Whither PBS without Pairin?
Was PBS president Joseph Pairin Kitingan’s decision to announce his retirement at this juncture a calculated, tactical move?
Joseph Pairin Kitingan has finally mentioned the near-taboo word – retirement! If all these years he had allayed fears among his Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) members that he was leaving the political scene, this time he said it quite clearly that he was retiring after the 13th general election when his term expires.
Now that the proverbial cat is already out of the bag, much speculation and many questions are being raised with regard to PBS’s future without him.
PBS is facing the stark reality of being a party without the founding giant to lead it.
Most political observers would openly admit that PBS’ future looked very different without Pairin at the helm.
Some may even ask if there is any PBS future to talk about because in the tradition of Sabah’s politics, Pairin is PBS and PBS is Pairin, just like Harris (Salleh) was Berjaya and Usno was Mustapha (Harun).
The idea of a Pairin-less PBS is, honestly, still “unthinkable”. In fact, to talk of PBS without Pairin simply doesn’t make sense.
This may be a case in which the old adage “nobody is indispensable” will be proven wrong again.
The suspense and trepidation gripping PBS now is palpable, even to those who are not in the party.
A heap of questions are coming out: What now? Who is going to replace Pairin when he is irreplaceable? What kind of future can PBS talk about, or even imagine, without the big guy?
The natural choice for replacement, in accordance with party hierarchy, is Maximus Ongkili. But will Ongkili be able to hold the party together?
Will party members be able or willing to make the paradigm shift that Ongkili will surely usher in with his own brand of philosophy, style and strategy?
What new, unseen forces will emerge to challenge him and destabilise the party? Or with the uncertainty prevailing on many fronts, will there be a power struggle?
Of course, PBS’ relevance is not wholly centred on Pairin alone, but also on the outcome of the the national polls.
How many seats can PBS retain in the coming election? What if BN’s foothold slides further, if not in Sabah, then in the Peninsula? Or what if BN’s seats are increased but PBS’ seats are significantly reduced?
There can also be serious polemics on whether Pairin should have announced his retirement so early.
Why did he let the cat out of the bag so long before the GE13 is expected to be held?
Wouldn’t it have been a lot better to be silent on the issue until after the election is over?
Political observers think that whatever politicians, especially the veterans, say or do are well-thought-out strategic moves with subtle gambits, but this is mostly not true.
Politicians make mistakes all the time, such as shooting in the dark, putting their foot into their mouths, taking steps into political holes, or worse, explosive mines.
In the case of Pairin’s decision to announce his retirement at this juncture, one may presume it must have been a calculated, tactical move since Pairin is no greenhorn in politics.
But it is not easy to pinpoint what this tactical move could be.
What we can see is that it may have been a misstep for several reasons:
- it has brought down morale and caused trepidation among PBS members (with the PBS Keningau Youth already saying Pairin’s leadership is still needed);
- it has given a morale boost to his opponents, most importantly his brother Jeffrey and his State Reform Party (STAR);
- it has caused confusion among PBS leaders who are now facing members’ hard questions about the party’s future; and
- it has somewhat eroded the (future) relevance of the party within and without the BN.
Was ‘retirement’ a strategy?
One may also believe, or assume positively, that Pairin did it all for the purpose of gaining sympathy votes from his and PBS’ constituents.
He most likely wants to let them know that this is his last round in the game. He likely wants to make them feel they should give him their support for the last time, as their last respect and final farewell gesture.
But this may not necessarily work because there is also the other side of the coin.
Many may feel he should retire sooner, thus ushering in a change immediately after the election.
Recently, the Keningau Amanah deputy chairman Victor Leonardus had urged Pairin to step down from politics and give the younger generation a chance in the 13th general election, lest he suffers defeat and affect his status as the “huguan siou” (paramount leader).
So far only a few senior PBS leaders had reacted to this announcement, perhaps because they are still trying to get their bearings amidst their confusion and sadness.
Firstly, it is not something they should support, but not something they should strongly oppose either because of Pairin’s age. Pairin is 72 years old.
Secondly, it is a bad idea to over-react to it in the media lest the situation is made worse with conflicting statements.
Such over-reactions would betray PBS’ own fears, instability and weakness.
So PBS is clearly in a serious dilemma about it, hence the safest statement: “We still need his leadership” had been said, more out of politeness than anything else.
Whether the senior leaders of PBS like it or not, they must face the hard truth that PBS will be without Pairin within four or five years, if not sooner.
PBS ideology lost in today’s world
It is a strange feeling to try to fathom the depth of such a loss, to imagine the enormity of such a change, or to predict the frightful weight of the void, the emptiness, that is sure to come.
And nobody knows exactly what the consequences will be.
Of course, the most important question is: will PBS be able to reinvent itself to keep, or increase, the momentum of its struggle?
The most believable answer is the often heard vehement “no!”
“No political party in the history of Sabah had ever done that. Once the founding leader goes, it is downhill all the way.”
It’s hard to swallow that even with Pairin in the party today, the influence of PBS had waned so much, so imagine what it will be like without him.
The party had managed to sustain until today not in spite of Pairin but because of Pairin. So no matter how one looks at it, the prognosis is not good.
Many factors in fact had led to this scenario.
The party had not done enough to groom new leaders, and some say it had diverted from its original struggle, and attempts to justify its ideologies in recent years seemed to have fallen mostly on deaf ears.
But most importantly, time had caught up with PBS, overwhelming it with new ideas.
The world has moved on and PBS has been left behind.
Window of opportunity for Jeffrey
Political ideologies had shifted radically to make many concepts of the 1980s no longer valid.
Many groups are seen to have overstayed their welcome, many faces have become too familiar, and old oft-repeated speeches have become bland, tasteless, or plain monotonous.
When Pairin announced his plan to retire, he said: “So, people will be happylah!”
Was he hinting at his younger brother Jeffrey, who would now have a freer hand in taking over the Keningau parliamentary seat or the Tambunan state assembly seat,which he is contenting in the 13th general election?
Maybe the takeover of Keningau will happen a lot sooner than GE14 with rumour mills saying it is very possible Pairin will opt out of the race for the constituency in GE13.
Whatever happens it is clear that since Pairin announced his retirement, change had already swept over Keningau and over the whole atmosphere in PBS.
Pairin has now suddenly become a lame duck president, assemblyman and MP