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KOTA KINABALU: A recent heated exchange between two top Sabah leaders is being viewed as a proxy fight between Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin.
In the table-thumping incident, Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman and Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal had reportedly locked horns right under Muhyiddin's nose.
Shafie, the MP from Sabah's east coast district of Semporna, is Sabah's first Umno vice-president and is seen as a blue-eyed boy of the prime minister.
Lately, local Umno circles have been spreading the word that Musa, who has been able to keep his influence as the state Umno liason chief, could be moved to the national capital in the next general election.
When Muhyiddin made an official three-day visit two weeks ago on the heels of Malacca Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam's trip to Sabah, he had officiated a meeting of Umno leaders.
Verbal tiff linked to allocations
According to Umno leaders present at the closed-door meeting, a discussion on federal government allocations for rural development sparked off the heated argument between Musa and Shafie.
Those present claimed that Musa had insisted that all federal allocations channelled through Shafie's ministry this year, should go through the state government.
They said Shafie however stood firm that federal allocations should be managed by his ministry as the state government had its own allocations for rural development.
The standoff, they said, led to Musa and Shafie banging the table to emphasise their points with Muhyiddin paying more attention to Musa's argument.
This set Umno tongues wagging that the deputy prime minister was supporting Musa against Shafie, who is said to be in line for the chief minister's post.
The feud between Musa and Shafie over Sabah Umno divisions is a well known story in local political circles.
During the last Umno division elections two years ago, Musa's supporters openly backed candidates who contested against leaders linked to Shafie.
The latest incident between the chief minister and the Umno vice-president has taken a different turn and is now being interpreted as a proxy fight between the premier and his deputy in preparation for next year's Umno elections.
The Musa-Shafie feud is seen by some observers as a tussle for the control of money flowing from Kuala Lumpur to strengthen their hold in Umno divisions in Sabah through the allocation of projects.
Musa is seen as the richest Umno leader in Sabah with his hold on the state coffers, timber concessions and state projects, while Shafie has been trying to gain ground with the latest allocations for rural development in Sabah.
Sabah, with the second largest number of delegates in the country to the Umno assembly, could well provide a turning point for the national leadership.
Axis being formed?
For quite some time now Musa, who has been chief minister for over five years, has been strengthening his grip on the party.
Some Umno members have been complaining that they are not receiving a fair share of state allocations through Musa as they are identified as supporters of his rival.
They described Musa as a shrewd businessman-politician and Shafie cannot not match him when it comes to using projects and money to keep power.
So when news of the table-thumping incident leaked, rumours begin to circulate that Musa was on his way out.
The talk in Sabah political circles is that Muhyiddin, Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Higher Education Minister Khalid Nordin are forming an axis to test the political waters against the camp of Najib and his cousin Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.
Since Umno's entry into Sabah in 1990, the party's delegates have played a role as to how proxy fights at the national level could turn.
When former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad backed the late Ghafar Baba for the Umno deputy presidency, 14 Umno divisions led by Shafie's uncle Sakaran Dandai turned the tables on him.
They sent a memorandum supporting Anwar Ibrahim forcing Mahathir to drop his support for Ghafar.