ALAYSIA’s hope for a new chapter in the Malaysia-Philippines relations remains unfulfilled after the Philippine incoming president Rodrigo Duterte made public his intentions to pursue, yet again, the country’s claim on Sabah. It is not coincidental that this issue has arisen in parallel to the support he receives from the south.
For some Filipinos, if they were to drop their claim on Sabah without concessions, this would mean an outright recognition of Malaysia’s sovereignty over Sabah. This stance might jeopardise the proprietary rights of the sultan of Sulu, irritating the situation in the south.
Many Filipinos are inclined to ignore that the Sabahans have previously democratically voted to be part of Malaysia and that they are entitled to their rights. While the self-proclaimed sultan of Sulu bemoans his loss of dominance, the Philippines and the sultan have not questioned if the Kandazans, Dusuns, Muruts and other indigenous people of Sabah want to live under their dominion.
However, the sentiments are not exclusive to all the Filipinos. (Senator Jovito R.) Salonga, a self-styled Filipino nationalist, argued that: “The heirs of the sultan, including Jamalul D. Kiram III, do not possess absolute sovereign powers.” He stated that the claim that Sabah is a part of the Philippine territory is without any historical, legal and moral basis.
According to Salonga, Malaysia should have stopped paying rent to the Kiram family since 1963, when the Sabahans voted to be part of Malaysia. He said: “The self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu Jamalul D. Kiram III is fighting for his alleged private property and that his Sabah claim is purely a personal issue. This is all about money, rent dollar and political power. Their warmongering actions were merely initiated to pressure Malaysia to increase their rental payment.”
In 1996, Princess Denchurain Kiram said she was willing to renounce the claim if the Malaysian government provided a fairer settlement and increased the lease to US$1 million (RM4.09 million). Subsequently, in 2001, Sultan Esmail Kiram II asked the Malaysian government to increase the lease fee to US$855 million a year. In 2008, the Sulu provincial government told Malaysia to increase the annual payment to US$500 million.
Another Filipino senator, Francis Escudero, also stated his opinion. “My personal view is that the Sabah claim is a personal issue involving the sultan of Sulu. It’s a private right and a private claim. He cannot say, however, that Sabah is part of the Philippines.” Many like him believed that the sultan has been bullied and should fight his own battle without relying on Manila and inciting nationalist sentiment.
Many in the Philippines claimed that “lost sovereignty” does not automatically convert to property rights. When a king or sultan loses sovereignty through invasion, overthrow or lost of power, his sovereign rule over his former territories does not turn into private property.
Philippine leaders since Ferdinand Marcos have taken the effort to resolve the sovereignty issue of Sabah by announcing on Aug 4, 1977 that the Philippines was giving up its claim to Sabah in order “to eliminate the burdens of Asean”. But, the accord was not signed because Malaysia wanted legislative amendments, particularly on the constitutional provision on “territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title”.
Before former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr was assassinated on Aug 21, 1983, he had promised Malaysian authorities that the Philippines would drop its claim over Sabah in exchange for its support in the move to oust strongman Marcos. The most evident proof of Ninoy’s supposed pledge to Malaysia is found in the 1987 Constitution, which was written during the presidency of his widow, Corazon Aquino.
Aquino had no choice but to honour her husband’s commitment to Malaysia because she needed support from Asean nations to legitimise her ascendancy to the presidency through the people power revolution. The 1987 Constitution amended the first article of the 1973 Constitution and removed the phrase, and all other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title.
The 1987 Constitution revised the definition of Philippine territory and deleted Sabah as a historic claim backed up by the legal title pertaining to the Sultanate of Sulu.
On March 10, 2009, president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed an R.A. 9522, amending R.A. 5446, which removes the mentioning of Sabah or North Borneo in the Archipelagic Baselines of the Philippines law. The amended law removed Section 2 of the 1968 law that included the phrase, “…the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty”. Much to Malaysia’s delight, the amended Baselines law was thought to have caused the permanent exclusion of Sabah from the Philippine territory.
The removal of the specific reference to Sabah represented a blow for the Sultanate of Sulu. Princess Jacel Kiram, the daughter of Jamalul Kiram III, accused the Aquino administration of protecting the interests of Malaysia as opposed to those of the Filipino people.
Nevertheless, the flipping claims to Sabah only reaffirm the fact that the issue is only skin deep to some Filipinos. Back in the horizon, the claims are as much political as they are conflicting to the people of Philippines.
Dr Paridah Abd Samad is a former lecturer of UiTM, Shah Alam, and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak, can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org