Sabah is a territory that lies on the northwest section of the huge island of Borneo. It has an area of about 29, 388 square miles. It includes the islands of Banggi and Balembangan, also in the northwest of Borneo.
Prior to the year 1704, according to available historical accounts, Sabah belonged to the Sultan of Brunei. According to some historical accounts, a war over the right of succession to the sultanate of Brunei occurred on or about 1704 among brothers or cousins. A leader of one of the warring groups went to the Sultan of Sulu for assistance. The Sultan of Sulu dispatched a force to help him. The Suluanos proved once again their prowess. They won and firmly established their man in the sultanate. This Sultan of Brunei ceded Sabah as a reward to the Sultan of Sulu, who exercised sovereign rule over it.
As a consequence, the Sultan of Sulu exercised influence, if not dominion, over the territory extending from the Sulu archipelago southwestward to Sabah and northward and eastward to Mindanao, the Visayas, and Luzon. This was the condition of the country when the western colonizers, principally Spain, arrived in this part of the world. .
It should be noted that Spain, Great Britain, and other European countries through a series of treaties recognized the title of the Sultan of Sulu over Sabah.
In January 1878, Baron von Overbeck, Austrian Consul General in Hongkong, traveled to Sulu to negotiate with the Sultan of Sulu for the lease of Sabah. William Treacher, the acting British Consul General in Labuan Island — a part of Borneo — accompanied Overbeck.
Evidently, Overbeck entered into this negotiation for the lease of Sabah on behalf of Alfred Dent, an English merchant, who advanced 10, 000 English pound for the venture.
Historical records revealed that at the time of the negotiation a Spanish expeditionary force under Captain General Malcampo was dispatched against Jamalul Alam, the Sultan of Sulu. Overbeck employed this circumstance to pressure the Sultan of Sulu to agree to lease Sabah to Alfred Dent for a rental of 5,000 Malaysian dollars a year.
The contract, which carried the date of January 1878, was drafted by Overbeck and written in the Malaysian language and in Arabic characters. The contract used the Malaysian word “padjak” to describe the nature of the agreed transaction. The British and the Malaysians claimed that the word “padjak” meant “sale or cession” and not “lease.” But scholars and Spanish documents translated the word “padjak” to mean the English word “lease”, or the Spanish word “arrendamiento.”
After getting the contract from the Sultan of Sulu, Alfred Dent organized the “British North Borneo Company”. He then applied for a Royal Charter from the British government.
In his Statement and Application for a Royal Charter, which he submitted to the Marquis of Salisbury, K. C., the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Alfred Dent described the exact nature of the contract and the scope of the powers of the British North Borneo Company. After the Company received its Royal Charter, the Spanish Crown and Dutch Government rendered their protests against the grant of a Royal Charter to the British North Borneo Company. Lord Earl Granville, the British Foreign Minister, disclaimed any intention of the British Crown to assume either dominion or sovereignty over Sabah and categorically stated that “sovereignty remain vested in the Sultan.”
From official English documents, it would appear that the British North Borneo Company was no more than a mere administrator of the Sabah territory. Although it exercised rights of control over the area, it did so by delegation of the Sultan of Sulu. The British North Borneo Company had no sovereign authority over the territory. The sovereign power remained in the person and hands of the Sultan of Sulu.
In 1888, the Company entered purportedly into an agreement with the British Government. By virtue of this purported 1888 agreement, the Company placed a so-called State of North Borneo under the protection of the British Crown.
Then in 1903, the British North Borneo Company entered into a confirmatory deed with the Sultan of Sulu. This confirmatory deed included areas not covered by the deed of 1878.
Just six days after the independence of the Philippines in 1946, the British Crown entered into a contract with the British North Borneo Company. Under this contract, the British North Borneo Company transferred to the British Crown all its rights to the State of North Borneo. It was clearly stated that “the intent” of the contract was “that the Crown shall, as from the day of the transfer, have full sovereign rights over and title to the territory of the State of North Borneo and that said territory shall thereupon be part of the Crown’s dominion.”
