We should be wary of talking about North Borneo or Sabah as if it were just a piece of real estate without inhabitants. There are people there who regard themselves as natives to the place, and identify themselves as Sabahans. They are descended from the various ethnic groups and races that over the centuries had settled and developed the place.
On Aug. 31, 1963, the Sabahans declared their own separate independence from the British. Later, they joined the newly formed, independent Federation of Malaysia, spelling out the terms of their integration in a “20-point Agreement” that stressed their autonomy. Their relationship with the central government in Kuala Lumpur has not always been smooth. But, whatever their differences might have been, they never saw themselves as in any manner allied to the Philippines.
It would be instructive to take a look at two of Sabah’s leaders at the time of independence. Tun Mustapha, known to many as the leader of Sabah’s independence, was a member of the Suluk-Bajau tribe and was believed to be a distant relation of the Sultan of Sulu. He became the first governor of Sabah under the new Malaysian federation in whose formation he played a crucial role. Donald Stephens, a leader of the Kadazandusun community, became the first chief minister of Sabah under the federation of Malaysia. His father was half-Kadazan and half-British, while his mother was half-British and half-Japanese. He grew up a Roman Catholic, converting to Islam later in life. There were others, representing the Chinese community, who negotiated the integration of an autonomous Sabah into Malaysia.
The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu claim proprietary and sovereign rights over Sabah on the ground that North Borneo was given to their family by the Sultan of Brunei as a reward sometime in the 17th century. They argue that Sabah is part of the Sultanate of Sulu, and since Sulu is part of the Philippines, they asked the Philippine government in 1962 to pursue the Sabah claim in the name of the Filipino nation and their clan.
In 1963, just before Britain relinquished control over its colonial dominion in this part of the world, the Philippines filed a preliminary claim before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands. That is as far as it has gone. Successive Philippine administrations opted not to actively pursue the claim, preferring to develop friendly relations with neighboring Malaysia, which exercises sovereign control over Sabah.
It may also have been the wrong time to press such a claim. It went against the tide of decolonization that was then sweeping the world. The dominant spirit of the time was best captured in the Dec. 14, 1960, United Nations General Assembly Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514). Article 5 of that resolution stated: “Immediate steps shall be taken, in Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territories or all other territories which have not yet attained independence, to transfer all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed or color, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.”
Self-determination was the call of the day. And this was addressed primarily to the big colonial powers that tried to cling to their colonial dominions. Britain initially did not sign the UN resolution, choosing to keep oil-rich Brunei as a protectorate until 1984. At the same time, the British government was careful not to assume that the peoples of North Borneo and Sarawak necessarily wished to be part of the new independent federation that was then being formed by Malaya and Singapore. Sabah and Sarawak could indeed very well have declared themselves separate nation-states, the way Singapore subsequently did.
The point is that, amid intense great power rivalry over these resource-rich islands, it is important to keep in mind that there were inhabitants in these places who fiercely fought for their right to govern themselves. They are the real sovereign. Let us not forget that it is this same tacit recognition of the reasonableness and legitimacy of the quest for self-determination that has brought the Philippine government to the negotiating table to talk peace with the leaders of the Bangsamoro in Mindanao.
In view of this, how can we even think today of taking up the claim to patrimony of a Sulu royal family that presumes to have inherited dominion over Sabah? Have the Sabahans ever indicated to us that they wish to be part of the Philippine republic? Haven’t we heard of decolonization?
Let us assume that the ICJ decided to recognize the Philippine claim to Sabah. Do we then expect the Sabahans to meekly accept this legal transfer of sovereignty? Are we prepared to wage a campaign of subjugation to enforce Philippine rule on a people who have staged their own rebellions against successive foreign rulers?
These are political questions we must consider before we start pressing our claims on a piece of land whose inhabitants have never felt the hand of Philippine sovereignty. It would be useful to separate these questions from the proprietary claims of a Sulu sovereign who now invokes his Filipino citizenship. The Sultan can very well file his private claims before a Malaysian or international court; he does not need the Philippine government’s consent to do this. Since the Philippine government has not actively pursued its sovereign claim over Sabah, the Sultan is free to seek help elsewhere.
One thing he cannot do is force the Philippine state to go to war for him.