Philippine Senator Tackles Long-Standing Sabah Claim

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Philippine Senator Tackles Long-Standing Sabah Claim

A recent French court ruling has pushed the territorial dispute back onto the country’s political agenda.

Philippine Senator Tackles Long-Standing Sabah Claim

Philippine Senator Robinhood Padilla, as seen in a photo posted to his Facebook page on August 13, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/Robin Padilla

Senator Robinhood Padilla talked about the Philippines’s claim over the Malaysian state of Sabah, during his first privilege speech on August 9.

Padilla, a movie action star before joining politics, led the Senate race in the 2022 elections. He is also the country’s only Muslim Senator. If he decides to pursue this advocacy, he will certainly attract wider public support, especially in southern Mindanao, where the Sulu Sultanate was once located.

That Padilla chose the Sabah claim as his maiden speech in the Senate reflects his neophyte eagerness in tackling matters considered by many to be controversial. Padilla himself acknowledged this.

“We cannot deny this is a sensitive issue. But like other issues with serious implications for our Motherland, we cannot ignore it. We cannot just keep quiet,” he said during his speech, which he delivered in Filipino.

Padilla, a member of the Senate Majority, noted that the Sabah issue was last discussed in Congress in 2013 when armed followers of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III occupied parts of Lahad Datu in Sabah. Padilla even quoted President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who was a legislator at that time, to remind the public about the country’s historical claim over Sabah and the need to protect the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate since they are Filipino citizens.

Aside from summarizing the major issues about the ownership of Sabah, Padilla urged the government to assist the descendants of the Sulu Sultanate in asserting their claim over the territory. He cited the recent ruling of the French court of arbitration which ordered the Malaysian government to pay almost $15 billion to the heirs of the Sulu Sultan who “leased” Sabah to a British company in 1878, which eventually became part of the Malaysian Federation in 1963.

He bemoaned the government’s apparent indifference in providing legal assistance to the Sulu Sultanate: “Is it not an act of negligence for our government to allow the Sultanate to seek help from a private organization for their legitimate fight?”

He added that if the order is enforced, it will mean additional tax revenues which the government can use to fund vital social services amid the continuing pandemic and surging fuel prices.

He questioned the tepid response of authorities to the Sabah issue in contrast to the seemingly all-out effort of previous governments in challenging China’s encroachment of the country’s maritime territories in the West Philippine Sea, as the Philippines refers to its portions of the South China Sea.

“The historic decision of the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 is still fresh in our minds. Our government exerted so much effort and time that led to this monumental decision,” he said. “If we can do that for the West Philippine Sea, why are we seemingly quiet when it comes to Sabah?”

After Padilla’s speech, Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel, who hails from Mindanao, discussed the prospect of peacefully raising the issue with the United Nations.

“Since the Republic of the Philippines is confident enough that we can defend, sustain, and prove the ownership of the Sultanate of Sulu over this territory called Sabah or North Borneo, then we can challenge our friend, Malaysia, our neighbor Malaysia, if they are also confident enough…then we should, with our consent, both countries consenting, submit the issue before the international courts of justice for final settlement.”

Padilla may have chosen a complex topic for his first speech but it is far from being divisive. No Philippine politician or party will dare dispute the country’s claim over Sabah. He succeeded in popularizing news coverage of the issue. Few took notice of the French court of arbitration ruling in March because public attention was focused on the presidential election. There was also no significant public reaction when it was reported in July that heirs of the Sulu Sultanate have begun seizing assets owned by Malaysian state companies in Luxembourg.

But Padilla’s speech could revive public interest in the Sabah claim, especially if the Senate decides to conduct committee hearings about it. The speech can be used as a basis to inquire about the status of the government’s official stand pertaining to the issue. Senators can ask the Department of Foreign Affairs and even the Office of the President to comment on the legal dispute initiated by the Sulu Sultanate during budget deliberations in the next few weeks.

Padilla mentioned Marcos several times in his speech. Is he nudging the president to clarify his position on this matter? It may be an opportunity for the new president to give more details about his foreign policy priorities.