Forget the karaoke: What really happened when Duterte met Najib

President Duterte just travelled to Malaysia talking trade and security. The resulting agreements offer progress on big issues like policing their neighbouring waters and brokering peace deals, but there may be more than meets the eye to the unpredictable President’s latest move.


This is not an article about karaoke. The real story out of Duterte’s recent meetings with Najib is security. How do manage it, how to achieve it and what cooperation between two of ASEAN’s big players might look like in the future. It is also not an article about Sabah, or is it?

Yes, Najib and Duterte sang together. Yes, the television cameras (and his fans back home) loved it. But the more important part is that the two leaders reached important agreements on piracy, tackling the so-called Islamic State and other Muslim insurgencies, as well as talk of increasing investment in palm oil, infrastructure projects and agro-business.

Safe and secure

Our discussion focused on the need to further strengthen the Philippines-Malaysia partnership for a safe and secure and stable region,” Duterte said after his two-days with the Malaysian Prime Minister. “As ASEAN brothers and maritime nations, we recognise that cooperation between our countries with other stakeholders is key to ensure that our sea lanes are not used for illegal purposes or criminal activities.”

His comments come after a growing number of violent incidents of piracy in neighbouring Philippine-Malaysia water, the profits of which are believed to be financing terrorist activities. And in a clear sign of trust between these “ASEAN brothers,” Malaysian forces have the green light to chase off these threats, says Najib.

If you are in hot pursuit of the bad guys and we reach maritime boundaries, the bad guys will get away if you stop. So, President Duterte said we should continue the chase and he has given us the licence to do so. We are to inform the Philippine Navy and they will assist us if they are nearby,” said Najib. Indonesia is also party to the new protocol and representatives from the three will meet in Vientiane on Nov 22 to work out the technical and legal elements involved.

An important player

The other big point was terrorism. “As we proceed with the implementation phase of our peace process, Malaysia will continue to play an important role,” said Duterte. “The Philippines is ready to work with Malaysia and all partners interested in securing for generations of the Mindanaoans and Filipinos a future free from fear and conflict.”

So far, so good. But have you noticed an unspoken thread to these discussions? Getting on the plane, Duterte said the two countries territorial dispute over Sabah – one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo –  was very clearly not on the table. But tackling the issue of bandits will do much for the area’s tourism industry. And Malaysia’s continuing mediation with the insurgents in Mindanao such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) or Abu Sayyaf, who are turning their allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, is intricately connected to this delicate foreign policy issue between the two.

Finally, Duterte says some 7,000 of the large numbers of undocumented and detained Filipino migrants living in Sabah would be gradually repatriated. This is a thorny point for the two nations but seems to have softened to the point that a Philippine consular office could open in the region. So is Sabah really “off the table,” Mr Duterte?

Increasing investment

To jump from the struggles of the past to the partnerships of the future, “Malaysia has billions of investments abroad and the Philippines is getting only a few of them,” Department of Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez said after the meeting. And following fruitful discussions between the two leaders his in-tray is apparently bulging.

“With this strengthening of ties, we expect more investments, more joint venture, undertakings to take place with our Malaysian partners,” he explained, adding there was talk of a private to private enterprise agreement on infrastructure. He was unable to provide further sensitive details at this stage.

Other snippets from the Trade Minister were that Malaysian investors are considering setting up palm oil plantations in Mindanao and Palawan. They initially planned to develop about 80,000 hectares, but it is reported the figure could go as high as 200,000 hectares in the future.

ASEAN 2017

And so another week, another fascinating policy play by the Filipino president. As he surprises and challenges traditional diplomacy in one region, he takes huge steps forward in the other. In the game of global hegemons, his recent discussions with China and Russia may yet be nothing but provocative play but shifting closer to Malaysia bodes well for future efforts under the ASEAN umbrella much closer to home.

Malaysia has been a committed member of the bloc and as Duterte takes the chair of the group next year he would do well to follow the path they trailed in the same seat in 2015 – of increasing cooperation and mutual development. As he pushes and pulls the puppet games of global diplomacy he may also be quietly chipping away at some of his country’s barriers to peace and prosperity. The thing is, whether he’s saying it out loud or not, with President Duterte you just never know.