Beginning with the Tambunan by-election of that year, Pairin had leveraged local discontent with the federal system and successfully ousted the Berjaya government of Datuk Harris Salleh, landing him the spot as Sabah’s first Christian chief minister the year after.
Then, Yong had-been a fresh-faced 27-year-old lawyer in the hopscotch team that Pairin eventually led to victory, and saw his nascent PBS defeat all the Berjaya state ministers it challenged.
Harris himself was toppled by another new face, Malaria inspector Kadoh Agundong, who became an overnight celebrity as the “giant killer”.
Later in 1994, Yong along with other PBS leaders like Tan Sri Bernard Dompok and Tan Sri Joseph Kurup took part in defections engineered by then Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, which consigned Pairin to winning the state election but still losing control of the administration.
Yong went on to form SAPP and enjoyed his term as Sabah chief minister, along with Dompok and others under the state’s rotation system that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamd enforced for Sabah in order to placate the state’s various ethnicities.
At the same time, Umno also co-opted the Usno founded by Sabah veteran Tun Datu Mustapha Harun, into its fold.
Following Election 2004, when Muslims mustered the majority to rule Sabah, the rotation system was abolished and political power passed firmly to Muslim Sabahans, both indigenous and recent arrivals.
Since then, Chief Minister and head of Sabah Umno Tan Sri Musa Aman, has kept a firm hold of the East Malaysian state.
Today, Yong is hoping to rekindle that magic of his youth by contesting in Batu Sapi, a mixed but primarily Muslim (60 per cent) seat with a sizeable Chinese vote.
The by-election was called following the death of incumbent Datuk Edmund Chong Ket Wah (PBS) in an accident on October 9.
In the Batu Sapi vote, Yong sees the tinder to re-ignite the same flame of discontent as in 1985.
“He sees it as another Tambunan,” the veteran said. “He and others are all political offspring of Tambunan. It’s in their psyche.”
“I think he is wrong,” he added.
Musa has kept a firm hold on Sabah since coming to power.
Nonetheless, Yong’s supporters argue that whether there is a wave or not, the public mood is turning ugly and Sabahans are again looking for another Pairin to rise and fly the “autonomy” flag.
It is also a platform that Yong had tried to stand on following the political upheaval of Election 2008.
In that year, Anwar, invigorated by his sterling performance at the ballot box, re-entered Sabah politics and re-connected with Yong, who was to have provided the impetus for the eventual botched takeover of Putrajaya on September 16 then.
Yong failed to deliver largely because of Musa Aman’s sway over the state’s MPs.
Undeterred, Yong saw in the aftermath of the September 16 takeover attempt the seedlings of adventurousness in Sabahans.
“Sabahans have changed governments before, and in 2008, they were in the mood to change not only in Sabah but at the federal level,” a Sabah veteran politician said.
“Yong was a forerunner of that movement. Where MPs failed, he felt the people — given a fair chance at the polls — would make the change,” the veteran said. “He believes (in 2008) that a wave is forming in Sabah and hopes to ride it.”
Other Sabah leaders, both veterans and newcomers, have been unable to fill the “Sabah for Sabahans” vacuum, leaving Yong as the unlikely candidate.
Since he pulled SAPP out from Barisan Nasional (BN) in August 2008, he has been a one-man-band for Sabah autonomy trying to whip up a wave ahead of the 13th general election.
“He (Yong) speaks of nothing but autonomy but while the sentiments are there, people are not really biting,” a PBS leader said.
“The reason might be because Sabah, whether you like it or not, is Muslim majority now. Muslims are happy with the current set-up,” he said. “They are happy with Musa Aman as chief minister.”
“So whipping up a wave is difficult; the political demography has changed,” the PBS leader said.
However, Yong’s supporters insisted that anti-West Malaysia sentiment was simmering and there was deep unhappiness over how easily foreigners in the state were given citizenships.
“Sabahans want a permanent solution to immigrant problems and to rising crime,” said one supporter.
“People don’t feel safe,” he added. “SAPP has been raising these and other autonomy issues like oil royalty and a bigger share of the nation resources for Sabah’s development. We are getting good reception,”
“Yong is the man to bravely raise these issues, he can save Sabah,” he continued.
Beyond Batu Sapi, Yong also wants to contest 40 of the 48 seats in Sabah state assembly and hopes to capture the state from BN in the upcoming general election.
“We are growing and mustering public support. We can defeat BN,” Yong told The Malaysian Insider.
“Before, in BN, we were seen as a mosquito party but now as an opposition party we are the main challenger to BN here. People know we can form the next government.”
Yong’s ambitions, however — not only in Batu Sapi, but also the coming general election — has set him on collision path with Pakatan Rakyat (PR), who are seeking to capture Sabah and Sarawak to realise their dreams of entering Putrajaya.
If he makes good on his promise to contest in the 40 seats, the opposition vote would be split between SAPP and PR — as it will be in Batu Sapi — giving BN a clear advantage.
But Yong feels he has a tryst with destiny.
“It is [his] duty to rally Sabahans and make the changes — from autonomy to an immigrant-free Sabah. Neither he nor Sabahans are expecting Peninsular leaders to do the job for us,” Yong ally said.
“We are home-grown, we want autonomy and we want to take back the country from the immigrants. It’s our job, we have to do it,” one SAPP leader said.
“Sabah voters will know what to do.”