THE issue of the Philippines’ claim on Sabah, which can be dated back to as early as the formation of Malaysia in 1963, has always been the stumbling block to the betterment of bilateral ties between the two countries.
Despite the international consensus that Sabah is under the sovereignty of Malaysia, some Philippine politicians will, from time to time, play this political drama to fulfil their political agenda.
The latest drama is the possible revival of the Office of North Borneo Affairs in the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.
The Philippines’ foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said this office will be dedicated to reclaiming Sabah. The Philippine House Foreign Affairs Committee has also approved the House Bill 6399 which would include Sabah in the map on Philippine passports.
It is reported that this new bill would amend the Philippine Passport Act of 1996 that “aims to emphasise and insist on our victory on the West Philippine Sea over China in the International Arbitral Tribunal in the Hague, the Netherlands, and our legal and historical rights over Sabah”.
Well, what a repetition of a previous baseless argument!
Another recent dispute involving both countries which has caught the attention of many is the diplomatic spat between Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Locsin on Twitter.
On July 27, Locsin reprimanded the US embassy in Manila after the latter tweeted about the distribution of hygiene kits to returning Filipinos repatriated from “Sabah, Malaysia” saying that “Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines”.
This immediately elicited reaction from Hishammuddin on July 29 who said Locsin’s remark was irresponsible and Malaysia will summon the Philippine ambassador for clarification. He reiterated “Sabah is, and will always be, part of Malaysia”.
This spat continued when Locsin alleged the Philippines’ claim on Sabah was a “historically factual statement” and that Malaysia tried to “derail the Arbitral Award”. He even asserted that “no country can tell another what it can and cannot say about what the latter regards as rightfully its own” and that Manila would therefore summon the Malaysian ambassador.
The Philippines’ claim on Sabah is based on the different interpretation of the 1878 Agreement between the then Sultan of Sulu and the British North Borneo Chartered Company. The ambiguous term pajakan in the agreement has multiple meanings. The British interpretation of the term as “grant and cede” was inherited by Malaysia, which contradicted the Philippines’ understanding of it as “lease” as interpreted by the Sulu Sultanate.
It is meaningless to continue to debate the interpretation of the term as it is almost impossible to contextualise the term. To resolve the dispute, we have to consider the thoughts of the Sabahans, a concept of self-determination in international law.
In fact, seen from this perspective, it clearly justifies the invalidity of the Philippines’ claim. Prior to the formation of Malaysia, the Malayan and British governments co-established the Cobbold Commission to survey the Sabah people’s opinion regarding this matter. The results showed that the majority of Sabahans were in favour of the formation of Malaysia.
Subsequently, a state-wide general election based on universal adult suffrage was held in December 1962. The main issue raised in the election was whether Sabah should as a state joined Malaysia. Out of a total of 119 seats, 113 were won by political parties which supported the formation of Malaysia, while the remaining six were won by independent candidates who were also in favour with the proposal.
This proved the Sabahans had fully exercised their right of self-determination and made their decision, which was to join Malaysia, in accordance with the United Nations (UN) Charter. However, the Philippines rejected the findings and results.
Despite the hardship faced, the then Malayan government held negotiations with the Philippines and Indonesia during the Tripartite Summit Meetings in Manila in 1963.
The outcome of the meeting was the Manila Accord, in which a UN Commission was invited to ascertain the Sabahans’ perception towards the formation of Malaysia. Also, the Philippines agreed to welcome the formation of Malaysia if the commission determined similar result as the previous Cobbold Commission.
Again, the result showed the majority of Sabahans wished to join Malaysia. Regrettably, in spite of its commitment in the Manila Accord, the Philippines chose to ignore the findings and continued the dispute which lasts until today.
There is no doubt international law is the guidebook to the resolution of territorial dispute and apparently, ancestral claim, or in this case, the Philippine “legal and historical rights over Sabah”, does not carry much weight under international law.
This prompts us to determine what exactly is the rationale behind this seeming nonsense.
It might be a political manoeuvre to turn Filipinos’ focus away from the government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. It could also be a display of its victory over China in the South China Sea arbitration without directly calling out Beijing due to fear of sanctions by the Asian giant. It might also be the prelude of the upcoming 2022 presidential election, in which the issue has been used to gain some political mileage.
After all, it is a political drama that is unlikely to end because it is a useful and effective tool to fulfil some political agenda.
However, the Philippines should note that this political drama is also a double-edged sword. While gaining benefits domestically, the Philippines ruins the bilateral ties with Malaysia and the unity of Asean as a whole.
Seeing the deteriorating geopolitics, in which a new Cold War between the US and China is likely to begin, we must recall the achievements of Asean in maintaining the peace and stability of the region during the America-Soviet Union Cold War.
Thus, the Philippines is urged to strengthen the unity of Asean together with Malaysia and other member states in this prologue to the new Cold War, rather than begetting an unnecessary diplomatic spat which disunites Asean.
Jamari Mohtar and Lim Ji Yi are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.