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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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