As ASEAN celebrated 53 years of its establishment on August 8, 2020, the intra-regional tension due to the unresolved territorial dispute over Sabah between its two members was hard to be overlooked.The North Borneo dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines existed even before the establishment of ASEAN. However, the ongoing discord over Sabah- one of the thirteen states under the Malaysian Federationseems to be now emerging as a disturbing situation. More recently the issue flared up when the Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr, in a post onTwitter on June 29, 2020, stated that Sabah is not a part of Malaysia. In response, the Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein stated that the remarks made by the Philippines Foreign Secretary were‘irresponsible’ and also summoned Manila’s Ambassador on the matter.[i]
A Brief Historical Background
The Sulu Sultanate which controlled Sabah signed a contract with the British North Borneo Company on January 22, 1878, according to which the latter could occupy the eastern half indefinitely as long as it paid a sum of money to the Sultanate. It became a British protectorate in 1888 and at the end of World War II, North Borneo was handed over to the British government. Through a referendum held in 1963, it gained independence and its people voted in favour of joining Malaysia. This resulted in North Borneo being renamed as Sabah.[ii]Indonesia under President Sukarno saw the formation of the MalaysianFederation as neo-colonialism, which resulted in the Ganyang Malaysia (Crush Malaysia) campaign. However, under the Suharto Government, Indonesiabegan to view thestability and security of Southeast Asia as its primary responsibility. Thus, it chose to follow the path of regional cooperation instead of conflict by retracting its stance on North Borneo/Sabahand adopting a more constructive relationship with its neighbours through ASEAN and by putting an end to the ‘Crush Malaysia’ campaign.[iii]The Philippines on the other handdid not relinquish its claim over Sabah –a position which has remained unchanged till date.
While Malaysia and the British considered the 1878 contract signed with the Sulu Sultanate as a sale of land, the Philippines has argued that North Borneo/Sabahwason leaseby the Sultanate of Sulu to the British. During President Diosdado Macapagal’s term, the Philippines Government on June 22, 1962, filed a claim of sovereignty and ownership over North Borneo to the British Ambassador to Manila.[iv]The Philippine Government maintains that the lease of 1878 was validly terminatedon January 22, 1958,through a Proclamation by the Sultan of Sulu, which helped restorePhilippine’srights over Sabah. In September 1962, the reigning Sultan of Sulu, Sultan Mohammad EsmailKiram, formally ceded all rights, proprietary, title, dominion, and sovereignty of North Borneo to the Republic of the Philippines. This led to the Philippines Government on September 12, 1962, to initiate its claim and full control over North Borneo.[v]
Signing of the Manila Accord on July 31st, 1963, in Manila by President Suharto, President Macapagal, and Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman of the then Malaya Federation[vi]
To avoid any further confrontation, the leaders of Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines met in Manila in June 1963. The meeting resulted in the Manila Accord, signed on July 31, 1963, which was followed by the Manila Declaration signed on August 3, 1963 and a Joint Statement signed on August 5, 1963. Through the signing of the Manila Accord by Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, an agreement was reached to resolve the territorial dispute over Sabah peacefully.[vii]However, on September 18, 1968, the Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, signed a Congressional Bill for the demarcation of the territorial sea of the Philippines, according to which it had sovereignty over the stateof Sabah. The Malaysian Government dismissed these claims by describing it as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and described this unilateralaction as being aggressive and highly provocative.Geoffrey Marston, a Senior Lecturer of Law at the Australian National University, in a paper published in 1970, argued that the Philippines Government’s claim over Sabah that relies implicitly on a succession of rights from the Sultanate of Sulu if taken to the International Court of Justice, would failon account of the difficulties of proof needed to establish the alleged facts.[viii]These claims and unilateral actions have in a way derailed any kind of resolution and caused the issue to persist till today.
