REMEMBER the song that said Sabahans will show the way? Remember this song? “Hand in hand, we welcome you…” which irritated the then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in the 1980s, who was at the time trying hard to dislodge Joseph Pairin Kitingan as chief minister of Sabah.

Sabah was, for most of that time, the only opposition outpost with a multiracial, multireligious party at the helm, controlling the state and being very proud of it. The words “Sabahans will show the way” must have grated on Dr Mahathir’s racial sensibilities – or should we say insensibilities – at the time.

Sadly, Dr Mahathir succeeded, inducing elected representatives to cross over and bringing about the fall of Pairin’s PBS, just as someone else recently did by installing a backdoor government, at the federal level no less. As Pairin fell, Umno rose in Sabah, and then Bersatu too, a representative of which is the current chief minister.

But now Sabah seems to be showing the way in controlling Covid-19 under its de facto Covid-19 minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun, which shows that a measured approach can make a difference, both in terms of containing Covid-19 and reducing its adverse effects.

An election in September last year, caused by the attempt to change the Warisan-led government, prompted then chief minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal to call for a dissolution of the state assembly, resulting in the worst outbreak of Covid-19, not only in Sabah, as it spread to the peninsula too.

Sabah was particularly affected. In October last year, at one point in time, it accounted for more than half of cases in the whole of Malaysia when cases were nearly non-existent in neighbouring Sarawak.

Those of us in Peninsular Malaysia still think of Sabah as a Covid-19 hotspot, but things have changed quite a bit since then, and credit must be given to some of the measures that Sabah took independently of the federal government. It took some courage and gumption to institute unpopular measures.

Look at the chart based on figures for June 1. In October last year, Sabah used to have the highest incidence of Covid-19 in Malaysia among 15 categories of areas, including all the states. Now, some seven months later, it’s fourth from bottom. That qualifies as a great achievement.


Figures compiled from the Statistics Department data from June 1. Populations are based on the 2010 Household Survey.
Figures compiled from the Statistics Department data from June 1. Populations are based on the 2010 Household Survey.

How did Sabah show the way? When the new Gabungan Rakyat Sabah coalition took power after that ill-fated September 26 elections, it changed the cabinet line-up just hours after the swearing-in.

One notable swap was between the notoriously foul-mouthed Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin and Masidi, a long-time Sabah politician little-known across the South China Sea.

“What a day! Less than three hours after being appointed works minister, I am now local government and housing minister. I swapped jobs with Bung. Please don’t ask me the reasons. I will tell all after I retire,” he tweeted.

The then newly appointed Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Mohd Noor said that he needed Masidi’s financial expertise to revive the state’s economy in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Masidi, who jumped the Umno ship for Bersatu in 2018, became the spokesman for anything Covid-19 related in Sabah after Hajiji fell ill with the virus in early October last year.

Since then, Masidi has taken an independent stance on dealing with Covid-19, often deviating from the moves mandated by the federal government with which the state government was allied with.

For instance, when the federal government announced a nationwide movement control order (MCO) from May 12 to June 7, he asked for, and got, approval to keep the more relaxed conditions in Sabah.

As the Covid-19 spokesman of Sabah, Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun has found the right balance between public health and the economy. – Bernama pic, June 3, 2021
As the Covid-19 spokesman of Sabah, Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun has found the right balance between public health and the economy. – Bernama pic, June 3, 2021

But when the federal government relaxed restrictions to allow Ramadan bazaars to open ahead of Hari Raya Aidilfitri on May 13, he disallowed it in Sabah, saying that Covid-19 still posed a threat via unwarranted social gatherings.

He insisted that Sabah maintain its own standard operating procedures (SOPs) for dining at eateries, maintaining a 50% occupancy limit while the federal government had gone back to full capacity.

He also insisted in January that hair salons stay closed during the MCO, citing the risk posed by keeping them open as they were likely to be major sources of Covid-19 infections.

In late April, he required that SOPs in Sabah remain the same, despite its status changing from the recovery MCO to the conditional MCO between April 29 and May 17.

The evidence indicates that Masidi’s measured response to Covid-19, being stringent when required and easing up only when conditions improve, achieves a fine balance between being prudent and encouraging economic activity. Which is the way it should be.

It’s nice to know that Sabahans are, once again, showing us the way. – The Vibes, June 3, 2021

P. Gunasegaram laments the raw deal that Dr Mahathir gave Sabah – from overthrowing democratically elected governments to making citizens out of illegal immigrants and altering the voting balance. He is executive director of research and advocacy outfit Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of The Vibes