Resolving the Sabah Island Conflict Between Malaysia and the Philippines


A claim over the island of Sabah has developed into a serious issue between Malaysia and the Philippines. The problem is so complex that a definite and viable solution seems unforeseeable in the near future. Notwithstanding legal claims based on documents of ownership by the so-called ¨Sultanate of Sulu,¨ basic issues need to be resolved, and resolved concretely. On the political front, the president of the Philippines has presented himself as a rubbery-legged weakling who cannot firmly and decisively resolve the crisis.

In February 2013, the alleged Rajah Muda (Crown Prince) of the ¨Sultanate of Sulu¨ and his heavily armed men sailed to the island of Sabah and occupied part of it as an initial invasive act to a forcible takeover. In defense of the territory, the Malaysian government ordered its armed forces to quench the invasion immediately but overstepped the bounds of a legitimate military operation by committing atrocities against, and even causing the deaths of, Filipino of the Tausug tribe: long-time civilian residents who had been peacefully and productively living on the island. Because of this move, “boats have been rocked,” so to speak: the Philippine boat and the Malaysian boat.


The already problematic situation might worsen if the following complicating factors and basic issues are not clearly seen and properly understood:

1. The Philippine claim over Sabah, though highly legitimate, is not properly grounded in a concrete political foundation, because this claim is principally that of the ¨Sultanate of Sulu”: a nominal entity whose existence cannot be guaranteed by the existence of a territory called the island of Sulu. While such an island exists, it is a province, and as such, it is headed by a governor, not a Sultan. Consequently, within Philippine territory, Sulu’s legitimacy is as a province rather than a Sultanate. If existing legal documents establish that the island Sabah is part of the ¨Sultanate of Sulu,¨ then the question becomes: where is this Sultanate? History says that in the distant past there was a Sultanate of Sulu, but where is it now? In the present era, this Sultanate may be inferred to be a figment of the imagination.


2. So many pretenders to the throne have claimed to be the “Sultan of Sulu” that the ¨Sultanate of Sulu¨ has become a big joke in the 21st century. Each pretender has brought his own proofs and evidence to convince the Filipino people and the Philippine government that he is the one and only rightful, and therefore legitimate Sultan, who is in the process of declaring the others as being “haram,” thereby disqualifying them. This is unsurprising, given the chaotic state of the order of royal lineage due to past arbitrary, and therefore illegitimate, decisions and actions by the royal family. Royal circumstances have become confused and messy, not from any external factor, but from the disorder and instability created by none other than the royal family itself. If no one can concretely ascertain who is currently the genuine and legitimate Sultan of Sulu, how could one clearly establish that a Sultanate of Sulu exists?


3. Despite current difficulties to prove the tangible existence of the Sultanate of Sulu, the Philippines has every historically-derived legal ground to claim this peacefully and diplomatically, as matters of this nature are effected in a civilized world. But even if such a diplomatic negotiation is undertaken, can we be sure that, in the end, we will have Sabah? Considering the current economic condition of the island, where so many Filipinos reside comfortably and productively within the more progressive and stable Malaysian economy and government, can we honestly and reasonably think that they would prefer to be under the political jurisdiction of the Philippines rather than Malaysia? Probably not. In other words, a referendum in Sabah would likely result in a vote for Malaysia instead of the Philippines. This would be the most reasonable decision from people who want a better life in terms of economic prosperity and political stability.


4. The occupation of Sabah by the alleged Rajah Muda of the ¨Sultanate of Sulu¨ and his armed troops lacks a national objective and is based instead on a personal — family — agenda. Such an act does not sit well with the more legitimate claim if done via the government of the Philippines. Again, we raise the issue that there is no concretely existing Sultanate of Sulu; for the Rajah Muda to invade Sabah and claim it for the ¨Sultanate of Sulu¨ is an illegitimate act.


Unless the current state of affairs in Sabah, and the brewing conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia, are seen in the light of this presentation, nothing will be resolved appropriately within the most convenient time. As an urgent measure to avoid stoking up the situation between the Philippines and Malaysia, the Philippines should demand, through a diplomatic mission, an unconditional cessation of the Malaysian government’s hostilities towards the Filipino civilian residents of Sabah. The diplomatic meeting should be mediated by a third-party country, like Singapore or Thailand, that is a stable and credible member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In anticipation of possible illegal and illegitimate future activities of the ¨armed forces¨ of the ¨Sultanate of Sulu,¨ let the Malaysian military forces contain them and also protect the island of Sabah’s Filipino civilian residents.


With these points in mind, it is confidently hoped that the Sabah problem will be resolved in the most peaceful way within the shortest possible time.

Editor’s Note: Ruel F. Pepa is a retired university academic in the fields of philosophy and cultural studies. He is currently based in Madrid, Spain. All photographs by Cumi & Ciki.



4 Responses to Resolving the Sabah Island Conflict Between Malaysia and the Philippines

  1. feliciano pamaran elias July 19, 2013 at 3:51 am

    Prof, you did exceeding well in this article. I feel ashamed of myself who have deep roots in the south and have been through the Christian/Muslim conflict and literal war! But as always, when it comes to politics, we don’t win grounds by “going to war”! It is reason, as it is presented before the right forum, that makes not only good sense but also ushers the sought-after end solution. Write more Prof Ruel, and please put the word “Professor” before you name. This world after all goes for titles! Shalom! Your friend and brother.

    • Ruel F. Pepa July 25, 2013 at 7:05 am

      Thanks for the appreciation, Pastor Jun Elias. No need for titles though. There are more erudite people recognized in their wealth of intelligence through the depth, breadth and relevance of what they write like my colleagues here in News Junkie Post. And flattery aside, I likewise acknowledge you as one intellectual and expert wordsmith who doesn´t have to use titles to be appreciated for you are one of the few sensible thinkers I truly respect. Saludos mi amigo y hermano!

  2. MyQuillRose July 31, 2013 at 7:57 am

    Well, the issue on Sabah had been much a topic on Filipino armchair right-wing circles. But at first Filipinos should think about domestic, as in what really goes on such as poverty, corruption and other serious stuff other than this Sabah madness.
    In fact, this writer had made a critique that why not on behalf of the Kiram family in general instead of on behalf of warring princes in a throne of a “spiritual” head of the Sulu, or perhaps Bangsamoro people.

    Otherwise let the Bangsamoro people decide instead over this matter, thinking that even the MNLF had deployed its “men”.

  3. jack August 8, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Sabah issue should be laid to rest.It is a UN recognised part of Malaysia. Trying to use history to justify a claim in Sabah’s case and arguing against China’s use of it reflects poorly on the Philippines. In both cases, the other parties already have decades of administration of the territories. Using slander, deception and playing victim can only lower the trust and confidence in Asean for the Philippines. Asean want no part in Philippines’ fight with China. In Sabah’s case, the UN has already had its say and approval. In the case of the Spratly, I wouldn’t be too confident about Philippines’chances. Declaring the 9-dash line invalid does not spell out what truly belongs to the Philippines. Besides, if it cannot enforce its ruling, why would the UN even bother? UN secretary Ban Ki Moon already said nations should negotiate amongst themselves in territorial disputes. In this case, it involves more than just 2 countries. I doubt the UN would deliberate on this.

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