The Ongoing Stalemate towards a Resolution
The setting up of ASEAN was in a way to also to ensure that any form of expansionist aggression does not occur and the region remains insulated from the impact of Cold War. ASEAN was also borne out of the need for regional reconciliation needed to reduce military confrontation and emphasised on dialogue amongst its Members to resolve differences.[ix] Further, by leaving out the military aspect from the scope of ASEAN, the newly formed regional grouping kept its focus on the socio-economic development of the region. ASEAN, in its Declaration, laid out the acknowledgment amongst all the Members about their shared challenges and interests which could be overcome through a partnership based on equality.[x]
However, the inception of ASEAN has not really been able to bring an end to the ongoing impasses. While there was an agreement between Malaysia and the Philippines to shelve the issue in the interest of regional solidarity, and to resolve it through ASEAN, not much progress has taken place.[xi]The challenge in addressing this intra-ASEAN dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines arises from each of them adopting policies contrary to the broad agenda of the Association. This has been a cause for the lack of unanimity for the passage of any resolution.[xii]ASEAN, while being able to soften the political tension between Malaysia and the Philippines by promoting greater regional cooperation, the need to address the dispute over Sabah has never been an important agenda item in any of its meetings given that ASEAN is mandated with the role of addressing intraregional tensions and disputes. In the current sensitive geo-political environment, the need now is to ensure that the issue does not intensify to become a catalyst for instability in the region.[xiii]
Figure One:The State of Sabahon the map of Malaysia[xiv]
As seen on the map in Figure One,Sabah covers an area of 29,000 square miles andis located in the northeast corner of the island of Borneo which is shared among Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Banggi Island, in Sabah’s north, is less than 80km from the Philippines’southern Balabac Island as a result it faces persistent security challenges, including attacks from Philippine-based militant groups like Abu Sayyaf. Sabah also has a wealth of natural resources, including an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of oil and 11 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.[xv]
Sabah’s extensive wealth of commercially exploitable timber is of great interest especially to the Philippines as it could compensate for the latter’s declining timber resources. Further, Sabah’s vast underpopulated tracts is also of great appeal as it could provide resettlement sites for much of the excess population in the increasingly crowded northern and central Philippines Islands. Its 1,000-mile shoreline is washed by three bodies of water – the South China Sea on the West, the Sulu Sea on the northeast, and the Celebes Sea on the southeast. The nature of Sabah’s western coasts includes sandy beaches suitable for the landing of conventional amphibious craft. Further, the sandy beaches along the shores of Gaya Bay, north of Kota Kinabalu are well suited for a large-scale amphibious landing.The Eastern Sabah with fewer stretches of straight coastline, has correspondingly fewer sandy beaches, muddy shores backed by impenetrable mangrove swamps limiting large-scale amphibious landings and operations. The approaches from the Sulu and Celebes Seas present a maze of coral reefs, submerged rocks, sandbars, and so on. These provide a natural deterrence by limiting any operations through only small naval craft.[xvi]Therefore, resource abundance along with its geo-strategic potential makes it crucial to both Malaysia and the Philippines, which has led to the ongoing discord between them for more than six decades.
