Can the latest confrontation between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah change anything?

Photo: Pikist

The latest commotion over Sabah shows that Malaysia’s claim to northern Borneo is still disputed by the Philippines. The confrontation is unlikely to bring meaningful change without intervention from ASEAN and other international institutions.  

By Umair Jamal

The revival of the diplomatic row over Sabah, the territory in northern Borneo controlled by Malaysia but claimed by the Philippines, underscores that the dispute is far from over.

The Philippines has never abandoned its claim of the territory but for decades, the country has kept the claim dormant to maintain friendly ties with Malaysia.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, parts of Sabah were ruled by the Sulu Sultanate. In 1878, the sultanate handed the territory over to a British colonial company to carry out explorations. The Philippines has claimed that the territory was only leased to the British company and not ceded. In 1963, Sabah, along with neighboring Sarawak state, joined Malaysia, giving Kuala Lumpur control over a region rich in natural resources and gas reserves.  

It is unlikely that Malaysia is going to give up its claim or control of the territory under any circumstances.

Regionally, ASEAN may intervene in the Sabah crisis if the situation escalates in the coming months. However, in the past, ASEAN has avoided intervening in the issue, so any such intervention is going to be modest and not likely to change much.

Malaysia and the Philippines have taken the issue to the UN, as Kuala Lumpur is seeking to expand its maritime territory in the area. While the UN and other international bodies like the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have the tools and capacity to intervene, thetwo sides’ actions show they may not be serious about seeking external mediation.

Why has ASEAN been unable to play the role of an effective mediator?

ASEAN as a regional body could play an important role in containing the crisis. ASEAN’s member states have always used the platform to prioritize regional security and regional political issues. For instance, the upcoming ministerial-level meeting of ASEAN will likely see all member states commit to initiatives around regional political and economic stability.

The confrontation between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah may get the attention of the forum but if so, it will not be public or communicated via official policy documents. Rather, communications will be discreet, behind the close doors.

For most ASEAN members, Sabah is a bilateral issue between the Philippines and Malaysia. In the past, ASEAN has refrained from interfering in bilateral issues within the region—the majority of countries in the bloc have running territorial disputes of one sort or another and thus, no country in the region has pushed to turn ASEAN into a platform for the resolution of these disagreements.

When it comes to Sabah, ASEAN would do well to defer the crisis to Malaysia and the Philippines. An article published by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) notes that “ASEAN lacks specialized tools and personnel to broker peace and prevent conflicts from escalating. The group more often puts problems like the Sabah question on hold for many years, rather than resolve the dispute once and for all.”

For ASEAN member states, national interests and domestic politics come before regional unity and integration. Mong Palatino, a former member of the Filipino legislature, describes the situation aptly when he argues that “Each member nation views its association with ASEAN as a means to pursue its national interests. Sacrificing the national agenda to realize the regional good is largely an alien concept to ASEAN members.”

Panorama of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Photo: Jason Thien / CC BY

Can international institutions intervene to resolve the crisis?

If ASEAN is not going to help resolve the row between Malaysia and the Philippines and bilateral channels have broken, third party interventions from the United Nations and the ICJ would be welcome.

However, any intervention from the UN has its own limitations. Both Malaysia and the Philippines have primarily tried to use UN involvement to delegitimize each other’s actions and positions, rather than seeking mediation. So far, neither Malaysia nor the Philippines have asked the UN to send peacekeepers to Sabah to monitor the crisis.  

However, this doesn’t mean that these institutions lack capacity to bring the countries together. The ICJ has helped to settle some of Southeast Asia’s thorniest territorial disputes—the dispute over the Preah Vihear temple between Thailand and Cambodia, for instance, and the row between Singapore and Malaysia over the island of Pedra Branca. Both countries are likely interested in an international intervention.

The current episode over Sabah is being driven by actors on both sides seeking to make domestic political gains and evade critics locally. Sabah only surfaced in the news in August after the United States Embassy in the Philippines referred to the disputed territory in a tweet as part of Malaysia. The tweet provoked a response from Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin who said on Twitter that Sabah is a part of the Philippines.

A month ago, Malaysia deported around 5,000 Philippines from Sabah due to the COVID-19 crisis and the Philippines didn’t condemn or publicly criticized the move.

When asked why the Sabah issue has come to the boil lately, Rommel Banlaoi, a security analyst based at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said that “I think both countries are using the Sabah issue to divert attention away from growing domestic problems arising from the [COVID-19] pandemic.” 

A Malaysian analyst echoed Rommel’s assessment. “I believe the current vocal statements on Sabah by various Filipino political leaders are more for their internal politics, setting their political agenda, so to speak, in preparation for the presidential election in [2022],” said Lee Kuok Tiung, a professor at University Malaysia Sabah.

“They [politicians] need to please the Muslim southerners… to court their votes in [2022]—thus the strong statements on Sabah,” Tiung added.

During the last two weeks, plenty of rhetoric blared back and forth between two sides. However, the situation appears to have calmed down as there has not been any significant policy statement from either side for the past five days. For now, both countries are likely to scale back their rhetoric while preserving the existing status quo.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15