Who Owns Sabah?

Manila, Sept. 2002
Amil Hussein Jalilullah is 30 years old and a full time graduate student. He belongs to the Sama ethnic group, which is indigenous to Tawi-Tawi and neighboring islands. With a scholarship grant from Muslim donors, he is pursuing his M.A. in Islamic Studies at U.P. Religious and unassuming, Mel, as he likes to be called, hopes to be an Islamic scholar in the tradition of contemporary Islamic thinkers like Iqbal and Maududi.
The recent massive deportation of Moros from Sabah disheartened Mel because he could not believe that a Muslim country could do such atrocities against Muslims. Migration is very important in Islam. The first Muslims migrated to Abyssinia to flee the cruelty of the Arab pagans. The Prophet himself migrated to Madina and set up the first Muslim Community (Ummah).
Mel joined his classmates and went to demonstrate against Malaysian actions. He and his classmates are all members of their graduate students’ association, the UP-ASSABIYAH (Group Solidarity).  They called on everyone to consider the plight of the Halaw. Halaw is a Malay term adapted by the Tausug to refer to migrants in Sabah displaced in a disgraceful manner. The term halaw implies that these people (their humanity) were “violated”.
Mel comes from Bongao, Tawi Tawi. He lives practically a boat ride away from Sabah. He had always regarded Sabah as part of the Sulu Sultanate just as Tawi-Tawi is part of the Sulu Sultanate although the Philippine government considers Sulu and Tawi-Tawi as two separate provinces.
He believes that the Philippines should claim Sabah because “it belongs to Sulu.” He says, “Getting Sabah would be better for Tawi-Tawi, for the Sulu Sultanate and the Philippine government.”
But who truly owns Sabah?

The massive deportation of Moros from Sabah has sparked new interest in the ownership of this rich Malaysian state in North Borneo. Perhaps thinking that it would help his country, the Malaysian Ambassador to the Philippines, Mohammad Taufiq announced on Sept. 2 that Malaysia’s Finance Ministry paid early this year the Sultanate of Sulu in southern Philippines its yearly “rent” of M$5,000 (HK$10,250) for Sabah. This surprised Filipino congressmen, who did not know that Malaysia pays annual rent to the Sulu Sultanate. For many congressmen and Christian Filipinos in general, the Sulu Sultanate had disappeared long ago and is now a mere figment of the imagination.
Realizing the logic that he who pays rent does not own the property, some congressmen immediately called for the return of Sabah to the Philippines. The Malaysian ambassador tried to cover his faux pax by saying that it was not rental fee but “cession fee”.
The Philippine government through no less than its President announced that the claim to Sabah would be studied carefully. “We affirmed that we can indeed come up with a national unified position on the Sabah issue at this time,” a presidential palace statement dated 5 September quoted the President as saying.  Representative Apolinario Lozada called the Malaysian presence in Sabah as an “occupation” by a foreign government.

During the dynastic war in Brunei in the 1650’s between Sultan Mu’adin and Sultan Abdul Mubin, the former asked the help of the Sultan of Sulu (Salah ud Din Bakhtiar). The Sulus came to the aid of Mu’adin and defeated Abdul Mubin. In exchange, the victorious Brunei Sultan gave Sabah and Palawan to the Sulu Sultan.
European powers recognized Sulu’s sovereignty over Sabah. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century European maps usually indicated North Borneo as “territories of the Sultan of Sulu.”
On Jan. 22, 1878, the Sulu Sultan Jamal ul Azam leased Sabah to Baron Overbeck. The Sulu Sultan also gave Overbeck the title of Datu Bendahara and Rajah of Sandakan, thus making him his subject.
   The Deed of the Sabah Lease                     Sultan Jamal ul Azam

When the Americans occupied Sulu, the US declared that while they had sovereignty over all Philippine Islands, they recognized the Sulu Sultan’s sovereignty over his possessions outside the Philippines. The US made it plain to England in official statements in 1906 and in 1920 that Sabah belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu.

Sultan Jamal ul-Kiram II died in 1936 without a direct heir. His niece and adopted child, Princess Piandao succeeded him as Pangyan (Sultana) of Sulu. But the some members of the Ruma Bichara (the Council of Elders) did not like the idea that their Pangyan was married to a non-Tausug. When Pangyan Piandao insisted that her husband, Datu Ombra Amilbangsa be declared Sultan, half of the Ruma Bichara withdrew their support for Piandao and instead proclaimed Piandao’s cousins Zein ul-Abidin II and Princess Tarhata as Sultan and Pangyan of Sulu.

