Why Duterte’s big election promise was always doomed to fail

President Duterte made a presidential campaign promise to win back the disputed territory of Sabah.  He already knew he would never be able to deliver.

By Tan Zhi Xin, edited by Francesca Ross

The territorial battle over Sabah is a tussle between law and history. Malaysia claims the land based on the disputed words of a deal signed long ago. The Philippines claims it as it as the successor to a state that no longer exists.

President Duterte recently reached an agreement with Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak to repatriate more than 7,000 undocumented Filipinos living in Sabah.  This is an historic achievement for the two countries that have been avoiding this thorny issue since 1977, but it implies a Filipino compromise. Duterte has previously said he wants the land for the Philippines.

This conflicting attitude is confusing. Is Duterte’s position just a gimmick to win voters?

Why does Sabah matter?

Malaysia is committed to its claim to Sabah because it plays a particularly important role in determining domestic politics. Voters in the region are strong supporters of the Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition.

The opposition in Malaysia has not been able to capture the hearts of these rural voters, who are more concerned with bread and butter issues than with abstract issues like corruption or the weakening economy, and provide a comfortable cushion of electoral support for BN.

The ruling coalition needs Sabah

Their backing helped BN scrape through General Election 13 despite losing the popular vote. It is no surprise Prime Minister, Najib Razak said, “If I meet Duterte, I would defend Sabah’s sovereignty.”  He is also defending his job.

There are a substantial number of Filipino settlers in Sabah. This makes Manila’s claim on ownership of the state not a choice, but a necessity. The Philippines needs to have sovereign rights over Sabah in order to protect the rights of these citizens who say they are discriminated against and live in extreme fear.

The President’s approach has shifted

Duterte promised to pursue the sovereignty of Sabah, but how seriously should this be taken? He said, “The proprietary claim of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and the people of the islands west of the Philippines cannot be ignored and abandoned by their own government.” Malaysian representatives shot back that they would not, “entertain any claims by any party on Sabah”.

This stance did not last for long. Merely months later, Duterte contradicted himself. His colleague and Agriculture Secretary, Manny Piñol, explained, “Duterte said the state of things as they stand today could no longer be undone and this includes the fact that Sabah is now one of the Federal States of Malaysia and that the people of Sabah have already expressed in a referendum their preference to stay with Malaysia.” Duterte did not even put discussion of the Sabah issue on the agenda when he last met Prime Minister Najib.

Duterte’s appointment of international law expert Perfecto Yasay as the secretary of the department of foreign affairs brought hopes of a reasoned approach to the delicate issue but there was little progress. He told reporters, “(the Sabah issue) may not be resolved within the shortest possible time (as) it may take many years before we could find a workable and acceptable solution.” Enrique Manalo has since replaced Yasay after he was forced to resign. Monalo’s position on Sabah is unclear.

Duterte used the Sabah issue as a way of gaining attention

Duterte initially used the Sabah issue to gain support ahead of the Presidential election he went on to win. He needed attention and the Sabah issue was ideal because it revolves around national dignity and territorial integrity. It has the potential to evoke some form of shared emotions within a segment of the populace.

The Sabah issue is age-old, and often trotted out by politicians to gain political mileage. Duterte was not the alone in promising to pursue Sabah. Jejomar Binay, the former vice President and 2016 Presidential candidate told reporters, “We will pursue our claim to Sabah. Why would we give up something that rightfully belongs to us?”

He must understand that the odds are against him

Duterte is a jurist and probably understands very well that the Philippines is at a huge disadvantage compared to Malaysia’s much stronger cultural and legal claim over Sabah. Sabah’s citizens have a clear sense of belonging to Malaysia. The state joined Malaysia in 1963 and its people have democratically voted in Malaysian general elections and enjoyed their rights.

No political parties or politicians, besides the descendants of the Sulu king, support the Sulu-Philippines claim. Chief Minister of Sabah, Musa Aman maintained that Sabah will continue to be part of the Malaysian Federation, and that Manila’s claim is “irrelevant”.

Salonga said the Philippines’ claim to Sabah is “without any historical, legal and moral basis”. Duterte must understand his chances of making good on his Sabah promises are equally weak.