Are We Reviving Our Claim Over Sabah? 

IMAGE Wikimedia Commons / Dr. Johnstone, A.J. West

“Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to do anything with the Philippines,” tweeted foreign affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. 

Locsin was reacting to a tweet posted by the United States Embassy in Manila about its relief efforts in the Philippines. 

But Locsin’s tweet is hardly the first time in recent history that the Philippines verbally asserted its claim over Sabah. In March 2019, then-presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo countered former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who said the Philippines has no rights to Sabah. 

In response to Malaysia, Panelo said the Philippines has a claim over Sabah but is not a priority at the moment. 

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In 2013, this Philippine claim over Sabah led to a military conflict between the Malaysian armed forces and a militant group that called itself “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu.” The conflict is now known as the 2013 Lahad Datu Standoff. 

The Sultan of Sulu (center) and His Escorts, 1899


The Lahad Datu Standoff

On February 11, 2013, some 235 militants from the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu occupied buildings and homes in the town of Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia. Their objective was to assert the Philippines’ claim over Northern Borneo. 

The standoff lasted for more than a month with skirmishes that killed 56 members of the Philippine group, 10 Malaysian armed forces, and six civilians. 

The conflict soured relations between Malaysia and the Philippines. At the time, Malaysia was brokering a peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF. 

The Philippine claim over Sabah also affects Indonesia.

While the Philippine claim over Sabah is often framed as a contentious issue between the Philippines and Malaysia, people forget that the claim also affects Indonesia, which currently controls the southeastern part of the territory being claimed by the Philippines. 

In the following map, the red parts represent the territory of the Sultanate of Sulu in the 18th century. 

The Territory of the Sultanate of Sulu in the 18th Century

Photo by Mario Alvaro Limos.
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But the Philippines and Indonesia do not mention or discuss the issue, as far as the two countries are concerned. In fact, they are diplomatic “best friends” when it comes to territorial disputes. 

In 2014, Indonesia and the Philippines resolved a decades-long territorial dispute in the Celebes Sea. The two countries finally agreed on the exact baselines of their borders in the area. 

The Philippines and Indonesia trumpeted their resolution of the dispute as an example of how maritime and territorial issues can be resolved peacefully. 


Why the Philippines is Claiming Sabah

The Philippines’ claim over Sabah is inherited from the Sultanate of Sulu, which transferred, to the government, all its claims and rights to Sabah so that the government can pursue this on its behalf. 

According to the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, the sultanate leased Sabah to a British company in 1878. At the time, Malaysia was a British colony. When Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, its territorial boundaries remained vague.

Below is a scan of the alleged lease agreement signed by the Sultan of Sulu and the British entrepreneur Baron de Overbeck, renting Northern Borneo to his company. Malaysia views this document as a cession agreement. 

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

In 1963, Malaysia attempted to include Sabah in their territory, but this was vehemently opposed by the Philippines and Indonesia. In a plebiscite, the Malaysian government asked Sabah residents to choose where they should belong. They voted for Malaysia. 

The Philippines did not take the plebiscite lightly. In 1968, President Marcos of the Philippines attempted to take Sabah by force, which resulted in the infamous Jabidah Massacre and lead to the killing of Muslim operatives who refused to carry out the mission. 

To this day, the Malaysian government pays the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu P77,000 annually. The heirs consider this rent, but the Malaysian government considers it cession payment. 

No, the Philippines is not reviving its claim over Sabah.

The Philipines is not really reviving our claim over Sabah, because it never abandoned it. Although the occasional pronouncements of government officials on the matter will likely not see force, the government feels it is important to remind Malaysia that the country is not dropping this claim anytime soon. 

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