Why is the Philippines reviving its dispute with Malaysia over Sabah?

With territorial disputes involving Southeast Asia having dominated global headlines for weeks, now might seem like an opportune moment for the Philippines to revive its quarrel with Malaysia over the sovereignty of Sabah.

There’s just one problem: Experts in the Philippines say they can’t be sure whether it is serious or not.


Manila’s latest move to assert its sovereignty over the territory, situated at the northern tip of the island of Borneo and currently administered by Malaysia, came on Tuesday when the Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr addressed congress.

“I have decided to reactivate the North Borneo Bureau after realising that the rest of the world has forgotten our Sabah claim, casually designating it as another country’s territory when we have not forgotten,” Locsin said during his presentation of next year’s budget for his department.

Commenting on undocumented or stateless residents of Sabah, who are often targeted by Malaysian authorities for repatriation to the Philippines, he added that “we need to proceed very carefully … They must be Filipino, because Sabah is ours. That’s all there is to it. If Malaysia doesn’t like that, that is too goddam bad for them.”

Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr. 
PHOTO: Reuters

After the congressional hearing, Locsin tweeted that it would be “treason not to” revive Manila’s claim to the territory.

“Since 1986 when [former president] Marcos left, the Sabah claim has been put on the back burner. Well that’s changing,” he added.

The dispute over Sabah harks back to 1878, when the Sultan of Sulu – who at the time ruled over territories that now belong to both the modern nations of the Philippines and Malaysia – agreed to let the British North Borneo Company administer the territory.

The circumstances of that agreement are disputed, but in 1946 the British crown annexed Sabah as the Colony of North Borneo.

In 1957, the Sultanate of Sulu terminated the lease agreement with the British North Borneo Company then transferred sovereignty over Sabah to the Philippine government in 1962.

However, in 1963, the British still made it part of the independent Federation of Malaysia.

Despite this, the Philippines argues that it is the true successor state to the Sultanate of Sulu and therefore retains a claim.

The dispute flares up every time Malaysia deports hundreds of Filipinos from Sabah and recently caused friction after the Philippines sent a diplomatic note to the UN challenging Putrajaya’s plan to establish an extended continental shelf in waters off Sabah.

Even so, experts say it is unclear how serious Manila is about pursuing its claims or whether it is using the dispute as either a distraction or for leverage in other disputes.

Kelambu beach in Sabah.
PHOTO: Facebook/SabahBahInii

Lauro Baja, a retired Philippine envoy who twice became president of the United Nations Security Council, wondered whether this was “just one of Locsin’s Twitter outbursts”.

Baja recalled that when he entered the foreign service in 1963, the North Borneo Affairs Office still existed. “It was entrusted to study our claim and how to pursue it” but years later it was put into “suspended animation”.

But he agreed with Locsin that Manila’s claim should not be dropped because “even if we are not doing much, it is always good to have something on hand just in case some contingency happens with Malaysia”.

“Let the claim remain there whatever it is. Perhaps in the future, we can use it as a bargaining chip,” he added.

“If we don’t do anything and they don’t do anything the issue will die down again. Let’s see what Locsin will do if he really resuscitates that North Borneo office.”

Baja said Malaysia had refused to go to the International Court of Justice to settle the issue.

He said when the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was being negotiated among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in early 2000, Malaysians would always try to insert Sabah as part of the map of Malaysia.

“They would always say, ‘Sabah comma Malaysia’ and we would always say, ‘if you put Malaysia there, there will be no document.”

Baja also recalled telling his Malaysian counterpart Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Mohamad at the UN: “Kadir, let’s just go to the ICJ to resolve this impasse. I know you will win.”

He said Kadir replied: “But suppose you win.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
PHOTO: Reuters


Like Baja, Professor Julkipli Wadi, former dean of the University of the Philippines Institute of Islamic Studies, was also sceptical.

He questioned whether President Rodrigo Duterte would really honour his election promise to pursue Sabah.

“I would say, how serious the government is in reviving the Sabah claim is something that is questionable. The government should have done this earlier.

“Is it just Secretary Locsin doing his thing,” asked Wadi. “I think he is looking for the possibility of connecting the Sabah claim to a higher geopolitical issue in Southeast Asia but no one is taking the bait.”

Wadi recalled that many Philippine presidents had made the same promise, including the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

He recalled that “in 1977, Marcos declared in an Asean meeting that he would drop the Sabah claim, our relations with Malaysia normalised.”

He said from Malaysia’s perspective, the subject was “a no-no”, adding that the Malaysians must have been shocked when Sabah’s caretaker Chief Minister Shafie Apdal – who is up for re-election – recently suggested taking the issue to an arbitration panel.

Shafie’s suggestion was criticised on Tuesday by Malaysian foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who said doing so would be a tacit admission that there was some basis to the Philippine claim.

“Malaysia does not recognise the [Philippine] claim. So there’s no reason why we should negotiate with them. If we open the negotiations, that means Malaysia admits that the claim has a foundation,” Hishammuddin posted on Facebook.

“The Malaysian government’s stand remains strong – we will not negotiate or treat the claim of any party on Sabah,” he added.

Wadi, however, said he understood where Shafie was coming from. Shafie grew up in Sabah but his parents came from the Sulu Archipelago, seat of the Sultanate of Sulu which the US unilaterally annexed to the Mindanao region of the Philippines in 1946.

“This doesn’t mean he is anti-Malaysia or he is solely a supporter of the Sultanate of Sulu or pro-Filipino. It simply means he knows his history.”

Wadi said after the Mindanao wars erupted in the 1970s, thousands of residents fled to Sabah and settled there.


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