With two sultans and sultanas, the ownership of Sabah came into question. It became confusing even to the Americans and the British. To set the matter straight, the heirs of Jamal-ul Kiram II asked the Sabah Court to decide on who are the real heirs of the late Sultan. The so-called McCluskey decision in 1939 recognized the proprietary rights of the Sulu royalty to Sabah and named the heirs and their shares.

Although the Philippines became independent in 1946 and Mindanao and Sulu were included in the Republic, Manila’s hold on the South was tenuous. It practically had no idea that Sabah belonged to Sulu. Or if it did, it made no action whatsoever to include Sabah to the Philippines. In 1957 England granted its Malay colonies independence and the Sulu royals, along with the Indonesian government, protested immediately. It was only then that the new Philippine Republic faced the Sabah issue.

In 1961, Malaysia invited Singapore and Sabah to join the federation. The Sulu royalty again protested. The Sulu royals granted the Philippine President, Diosdado Macapagal, the authority to claim Sabah. Macapagal promptly opposed the Sabah annexation and sent a delegation to London.

But neither Indonesia nor the Philippines could do anything because England declared that, with all its might, it stood firmly behind the creation of Malaysia. The US refused to back up Philippine claims and Indonesia had no one to turn to.

President Marcos tried to get Sabah by hook or by crook but it ended with the fiasco now known as the Jabidah massacre, which inspired the Moros to resume the Moro Wars in the early 1970s. One of the results of the ‘70s Moro Wars was the displacement of about half a million Moros to Sabah.

Despite Sabah’s annexation to the Malaysian Federation and Sulu’s inclusion in the Philippine Republic, the State of Sabah continues to pay annual rent to the Sulu royals as specified in the1878 lease, which now amounts to a mere token. The Sulu royalty since 1957 refuses to accept the annual rent although it receives the letters of payment.


In 1989, Sultan Jamal ul-Kiram III sent a formal notice to the Philippine government revoking the Sultanate’s authorization to the Philippine government to claim Sabah. In a press conference on September 4 at the Sulo hotel, Sultan Jama ul-Kiram III reiterated its revocation of the Philippine government’s authority to negotiate for Sabah.

Sultan Kiram’s lawyer, Firdausi Ismail Abbas, the Sultan of Lanao, said that the 1989 formal notice merely underscored the failure of the Philippine government to press the claims on Sabah, as agreed upon by the Sultanate and the Philippine government. “We actually consider the authorization nullified as far back as 1963, when Sabah became a part of the Malaysian federation,” Sultan Abbas said.


However, the Sultan of Sulu is still is asking the Philippine government to help bring the Sabah issue to the United Nations in “behalf of the Filipino people.”
But his lawyer said that the Sultanate of Sulu is giving the Philippine government only up to six months to bring the issue to the United Nations. Lawyer Abbas said that there are forums other than the U.N. which the Sulu Sultanate can air its demands.
 Harry Roque, a law professor at UP says that a legal principle known as uti  posseditis juris “accords pre-eminence of legal title over effective possession as a basis of sovereignty.” The Sulu Sultanate holds all legal documents to prove their ownership. However, realpolitik seems to indicate otherwise.

 The prospects of the Philippine claim to Sabah do not seem to look good. Despite the lawmakers’ insistence, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said, “the Sabah issue remains a low priority.”

Mel’s mentor, Prof. Julkipli Wadi of the UP Institute of Islamic Studies also believes that the Sultan of Sulu, Jamal ul-Kiram III is the rightful sovereign of Sabah but he thinks that the claim will not prosper in the immediate future. He maintains that the Philippine government does not have the “capability, the right leadership and the political will” to successfully claim Sabah. He said that the Sulu Sultanate is “sandwiched between two governments” with their own selfish agendas. Finally, he said that the Philippine government is simply “not willing” to pursue the Sabah claim seriously.

 Mel is firm in his belief that Sabah belongs to Sulu. But when confronted with the idea that if Sabah becomes part of the Philippines, it might become like Mindanao and Sulu, Mel had a change of heart. “If by Sulu getting Sabah means that (Christian) Filipinos will lord it over Sabah just as they do in Mindanao and Sulu, then it would be better for Sabah to stay with Malaysia,” he concluded.

 Mel’s conclusion is echoed by most of his classmates. Even with the present hardships inflicted by Malaysians on Moros in Sabah, it appears that Moro ties with Sabah and the Muslim Malays formed by centuries of shared history, kinship and religion is still stronger than Moro ties with Christian Filipinos formed by the creation of a Commonwealth in 1935 or a nation-state called the Republic of the Philippines in 1946.
(END/ SEPT. 2002)

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