A brief on theCurrent Internal Dimensions in Sabah
The Malaysian Flag with the Sabah Flag[xvii]
Today, there is also agrowing discontent amongst certain quarters in Sabah who feel that the 1976 amendment to the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), which led to the alteration in Sabah’s statusfrom being equal partners with Malaysia to becoming like the other States under the Malaysian Federation.[xviii] The MA63, which created the Federation of Malaysia was signed by the United Kingdom, Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak. This agreement grants the states of North Borneo or Sabah and Sarawak a high degree of autonomy under the ‘Twenty Point’ agreement. Through this twenty-point agreement, the leaders of Sabah and Sarawak gained a degree of autonomy in return for supporting the formation of the new Malaysian Federation. Through the amendment to the MA63 and the incorporation of bureaucratic regulations, the State nationalists feel that their autonomy has been effectively taken over by the federal Government.[xix]Further, in comparison to the other States in Malaysia, the region remains underdeveloped despite its economic contribution through its oil, gas, and other natural resources. The feeling of being exploited for its natural resources and the lack of support is also adding to Sabah’s grievances against the Federation.[xx]
The growing discontentment within Sabah is also due to the alleged attempts by the federal Government to alter the demography of the state through population re-engineering. Sabah has a population of more than 3.5 million people,majority of who are non-Malay. Approximately 60 percent of the population is constitutedof indigenouspeople, Chinese (about 9.1 percent) or from ethnic groups originating from southern Philippines, Indonesia or other parts of Malaysia.Some of the largest minorities are the Kadazan-Dusun (about 17.8 percent), Bajau (14 percent), and Murut (3.2 percent).A majority of Kadazun-Dusun are now Catholics or animists, and some have also converted to Islam while the vast majority of Bajau are Muslims. The Murut,known as the ‘hill people’ tend to be concentrated in the south-west interior of Sabah with many of them being converted to Christianity, though some have more recently also converted to Islam. Between 1960s to the early 2000s, there was an influx of more than a million Muslims from the southern Philippines and Indonesia, who were allowed to settle and also given voting rights.[xxi]
The actions undertaken by the Malaysian federal Government resulted in Sabah’s population growing by 300 percent and its demographic composition changing remarkably, with a significant increase in the Muslim population, which grew from 37.9 percent in 1960 to 65.4 percent in 2010.[xxii]This has had political ramifications with the indigenous non-Muslim people declining into demographic and political insignificance, while Muslim groups havingbecome dominant both in demographic and political terms. Further, the altered demographic composition in Sabah, which has politically marginalized the indigenous peoples has impacted their rights relating to landownership and resource allocation.[xxiii]
While it is an internal matter for Malaysia,the emerging grievances arefueling rise of nationalism, thereby, causing tension between the federal Stateand the State of Sabah. The rise of nationalism in Sabah creates imbalances in the region by adding yet another dimension to the discord between Malaysia and Philippines. These emerging issues within the State are today playing into the hands ofsmall secessionist movements active in Sabah andneed to be addressed at the political level to ensure that secessionist movementsdo not gain further impetus.
While Malaysia maintains that Sabah is and will always be part of the Malaysian Federation, its claims have been consistently challenged by the Philippines.The establishment of ASEAN did ease the possibility of a confrontation, but it has not been able to deliver a peaceful resolution. Both countries over the decades have been able to further strengthen cooperation in several areas of mutual interest, including combating terrorism, violent extremism and transnational crimes; maritime cooperation, enhanced regional connectivity, trade and finance, investment and economic cooperation, but the territorial dispute persists. Today, as both countries are suffering from the impact of the COVID-19 and the region is going through a geopolitical churn, more rhetoric from Philippines is likely in the near future which would be indicative of not merely domestic appeasement by its political leadership but a move towards a more serious assertion of claims on Sabah.
The dispute over Sabah between Malaysia and the Philippines is the achilles’ heel in their bilateral relations.This ongoing discord creates major vulnerabilities in the realm of security, where both countries alsoface similar major challengesfrom issues of piracy to terrorism.Their bilateral as well as regional cooperationwith third countries of the region are key for a peaceful and stable region. However, thecurrentsecurity arrangementgetsundermineddue to their bilateral dispute – with Sabah at the center of disagreement.
*Dr. Temjenmeren Ao is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal
[i]“Malaysia, Philippines in war of words over Sabah claim”, Al Jazeera, July 30, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/malaysia-philippines-war-words-sabah-claim-200730032257250.html, Accessed on July 31, 2020.
[ii]VritiVankani, “Sabah: The Achilles heel in Malaysia-Philippines Relation”, The Kootneeti, March 23, 2020, https://thekootneeti.in/2020/03/23/sabah-the-achilles-heel-in-malaysia-philippines-relation/, Accessed on July 31, 2020.
[iii] The ‘Crush Malaysia’ or ganyang Malaysia was announced by President Sukarno on July 27, 1963, in response to the formation of the federation of Malaysia.See:http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/126b6b07-f796-4b4c-b658-938001e3213e, Accessed on August 3, 2020.
[iv]VritiVankani, “Sabah: The Achilles heel in Malaysia-Philippines Relation”, The Kootneeti, March 23, 2020, https://thekootneeti.in/2020/03/23/sabah-the-achilles-heel-in-malaysia-philippines-relation/, Accessed on July 31, 2020.
