Editor’s note: From today and every Wednesday onward, Dr. Ei Sun Oh will be writing a column for the Manila Times. Dr. Oh is a senior fellow of the Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Growing up in neighboring Sabah, I have always viewed the Philippines as an amazing country. What a gargantuan effort it must have been to unite and manage a country of thousands of islands, and of a colorful diversity of culture. The Philippines was, of course, a pioneer in the decolonization process of the region, having precipitated the independence of many Southeast Asian nations. Hand in hand with the Philippines, these nations went on to become one of the most economically vibrant regions of the world.
But being a Sabahan, I am of course also aware of the protracted history of interactions between Sabah and the Philippines. As I understand it, a large part of what constitutes modern Sabah came under the rule of the now defunct Sultanate of Sulu. The advance of colonization by many of the Western powers in the 19th century kicked off a scramble for different parts of the large tropical island of Borneo. Southern Borneo, now Indonesia’s Kalimantan, came under the Dutch rule. Sarawak (now part of Malaysia) became a rather unique kingdom under the Caucasian Brooke dynasty. Brunei, which was the predominant power on the island and remained independent, nevertheless became a British protectorate.
This leaves Sabah, which became a tussling catch between several colonial powers – first but short-lived, amazingly, Austrian, then briefly American, and eventually British. The British, through the North Borneo Chartered Company, secured an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu with regard to the transfer of Sabah. Again as I understand it, the English version of the agreement spelled the “cession” of Sabah, which would have been an irrevocable transfer of sovereignty. But the Sulu version of the same agreement apparently employed the word “pajak,” which connotes “lenting” or “rental,” and thus, implies the expectation of reversion of sovereignty. Therein lies the seed of the intermittent Sulu claim of sovereignty over Sabah. And the Philippines, as a part-successor state to the Sulu Sultanate (with the latter having been incorporated into the former), thus “inherits” the Sulu claim of Sabah.
In any case, as far as most Sabahans are concerned, the dispute over Sabah’s sovereignty should have been settled after a 1963 United Nations-organized international inquiry of the then North Borneo residents’ popular will decided in favor of Sabah forming Malaysia with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore (which left Malaysia two years later). In the half century since then, being cordial Asean neighbors, and despite having obviously contrasting official positions on the status of Sabah, Malaysia and the Philippines embrace the practical wisdom of setting aside their differences over Sabah and stressing their otherwise decidedly healthy overall relations. This is despite the occasional outbursts of nationalistic outcries over Sabah, which are perhaps a fodder to feed domestic political needs.
It is, indeed, in this heightened spirit of neighborliness that many Sabahans welcome the impending inauguration of the new Philippine President. We hope that Mr. Duterte, who hails from the southern Philippines, and having helmed municipal leadership, would appreciate better the delicate interactions between Sabah and the southern Philippines, and thereby would be even more pragmatic on the Sabah issue. We, therefore, regard Mr. Duterte’s recent statement on the renewed Philippine interest in the Sabah claim with cautious optimism, hoping that as time advances, his administration would focus instead on more economic cooperation between the two sides.
Indeed, the Southern Philippines is, without a doubt, of tremendous concern to Malaysia and especially Sabah. The armed conflicts there in the 1970s and intermittent recurrences thereafter have sent waves and waves of refugees and economic migrants to Sabah. According to non-official counts, they now amount to nearly a million, or about a third of Sabah’s population, much to the discomfort of Sabah’s original residents. Sabah’s long and porous coastlines also see money-driven armed elements who frequently kidnap both foreign tourists or Malaysians and demand ransoms, failing which would conspicuously lead to the execution of the hostages. These barbaric acts repeatedly irk the conscience of not only Sabahans but also the world over. Moreover, three years ago, a self-proclaimed Sulu army “incurred” into Sabah to “re-stake” their Sabah claims. They were repelled from Sabah only after a few months of low-intensity armed engagements. We were then reassured the Philippine administration’s resolute disavowal of this fanciful Sulu misadventure.
One of the main contributing factors to these frequent “troubles” along primarily the eastern coast of Sabah is undoubtedly the lack of coordination between the military and maritime enforcement authorities of the countries concerned. Armed elements could reportedly escape interdiction when they cross maritime boundaries, frustrating the pursuit of the enforcement authorities of the respective countries. We, therefore, welcome with great anticipation the imminent joint patrol between the navies of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia on the Sulu Sea. At the very least, channels of communications must be set up between the authorities to facilitate joint enforcement efforts. Only then would mutual trust be enhanced for the benefits of all legitimate parties.