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Thursday, June 1, 2023

EXPLAINER: The Philippine-Malaysia’s Sabah Dispute

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Many of the contemporary discussions on Philippines’ territorial disputes with its neighboring states are centered on its struggle with China vis-à-vis its nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea. The dispute, unfortunately, was not the first and only instance where the Filipino nation has found itself being challenged by an external threat.

Before China’s militarization efforts intensified during the Aquino Administration, the country had been fighting off its misfortune since the 1960’s under the presidency of Diosdado Macapagal, induced primarily by the constant overreaching interference of external forces (i.e., the United States of America and Great Britain). The conflict between the then newly freed Southeast Asian (SEA) country and the two western powers was rooted from the Philippines’ insistence of its historical claim over a large portion of Borneo – Sabah.

Although Macapagal’s efforts to reclaim Sabah were continued during the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos in 1970s, the goal of the Philippines never succeeded especially when the newly founded Federation of Malaysia took political control over the oil-rich portion of Borneo.

When democracy in the Philippines was reinstituted at the end of the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s claim on Sabah was subtly removed from the priority of the succeeding post-EDSA Philippine government. Since then, little attention was given on the matter by the Philippines, whilst Malaysia has been successful in integrating Sabah politically as part of its territory.

However, the tension between the Philippines and Malaysia rekindled when the heir of the Sultan of Sulu attempted to reclaim Sabah through an armed struggle in 2013[1].

A year ago, a heated exchange of intense messages by the top Filipino and Malaysian diplomats took place on twitter. Just recently, Philippine Foreign Affairs Sec. Theodore Locsin, Jr. explicitly renewed the strong claim of the Macapagal Administration through his twitter account saying that “Sabah is not in Malaysia.” The controversial tweet was quickly countered by Locsin’s Malaysian counterpart, Hishammuddin Hussein, tweeting in defense of his country. Such dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia was taken seriously by the latter that Hussein summoned the Philippine ambassador to appear and explain Locsin’s statement. [2]

Not only did Locsin receive negative responses from his Malaysian counterpart, but he also triggered the reopening of the discussion on Philippines’ position on the Sabah dispute.

The exchange of strong messages online by the top diplomats of the two SEA countries again roused the nationalistic interest of the Filipino people, urging the Philippine government to reawaken the dormant claim of the country in the disputed territory.

The discussion on the Sabah dispute, however, reveals the failure of the Philippine government to address one of its longstanding problems ever since its emancipation from the colonial rule of the United States. It reflects the weakness of Philippine foreign policy to put forward the general interest of the Filipinos amid the opposing political forces in the international arena.

Basis of Philippine Claim on Sabah

The claim of the Philippines over Sabah is chiefly grounded on the historical claim of the Sulu sultanate.

It is said that, in 1704, the Sultan of Brunei gave Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu as a gift after the latter had helped the former in pacifying the domestic turmoil in Brunei.

In 1878, a deed of lease was made between the Sultan of Sulu, Gustavus Baron de Overbeck, and Alfred Dent over Sabah; such contract was later transferred to and continued by the British Empire, annually paying the Sultan of Sulu a territorial lease amounting to $5,000.00. However, when the British empire was formulating its plan to consolidate its colonial territories in Southeast Asia, the inclusion of Sabah was manifested as part of the planned Federation of Malaysia. Concerns, then, were put forward by the Philippine government over the plan as Sulu transferred its sovereignty to the Philippines.

The attempts made by the Philippine government, however, were dismissed by the British Empire[3] and, later, the Federation of Malaysia. Currently, the Malaysian side refutes the historical claim of the Philippine government saying that the payments made by the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) and the British Empire were based on a deed of sale: meaning, by receiving an annual payment from BNBC and the British government, the Sultan of Sulu was transferring his ownership rights to the empire. 

The deed of lease, however, runs counter to the comprehension of Malaysia, validating the historical claim presented by the Sultan of Sulu. It is clearly stated in the deed – agreed by the Sultan of Sulu, de Overbeck, and Dent – that the agreement only allowed the BNBC to lease over the Sabah territory in exchange for an annual payment of $5,000.00.[4] This means that no transfer of rights was expressed in the deed, thereby debunking the claim of Malaysia.

Such consultation to history in terms of legality makes the territorial claim of the Philippines valid. Atty. Mel Sta. Maria echoes the same belief and understanding. In his editorial piece published on Rappler, Atty. Sta. Maria believes that Sabah and the West Philippine Sea belong to the Filipino people. He adds that the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, is mandated by his “constitutional and moral duty to assert our country’s rights, honor, and dignity.” Sta. Maria’s belief is grounded on the legal justification that given the legitimacy of the territorial claim asserted by the Sultan of Sulu, the claim of the Philippine government legally falls under the accepted modes of territorial acquisition prescribed by international laws.[5]

Although the discussion provided by Atty. Mel Sta. Maria justifies the ownership claim of the Philippines and proposes a guiding principle, it must be noted that Atty. Sta Maria fails to outline a specific method in adopting his nationalistic stand. Such missing part is provided by Artemio Panganiban in his piece, primarily recommending the government to resort to legal and peaceful means as prescribed by the country’s municipal law and United Nation’s charter. He says that the country should continue pressing its sovereign claim via peaceful methods while discouraging the heir of the Sultan of Sulu to stop taking nonlegal measures. This means that in pursuing the claim and, correspondingly, the country’s national interests, Panganiban believes that it must be settled and deliberated “by negotiation, good offices, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement in the International Court of Justice, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, and other peaceful methods.” [6]

A complex case of territorial dispute

Generally, Panganiban proposes legal and diplomatic means to address the renewed territorial issue between the two Southeast Asian countries. Such proposal directs the attention of the government to a more harmless avenue. However, the discussions put forward by Atty. Sta. Maria and Panganiban heavily confined the policy of the government to legal aspects, which unintentionally foreshadowed other important considerations on the matter.

