversy surrounding state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).
He was dropped as federal minister along with then-deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in a sudden Cabinet reshuffle last year.