[v]Geoffrey Marston, “International Law and the Sabah Dispute”, The Australian Year Book of International Law Online, Volume 3, Issue 1, January 1, 1970, pp. 103-152, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AUYrBkIntLaw/1967/4.pdf, Accessed on August 5, 2020.
[vi]See://https://defenders-philippine-sovereignty.blogspot.com/2013/04/signing-of-manila-accord-1963-on-31st.html. Accessed on August 10, 2020.
[vii]Faisal S. Hazis, “Domination, Contestation, and Accommodation: 54 Years of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia”, Southeast Asian Studies, 7(3), (2018), pp. 341-361. https://repository.kulib.kyoto-u.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/2433/237246/1/sas_7_3_341.pdf. Accessed on August 3, 2020.
[viii]Geoffrey Marston, “International Law and the Sabah Dispute”, The Australian Year Book of International Law Online, Volume 3, Issue 1, January 1, 1970, pp. 103-152, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AUYrBkIntLaw/1967/4.pdf, Accessed on August 5, 2020.
[ix]Yuen FoongKhong, “Michal Leifer and the pre-requisites of regional order in Southeast Asia”, in Joseph ChinyongLiow and Ralf Emmers (edi), Order and Security in Southeast Asia: Essays in memory of Michael Leifer, (Routledge: Oxon, 2006), p. 32-33.
[x]“Indonesia”, National Intelligence Estimate (NIE 55-68), US Department of States, December 31, 1968, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB242/1968_NIE-55-68.pdf, Accessed on August 1, 2020
[xi]Paridah Abd. Samad and Darusalam Abu Bakar, “Malaysia-Philippines Relations: The Issue of Sabah”, https://watermark.silverchair.com/2645160.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAoowggKGBgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggJ3MIICcwIBADCCAmwGCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQM7LNbgXOFXfS6GIi6AgEQgIICPcuXHErA5GfUH0s53bj8WlwGvPtSCXpvgQG3G_sA1B5Kr7ay8--j6Kv4kqAxpaNxbuGiSV4-g6Y9Xs0njE_3MMF8Pgq24z-NLq8VXSnv79kbQbgo1S1qBOp0IoJyVggpAnvZIaeKikV8xMBkMJcgqcTvea8LNOiDH_iVBQ5T31OVg9piAP0GJUooVYZiGLm84xoGqPtrxIq9dwDwREEZH-Noj-BQylxHtFGj48K2JzIlHUCI4pVqfx057m5Z961djW7lU9LcMKXveKKlontyRxbbHxVLTN-1TonRk6Tj0al4O0iZgj5HIFE-BbOu9kKnHtXCvZABacJ0HKSfX2I05G2Z6ZKdAZnbInlEdr_xNbWyL5rRKtcv0gg9YewwY74rno3iwtvLt5_ZUYhrtZ0mCI1NreTBvoRAowywCdVlOUeNKidAfFUiHYg_dRj1shjS3NXUrFgLtB22NjyuuGcoKlI1dLSzcNQ3PWOxqh2Tg44uvlNMdOdHFhqNV-awdbyRFzWunxB6yOOf900L5zdIvn0ze1qKxzRJ0DLEZWBH2JsjFz5VkCDLHaq0z6ne9ikyClKsM9KykLywGl0JEhvNcwqw-ZufePwK4b4sFJhVzenke96geUxzZ0L_heXZnKiarEg2QOQB5pjQ9Hnx2BqBZ55x4P2AEgrYFZxbUn5fHT7dHrxBTPSThpiQhSOz9qZ0iW3b0afgqjDQUCRuP5elolVTFCjluyCpkUEv5-ByP-JTvKJDAPQ1ir63yQ9RVg, Accessed on July 31, 2020.
[xii]Paul Dibb, “Indonesia: The Key to South-East Asia’s Security”, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 77, No.4 (Oct., 2001), pp. 835.