Aside from the issue of ownership, the dispute, likewise, deals with a more complex discourse on sovereignty. Although Panganiban also touches issues on sovereignty,[7] he fails to emphasize it as part of the equation that must be solved by the strength of the country’s foreign policy.

It must be noted that the success of reclaiming Sabah does not only demand the validation of the ownership claim of the country, but also its power to exercise its sovereignty over the disputed territory. Looking at the political status of Sabah, the Philippines has totally lost its foothold in the territory, whereas Malaysia has successfully federated it into its political system. Hence, this means that aside from bringing the dispute to legal and diplomatic ways, the Philippine government must also acknowledge the need to complement the said steps with efforts that will build its capacity to exercise sovereignty within its territories.

To do so means that the Philippines must have enough machineries to build its strength fortified enough to cushion any possible unfavorable movements in the global politics. This encompasses the economic, military, and political strength of the state to enhance its position in discussions, especially those which involve multi-actors: meaning, the discussion on sovereignty entails the power of the Philippines to extract resources locally enough to strengthen its capacity in pursuing its national interest.

Borrowing Leticia Shahani’s words, it is important to understand that a country abroad is only as strong as its domestic situation, and that the capacity-building efforts of the Philippines must be started by putting the country in order first.[8] Such principle answers the question why the Philippines failed to undertake efforts to prevent the imminent creation of the Federation of Malaysia. Since many of the Southeast Asian territories were then not as politically and economically established as the Philippines, it was easier for the country to penetrate its influence into the regional politics. However, with the deliberate interference of more powerful western countries, the Philippines failed to capitalize on its chance.

Hence, while spending time on pursuing the legal claim of the Philippines through nonviolent and legal measures, it would be remiss not to treat the issue as attached to the strength of the country’s foreign policy. After all, the success of the country does not constitute the validation of its territorial claim alone, but also boils down to its strength to exercise sovereignity over its territory (take the 2016 decision of UNCLOS on the WPS dispute as an example). Whether the diplomatic means of settling the issue favor the Filipino people, the country cannot establish its foothold in Sabah until it has the strength to tilt the balance of its bilateral ties with Malaysia and bar the intrusive participation of other dominant states outside their bubble. It can only do so once the Philippines repaints the image of the nation as debt-ridden, poverty-stricken, and led by politicians seeking for personal gains.

It is, then, important to align the discussion with the domestic status of the country in strengthening its position in the global politics to pursue its national interest. Such power can be sourced from a robust economy, impregnable military force, and undivided politics.

By and large, although the importance of approaching the territorial issue in a legal and peaceful manner is undisputed, the discussion must also incorporate a broader scope, encompassing the country’s strength in foreign affairs. Given the status of the disputed territory, claiming Sabah is an almost impossible undertaking to do. However, this does not mean that the Philippines is left with no option but to officially withdraw its territorial claim. It could still have its lost territory back if its foreign policy is backed by a strong domestic power while taking initiative to validate its legal claims through diplomatic avenues. Until then, the Philippines must hold back from its vocal claim as it may only lead to further damages in its bilateral relations with Malaysia. Such possible outcome would only bring inevitable adverse repercussions, heavily affecting the country considering Malaysia’s vital security assistance in the southern Philippine territory and the need to have a united regional force against the threat of China. 


[1] See C. Campbell (2013), “Sabah Standoff: Diplomatic Drama After Filipino Militants Storm Malaysia,” for more information on the 2013 Sabah Standoff. Retrieved from https://world.time.com/2013/02/26/sabah-standoff-diplomatic-drama-after-sulu-militants-storm-malaysia/

[2] See F. Regalado (2020), “Malaysia’s spat with Philippines over Sabah: Five things to know,” NIKKEI Asia. Retrieved from https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Malaysia-s-spat-with-Philippines-over-Sabah-Five-things-to-know.

[3] See J.L. Vellut (2014), “The Philippines and Malaysia Issue,” Australian Institute of Policy and Science. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20633936

[4] For more information on the deed of lease, see M. Sta. Maria (2020), “Sabah and the West Philippine Sea are ours,” Rappler. Retrieved from https://www.rappler.com/voices/thought-leaders/opinion-just-saying-sabah-west-philippine-sea-are-ours?fbclid=IwAR1BoShs1pVY9LfY7rkxfsdlDLv_K-ZB5jElkS6PWJmhgSE-1oJf1g4zCSo.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See A. Panganiban (2021), “Understanding the Sabah Dispute,” Inquirer.Net. Sourced from https://opinion.inquirer.net/47997/understanding-the-sabah-dispute.

[7] See A. Panganiban (2021), “Understanding the Sabah Dispute,” Inquirer.Net. Retrieved from https://opinion.inquirer.net/47997/understanding-the-sabah-dispute.

[8] See L. Shahani, “TOWARDS THE PACIFIC CENTURY,” Essays on Philippine Foreign Policy.

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