The more I read up on the subject and talk to people I consider experts on it, the more I get incensed at the perfidy of Great Britain with respect to Sabah, as illustrated by its treatment of the Sultanate of Sulu, and, much later, its treatment of the fledgling Republic of the Philippines. I consider it the No. 1 villain in the Sabah issue. Tying for second place are the Philippines and Malaysia.
First, Great Britain: In 1881, the British government, in response to a protest by the Spanish and Dutch governments (one can only surmise that the protests arose because Indonesia, including most of Borneo, was under the Dutch, just as the Philippines was under the Spanish) that it had granted a Royal Charter to the company that had leased North Borneo (former name of Sabah), categorically stated that “sovereignty lies with the sultan of Sulu,” and that the company (British North Borneo Company, henceforth BNBC) was merely an “administering authority.”
Fast forward to 1946. The BNBC having transferred all its rights and obligations to the British Crown early that year, the latter, less than a week after the Philippines won its independence from the United States, unilaterally declared its sovereignty over North Borneo.
What was its justification? From what I gather, the British government decided that the contract between the Sultanate of Sulu and Alfred Overbeck (an Austrian who later sold his rights to what became the BNBC) was not a lease, after all, but a grant. The Sultan of Sulu had “granted”/“ceded” North Borneo to the BNBC and, therefore, relinquished sovereignty over it, never mind the declaration to the contrary of the British government 65 years earlier.
How did they come to this conclusion? Simple. They translated the Malay/Tausug word “pajak” which was the term used in the contract, to mean “cede” or “grant”—rather than “lease” or “rent.”
Retired professor Samuel K. Tan, who used to head the University of the Philippines’ history department, has, among his list of publications, “Suratsog”—around 300 letters and documents pertaining to the reign of Sultan Jamalul Kiram II (1894-1936), all written in Jawi (an Arabic alphabet for writing the Malay language), which he translated into English. In other words, Tan is an expert on the language. And he is emphatic, as are other experts, that “pajak” means “lease” or “rent.” What logic is there to “cede” or “grant” a property if annual payments are to be made in perpetuity? Shouldn’t the more appropriate word have been “sell”?
It was also Great Britain that engineered the formation of Malaysia in 1963, from the original Federation of Malaya, which became independent in 1957. This was done by adding, aside from Singapore, the two British colonies in Borneo—Sabah and Sarawak—to the federation.
Indonesia (under Sukarno) and the Philippines (under Diosdado Macapagal) were very much against the formation of Malaysia: Aside from the claims over Sabah, the fact is that Sabah and Sarawak are very far from Malaya (anywhere from 500 to 1,800 miles, while Indonesia is right beside it, and the Philippines is 18 miles away). There was for a while armed conflict between Indonesia and Malaya, and Britain stepped in, sending its soldiers to help its former colony. The overthrow of Sukarno effectively put an end to the conflict.
Now, for the role of the Philippine government. Its handling of the claim to Sabah, and the Sultanate of Sulu, can best be characterized by the expression “With friends like them, one doesn’t need any enemies.” And that indifference/discrimination goes back to President Manuel L. Quezon, who, according to Samuel Tan, so insensitively gave his imprimatur to a non-Kiram as sultan to succeed Jamalul II, ignoring the fact that the succession must be by blood and not by affinity. Tan says, by the way, that there is no disagreement among the Kirams about succession. The disagreements are with respect to inheritance (apparently, the sultans were not only entitled to four wives, there was also an unlimited number of concubines).
But the Aquino administration is something else again. Not only did it ignore Kiram’s letters (as did Arroyo’s), driving the sultan to his desperate measure, but it seems to be more interested in showing Malaysia (and the world) that the claims of the sultan, both with respect to sovereignty (imperium) and ownership (dominion) over Sabah are worthless.
The similarities between President Aquino’s reaction to the sultan’s claims now (hopeless cause) and that of his granduncle, Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong, to the Philippine claim to North Borneo in 1963 are remarkable (invalid, dubious, flimsy, we should voluntarily give it up). And Sen. Jovito Salonga’s reaction then are echoed in the reaction of a lot of Filipinos (including yours truly) now—e.g., “shocking spectacle,” “none but our British friends and their successors may well profit” (read Malaysian for British).
As for Malaysia, its government is harping that we should be grateful that it has “brokered” the peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. But, even if that claim is substantive, it has to be overborne by Malaysia’s less-than-human treatment of many Filipinos working there, and most recently, its refusal to accede to the United Nations’ request for a ceasefire. It seems it will not be content until it can line up our brothers from Sulu like ducks and kill them one by one.