[xiii]Paridah Abd. Samad and Darusalam Abu Bakar, “Malaysia-Philippines Relations: The Issue of Sabah”, https://watermark.silverchair.com/2645160.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAoowggKGBgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggJ3MIICcwIBADCCAmwGCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQM7LNbgXOFXfS6GIi6AgEQgIICPcuXHErA5GfUH0s53bj8WlwGvPtSCXpvgQG3G_sA1B5Kr7ay8--j6Kv4kqAxpaNxbuGiSV4-g6Y9Xs0njE_3MMF8Pgq24z-NLq8VXSnv79kbQbgo1S1qBOp0IoJyVggpAnvZIaeKikV8xMBkMJcgqcTvea8LNOiDH_iVBQ5T31OVg9piAP0GJUooVYZiGLm84xoGqPtrxIq9dwDwREEZH-Noj-BQylxHtFGj48K2JzIlHUCI4pVqfx057m5Z961djW7lU9LcMKXveKKlontyRxbbHxVLTN-1TonRk6Tj0al4O0iZgj5HIFE-BbOu9kKnHtXCvZABacJ0HKSfX2I05G2Z6ZKdAZnbInlEdr_xNbWyL5rRKtcv0gg9YewwY74rno3iwtvLt5_ZUYhrtZ0mCI1NreTBvoRAowywCdVlOUeNKidAfFUiHYg_dRj1shjS3NXUrFgLtB22NjyuuGcoKlI1dLSzcNQ3PWOxqh2Tg44uvlNMdOdHFhqNV-awdbyRFzWunxB6yOOf900L5zdIvn0ze1qKxzRJ0DLEZWBH2JsjFz5VkCDLHaq0z6ne9ikyClKsM9KykLywGl0JEhvNcwqw-ZufePwK4b4sFJhVzenke96geUxzZ0L_heXZnKiarEg2QOQB5pjQ9Hnx2BqBZ55x4P2AEgrYFZxbUn5fHT7dHrxBTPSThpiQhSOz9qZ0iW3b0afgqjDQUCRuP5elolVTFCjluyCpkUEv5-ByP-JTvKJDAPQ1ir63yQ9RVg, Accessed on July 31, 2020.
[xv]Meaghan Tobin, “What’s behind the revived dispute between Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah?”, South China Morning Post, September 9, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/explained/article/3026422/explained-whats-behind-revived-dispute-between-philippines-and, Accessed on August 1, 2020.
[xvi]“Intelligence Report: Geographic Brief on Sabah”, Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, April 1969, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP84-00825R000100620001-7.pdf, Accessed on August 1, 2020.
[xvii] See: https://thekootneeti.in/2020/03/23/sabah-the-achilles-heel-in-malaysia-philippines-relation/, Accessed on August 10, 2020.
[xviii]PiyaSukhani, “What’s Behind Calls for Independence in Sabah?”, The Diplomat, April 3, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/whats-behind-calls-for-independence-in-sabah/, Accessed on August 3, 2020.
[xix]James Chin, “ ‘New Malaysia’: Four Key Challenges in the Near Term”, Lowy Institute, March 14, 2019, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/new-malaysia-four-key-challenges-near-term, Accessed on August 3, 2020.
[xx]PiyaSukhani, “What’s Behind Calls for Independence in Sabah?”, The Diplomat, April 3, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/whats-behind-calls-for-independence-in-sabah/, Accessed on August 3, 2020.
[xxi]“Malaysia: Indigenous people and ethnic minorities in Sabah”, Minority Rights Group International, January 2018, https://minorityrights.org/minorities/indigenous-peoples-and-ethnic-minorities-in-sabah/, Accessed on August 3, 2020.
[xxii]PiyaSukhani, “What’s Behind Calls for Independence in Sabah?”, The Diplomat, April 3, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/whats-behind-calls-for-independence-in-sabah/, Accessed on August 3, 2020.
[xxiii]“Malaysia: Indigenous people and ethnic minorities in Sabah”, Minority Rights Group International, January 2018, https://minorityrights.org/minorities/indigenous-peoples-and-ethnic-minorities-in-sabah/, Accessed on August 3, 2020.