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Yong: Government must counter the Philippines claim to Sabah

Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Yong showing the map of Philippines and Sabah
The territory of the Philippines is defined as the territory contained within the boundaries of the Treaty of Paris 1898 signed after the Spanish-American War. North Borneo was clearly shown as outside the Philippines territory in that treaty.
International Court of Justice issuance for Sipadan / Ligitan Island

Today’s news reports in Malaysia and Philippines that the Philippines, in amending its constitution, plan to add Sabah as the “13th state of the Philippines” should not be taken lightly because such attempts by senior personalities in the Philippines confer some dangerous legitimacy on the Philippines/Sulu claim to Sabah. Such attempts (to claim Sabah) will never succeed but their continuing efforts to claim Sabah serve to embolden the subversive elements at Sabah’s border to destabilise Sabah and stiffen the resistance among illegal immigrants to ESSCOM. It also causes unnecessary anxiety among Malaysians.

The neglect of the federal government to counter the Philippines propaganda staking their baseless claim to Sabah rekindles an old theory belief that the federal authorities prefer to keep the “Sabah claim” issue alive so as to scare Sabahans about the threat coming from the Philippines and, therefore, that Sabah needs federal protection.
If this belief is true, then Malaysia is being reckless to think that, just because we prefer to sweep the issue under the carpet, the 100 million Filipinos have forgotten about their claim to Sabah.

It is long overdue, that the federal and Sabah governments should launch a major, sustained campaign against the Philippines claim to Sabah using official channels, citizen groups, academicians and NGOs at local and international media. Most important of all, we should convince influential sections of Philippines establishment, some of whom believe that the Philippines must drop their “Sabah claim” as the claim serves no purpose except to be a thorn in the flesh and is a selfish day dream of the many dubious claimants to the defunct Sulu sultanate who harbour hopes to extort money from Malaysia.

The three-year research by think tank called PIPPA (Progressive Institute of Public Policy Analysis) led by academician Tuan Hj. Amde Sidik, including trips to Brunei, confirms that Sabah (North Borneo) was never given by the Sultan of Brunei to the Sultan of Sulu. The old story is that Brunei had given North Borneo to Sulu in return for Sulu’s help in quashing a rebellion in Brunei in the 17th century.

But there is no historical record to show that Brunei had granted North Borneo to Sulu. On the contrary, historical accounts reveal that Brunei, sometimes with the help of China military forces, had repelled Sulu attempts to enter North Borneo, such as at Kinabatangan.
Brunei had refused to hand over North Borneo to Sulu because the Sulu forces did not take part in the outcome of the Brunei civil war. Historical accounts said that the Sulu forces were stationed at an island. They only came to Brunei after the war was over and the Brunei Sultan had triumphed. Sulu forces which tried to claim North Borneo were chased away by Brunei.

Hence, the so-called Sulu Claim to Sabah rests entirely on the superfluous “Overbeck – Sulu” grant (agreement) of 22 January 1878.

But, a more superior grant dated 29 December 1877 shows that Brunei had earlier ceded North Borneo to one Gustavis Baron de Overbeck. It was only because Overbeck had wanted to “play safe” that he later signed another agreement with Sulu as a way to ward off any future problems with a claimant.

History shows that Brunei had continued to rule North Borneo such as in granting leases and collecting taxes until 29 December 1877 when Brunei ceded North Borneo to Overbeck. 

On the contrary, there is no record of Sulu exercising sovereignty over Sabah.

Subsequent rule over Sabah passed on to the British North Borneo Chartered Company, the Japanese occupation and British Military Administration (after the 2nd world war). Sabah later became a British Colony. Finally, on 31 August 1963, Sabah attained self-government before the formation of Malaysia on 16 Sept. 1963 which is recognised by the United Nations and international law. A day earlier, the United Nations had already accepted the UN Fact Finding Mission Report to the UN Secretary General to ascertain the wishes of the people of North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak concerning the formation of Malaysia.  

The Philippines tried one last shot to get its hands on Sabah in 2001 when the Philippines filed an intervention in the Sipidan /Ligitan Island case which was brought before the World Court (International Court of Justice) between Indonesia and Malaysia in 1998. In brief, the Philippines application was rejected on two grounds: that there is “No interest of a legal nature.” And that “All other documents presented by Philippines to the ICJ – none of them shows “an interest of legal nature”

A Judge in the case noted that “Historic title …cannot prevail in law over the rights of non-self-governing people to claim independence and sovereignty through self-determination”. The judge further said that “In the light of clear exercise by the people of North Borneo to self-determination, it does not matter whether the Philippines claim to historic title sustains or not. Modern international law does not recognise sovereignty based on historic title after the exercise of self-determination, conducted in accordance with international law, recognised by the UN”

The campaign to counter the Philippines claim to Sabah should focus on the facts that Sulu had never acquired Sabah from Brunei in the 17th century, that the Brunei-Overbeck grant in 1877 takes precedence over the Overbeck-Sulu grant in 1878, that the Overbeck-Sulu grant was superfluous, that, in any event, international laws and recognition by the UN, and the 2011 ICJ judgement rejecting the Philippines intervention in the Sipidan/Ligitan case have conclusively and without any shadow of doubt ruled out any basis whatsoever of the Philippines/Sulu claim over Sabah.

It has to be reiterated that the territory of the Philippines is defined as the territory contained within the boundaries of the Treaty of Paris 1898 signed between Spain and American after the Spanish-American War. North Borneo was clearly shown as outside the Philippines territory in that treaty.

Malaysians should not give false hopes to the Philippines and other private claimants by offering compensation of hundreds of millions dollars to the claimants. And we should reject any idea of bringing the Sabah claim to ICJ. Because there is no legal issue to be determined. What needs to be done for Sabah is a sustained and major campaign against the Philippines/Sulu claim to Sabah.


Datuk Yong Teck Lee
President SAPP