How The Philippines Lost Sabah II

By N Mark Castro

Historical records pronounce the ownership of the Sultan of Sulu over the island of Sabah. No one could dispute it but, until recently, no one cares about it. Not the Philippine government and, certainly, not the Malaysian government … and not even the rest of the world.

Painful as it may sound, difficult it may be to accept, the succeeding governments of the Republic of the Philippines since President Diosdado Macapagal had almost long abandoned the historical claim of the Sultan of Sulu on Sabah.


The Sultanate of Sulu was granted the territory as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunei against his enemies and from then on that part of Borneo is recognized as part of the Sultan of Sulu’s sovereignty. In 1878, Baron Von Overbeck, an Austrian partner representing The British North Borneo Co. and his partner British Alfred Dent, leased the territory known as “Sabah” – roughly translated as “the land beneath the winds”. In return the company will provide arms to the Sultan to resist the spaniards and 5,000 Malaysian ringgits annual rental based on the Mexican dollars value at that time or its equivalent in gold. This lease have been continued until the independence and formation of the Malaysian federation in 1963 together with Singapore, Sarawak and Malaysia. Up to these days, the Malaysians have been continuing the rental payment of 5,300 Malaysian ringgits – a 300 ringgits increased from original rent.


According to Solita Monsod’s article, part of the contention had been on the issue of the word “pajak.:

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”?

On the contrary, in Bahasa Indonesia — which is also of Malay origin, and home to the world’s largest Moslem and Malay population, “Pajak” means “Tax,” which is why it’s Tax Department is called “DIREKTORAT JENDERAL PAJAK“, hence, what Malaysia is paying to the Sultan of Sulu is tax.


An article that appeared in The Jakarta Globe, in the column El Indio, proferred one of the most logical solutions; however, in Asian politics, a nation’s ego is more important than logic.

Both governments came close to a solution in the mid-1990s when former President Ramos proposed, as part of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area (Bimp-Eaga), the formation of a public-private corporation that would economically uplift the heirs of the Sulu sultanate.

With a virtually boundless Bimp-Eaga gaining strength, and the public-private corporation flourishing, the Philippines would be able to set aside its Sabah claim forever, or simply drop it. The Malaysian side showed keen interest in the proposal.

Before the Philippine government could craft its details, Ramos’s term came to a close in 1998, and he was succeeded by a movie actor interested only in the bottle. For years, the sultanate was ignored or forgotten. Finally, in his frustration, Sultan Jamalul sent some 200 followers on a doomed mission to “reclaim” their “homeland.”

There’s no reason why both governments today can’t quickly launch negotiations based on the Ramos proposal — not to decide who has sovereignty over Sabah, but to simply bring closure to the issue in a manner that is honorable and satisfactory to all stakeholders, including the sultanate of Sulu and all the people of Sabah.


It is doubtful that after this incident Malaysian government would still pay the nominal fee to the Sultan of Sulu. It is doubtful that after this incident the Philippines — in behalf of the Sultan of Sulu — would still lay claim to Sabah.

Let’s admit it: the Sultan of Sulu never carried weight in either the Malaysian or Philippine government. Sabah never carried weight in the Luzon-centric policies of the Philippine government.

Let’s admit it … Sabah is all but lost.


About Asmartrock

N. Mark Castro is the Southeast Asia Director of JUMP DIGITAL Asia, which is an internationally-awarded and fully integrated digital marketing agency with 5 out of 10 offices in the ASEAN region. He is also the Secretary General of the Philippine Business Club Indonesia, managing and assisting the traffic of investments between the Philippines and Indonesia. He shuttles between Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Cambodia, and Australia. The views posted here are his own and do not in any way reflect the views of the companies he represents.

Posted on March 11, 2013, in General, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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Charlotte Setijadi

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