Sixteen years later, on June 22,1962, the Philippines filed her claim over Sabah with the United Kingdom. The Philippines asserted sovereignty , jurisdiction, and proprietary ownership over Sabah as successor-in-interest to the Sultan of Sulu.
In describing the importance of the Philippine claim over Sabah, then Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez, who was concurrent Secretary of Foreign Affairs under President Diosdado Macapagal, said:
“THE PHILIPPINE CLAIM to North Borneo (Sabah) deserves, and indeed demands, the most serious consideration by all concerned. It involves three of the highest and most vital interests affecting the existence and well being of the State. These interests are sovereign rights, national security , and the peace and freedom of the geographical area in which it is situated.
“No State worthy of its independence and its responsibilities, both to its own people and to the world at large, can set these interests lightly aside. And they are far too important to be disregarded with impunity by any community of States in this age of supreme concern for the maintenance of the rule of law.
“The Philippine claim to North Borneo affects profoundly the stability of the entire region of Southeast Asia. Failure to recognize its importance and to settle it justly and expeditiously can set in a train of developments of far-reaching consequences in this part of the world.”
A meeting was held in London from January 28,1963 to February 1, 1963, between a Philippine panel and a British panel over the Philippine Sabah claim. The Philippine panel was led by Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez, who was concurrent Secretary of Foreign Affairs. The others panel were Salvador P. Lopez, Vice Chairman and Secretary of National Defense Macario Peralta, Secretary of Justice Juan Liwag, Senator Raul Manglapus, Congressman Godofredo P. Ramos, Congressman Jovito R. Salonga, and Ambassador Eduardo Quintero, as members. Evidently, nothing much was accomplished in that meeting.
Following the formation of the Federation of Malaysia and the subsequent confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia, a conference was held in Manila from June 7 to 11, 1963. This was a conference of the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines. The result of this conference was the so-called Manila Accord of 1963.
In the Manila Accord, it was clearly stated that the inclusion of North Borneo or the State of Sabah in the Federation of Malaysia was subject to and would not prejudice the Philippine claim over Sabah. The Philippines could pursue its claim in accordance with international law and the principle of pacific settlement of disputes. The three countries also agreed to exert their best efforts to settle the claim in a just and expeditious manner through negotiation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, or any other peaceful means the parties would choose in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations and the Bandung Declarations. It would seem that nothing much happened after these lofty pronouncements.
On Malaysia Day on September 16, 1963, the diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Malaysia were severed. This political condition between the two countries remained until 1966 when they agreed to restore and resume their diplomatic relations. Both countries agreed in their June 1966 communique to abide by the Manila Accord of July 31,1963. Again both countries reiterated the peaceful settlement of the Philippine claim to Sabah.
As an offshoot of the so-called “Jabida Massacre”, the political relations between Malaysia and the Philippines were again suspended in 1968. This was restored once more on December 16, 1969 after Ambassador Romeo Busuego, envoy of President Marcos, talked to the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Malaysian Government. In fact, Ambassador Busuego was the one appointed ambassador of the Philippines to Malaysia at that time.
In 1973, President Marcos asked the Constitution Convention of 1970 to modify the constitutional definition of the territory of the Philippines. As a consequence, the definition of the territory of the Philippines under the 1973 Constitution included “all territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title.” This phrase was subsequently deleted when President Corazon C. Aquino caused the adoption of her sponsored 1987 Constitution.
President Corazon C. Aquino and President Fidel V. Ramos opted to shelve the Philippine claim to Sabah. This was largely triggered by their desire to foster and improve the bilateral relations of the Philippines with Malaysia. This was also the strategy adopted by the current administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
This policy of appeasement and subservience seems to have brought us no tangible benefit. Instead, it brought great prejudice and embarrassment to our country and misery to some of our countrymen.
Speech delivered by Hon. Juan Ponce Enrile before the University of the East College of Arts and Sciences, Legal Management and Political Science Society Symposium on September 30, 2002 at the University of the East Conference Hall.