Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jnr pictured in February. Photo: AP
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Why the Philippines’ Sabah claim against Malaysia isn’t a land grab

  • Manila’s claim over a part of northern Borneo island may have been long dormant but that does not make it any less valid, argues Lucio Blanco Pitlo III
  • Malaysia cannot buy off the Philippines into dropping its claim any more than it can rewrite history
Sabah has been a sticking point in Malaysia- Philippines relations ever since the Federation of Malaysia formally came into being in 1963. Manila long put the issue on the back burner to foster good relations with its neighbour, but realised that prolonged silence would never bring the issue to a close.

A bill to include Sabah and the country’s maritime domain in the West Philippine Sea on a map in the country’s passport – alongside a tweet from the Philippines’ top diplomat – revived the dispute anew.

Manila and Kuala Lumpur recently traded barbs over the issue. Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr said he would revive the North Borneo Affairs office in his ministry, while Malaysia issued a note verbale and rejected the Philippines’ claim.
The dispute over Sabah is the biggest stumbling block to enhancing trade and connectivity within the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area, a subregional grouping in maritime Southeast Asia that is the counterpart of the Greater Mekong Subregion on the mainland. Manila contends that it acquired dominion and sovereignty over portions of Sabah as a successor to the Sulu Sultanate, whose heirs the Malaysian government continued to pay annual rent until 2013.
A graphic showing Sabah and the historical territory of the Sultanate of Sulu. Image: SCMP

At its zenith in the 18th century, the sultanate ruled the Sulu Archipelago, parts of Mindanao, Palawan and Sabah, the last of which it leased to a British commercial syndicate in 1878. However, neither the heirs to the sultanate nor the newly established Philippine Republic were consulted when administration of Sabah was transferred from the British North Borneo Company to the British Crown in 1946.

During the decolonisation period, both the Philippines and Indonesia opposed the inclusion of Sabah, along with Sarawak, to the Federation of Malaya as the successor to British colonial enterprise in northern Borneo.

Both Manila and Jakarta rejected the Cobbold Commission of 1962 which set the stage for a 1963 referendum that canvassed few voices from the two territories’ local inhabitants. Indonesia resisted and a conflict known as Konfrontasi (the confrontation) ensued, while the Philippines planned a botched operation – Project Merdeka – to retake Sabah by force.

Countering Kuala Lumpur’s official narrative, Australian historian Dr Greg Poulgrain in his 2014 book The Genesis of Konfrontasi: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia 1945-1965 revealed that the British plan to form Malaysia was hatched as early as 1953. To this day, several leaders in Sabah and Sarawak not only resent the domination of Peninsular Malaysia to their west, but continue to contest the very basis of the federation arguing that both territories were not equal sovereign entities to freely enter into such a union in the first place. Calls have been made in both regions for independence referendums.

What’s behind the revived dispute between Philippines, Malaysia over Sabah?

Despite the Philippines’ claim to Sabah being dormant for the most part, it was never relinquished. In the Manila Accord of 1963 between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, the latter clearly stated that it would continue to pursue its claim to Sabah despite the creation of the Malaysian Federation.

Time and again, Manila shelved the issue to foster a united front against the spread of communism during the Cold War and in the interest of regional comity from the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asia in 1961 to the formation of Asean in 1967. In 2001, it submitted an application before the International Court of Justice to intervene in the Indonesia-Malaysia dispute over the Sipadan and Ligitan islands off northern Borneo. While the court rejected its petition, it showed that Manila had kept to its claim.

In spite of intense lobbying efforts and repeated overtures from Malaysia for Manila to drop its claim and move on, the Philippines is unlikely to yield. Secretary Locsin has said that tempting offers have been made – especially during elections – but the costs of capitulation are too high for any national leader to accept.

The issue has deep historical roots and remains salient, especially for those in the Mindanao and Sulu constituencies, with past attempts to drop the claim opposed by Muslim lawmakers in particular. Part of Malaysia’s South China Sea claims, which overlap with the Philippines’, also hinge on projecting maritime entitlements out of Sabah.
Filipino activists and opposition leaders march to protest the presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea in April 2019. Photo: Reuters
Filipinos continue to lament that while Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea get much of the limelight, less coverage is given to their country’s rightful claim over a vast and resource-rich land where more than 300,000 Filipinos live. These include the Tausug and Sama peoples and their descendants who have lived in Sabah and been engaged in inter-island trade and contact with the region for centuries.

Many, including those who fled conflict in Mindanao, have faced discrimination and harassment, and live under constant threat of expulsion – a social and humanitarian concern that cannot be swept under the rug.

South China Sea: Malaysia rejects Philippines’ Sabah claim in diplomatic note

In fact, the Philippines’ failure to actively pursue its claim has led to efforts by some of the Sulu Sultanate’s heirs to take matters into their own hands, such as the 2013 Lahad Datu stand-off.

The Philippines is not attempting to grab any land that it does not have a claim over by reason of rightful succession. Lease payments will never consummate a sale and the plight of Filipinos in Sabah does not make moving on easy. In fact, the incorporation of Sabah into Malaysia by the British in 1963 arguably made Beijing’s forays in the South China Sea this century look amateurish by comparison. While Malaysia may have achieved a fait accompli, thanks in no small part to Manila’s long slumber, it cannot buy off its neighbour into dropping its claim any more than it can rewrite history.

*The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of his affiliations