How do you solve a problem like Sabah?

By Kate McGeown

Malaysia was invaded earlier this month. A ragtag group of people – some of them armed – travelled from the Philippine islands of Sulu to Malaysian Borneo to stake their claim to the province of Sabah.

This so-called Royal Army of Sulu, just a few hundred in number, is hardly likely to be a major threat to the Malaysian police, who are currently surrounding their base in a little village.

But the fate of these people and how their claim is handled – by both countries, but especially the Philippines – may have important consequences for regional stability.

Sultan-Jamalul-Kiram.5Sale or lease?

The leader of the group is the brother of Jamalul Kiram III (right), one of the two main claimants to the title of Sultan of Sulu.

It is a title that goes back to before the Philippines was an American colony, or a Spanish colony, or indeed properly recognised as the Philippines at all.

The two main sultanates in the region at the time were Sulu and Brunei. In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei gave Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu – either as a dowry or because troops from Sulu had helped him quell a rebellion.

More than 350 years later, the sultan’s heirs have come to remind Malaysians that they still consider Sabah to be part of Sulu and, by extension, part of the Philippines.

“Sabah is our home,” they said simply when asked why they had come.

But history is not that simple and of course Malaysia has no intention of giving up Sabah to this little band of Filipinos.

The crux of their disagreement lies in a contract made in 1878, between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Company.

Under this contract known as pajak, the company could occupy Sabah in perpetuity as long as it paid a regular sum of money.

Even today, Malaysia pays about 5,000 Malaysian ringgit (£1,000, $1,500) a year to the Sultanate of Sulu.

But the British and, after that an independent Malaysia, interpreted pajak to mean sale, while the Sulu Sultanate has always maintained it means lease.

“In my opinion, this is more consistent with a lease rather than a sale, because you can’t have a purchase price which is not fixed and which is payable until kingdom come,” said Harry Roque, a law professor at the University of the Philippines.

Secret militia

Sabah-shootout-mapThe issue has been a stumbling block in relations between Malaysia and the Philippines for decades, and a factor behind the continuing violence and instability on the islands of Sulu.

Successive Philippine presidents have pressed the sultanate’s case, the most audacious being an attempt by the late President Ferdinand Marcos to train and equip a secret Muslim militia to take Sabah by force.

The plan was leaked before it could be put into action, and the militia force was allegedly killed by the Philippine army in an attempt to cover up the evidence. The massacre became one of the main triggers for rising Muslim discontent and the emergence of Muslim rebel groups which are still around in the region today.

Subsequent attempts to settle the issue have been far more peaceful and diplomatic in nature, and even the previous president, Gloria Arroyo, had brought up the claim with Malaysia on several occasions.

But under the current president, Benigno Aquino, the Sultanate of Sulu’s ancestral rights have not been mentioned at all.

And that could well be why the Royal Army of Sulu decided now was the time to launch their brave, if somewhat, foolhardy invasion.

Disinterested party?

A news coverage of Sultan Sulu's visit to the US, 1910

A news coverage of Sultan Sulu’s visit to the US, 1910

According to Mr Roque, Mr Aquino has not pursued Sulu’s claims because he has been prioritising talks with a Muslim rebel group in the region, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), instead.

These talks have been fruitful, and there is a framework peace deal in place for the first time in decades.

But the facilitators of the talks are the Malaysians – and Mr Roque says Malaysia is hardly a disinterested party.

“The fact that Malaysia volunteered to be a facilitator must have an impact on why the Aquino government has decided to keep the claim dormant,” he said.

“Perhaps the Malaysians volunteered precisely because they don’t want the Sabah claims to be revived.”

But even if Mr Aquino does not want to deal with the Sabah issue right now, he knows he cannot just ignore Sulu’s claims.

The heirs to the sultanate are highly respected, and could call on a lot more support than the few hundred people currently in Sabah if necessary.

“If the sultan’s family are not included in peace talks, and feel like they’re being forgotten and left out, there will soon be a serious problem,” said Professor Benito Lim, a historian from Ateneo de Manila University in the capital.

Revered family

I know myself how revered sultans are in Sulu. There are two main families which can claim the title of Sultan of Sulu – the Karims and the Bahjins.

I visited a member of the Bahjin family, the Sultan of Patikul, Jainal Abirin Bahjin, in his little wooden house. He’s a softly spoken man, very unassuming and welcoming, living a simple life by the beach.

But the locals who came to visit with us were clearly extremely honoured to be in his presence.

After we chatted for a while, he invited me to a private room at the back of his house, where he took out what looked like a pile of old clothes.

But inside several layers of material, there was a ceremonial sword – a gift from the sultan of Brunei to his forefathers more than 300 years ago.

Decades and centuries may go past, but this family remembers its history as clear as if it were yesterday.

No peace deal, no change of presidency, not even the insurmountable odds posed by the Malaysian security forces, are going to make them forget that Sabah used to belong to Sulu – and in their minds, still does.

9 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Mac Flores, Jr. says:

    I think if everything else failed (political, diplomacy, family tie-up, buy/sell, payment adjustment, a respected peace broker either as an individual or nation or group of nations) war is inevitable as the last recourse.

    If war, either to launch an invasion or instigate protracted guerilla warfare that would result to destabilization of vital life line of the economy and population every now and then.

    War is the worst solution and I do not recommend it worse comes to worst, but still a solution for consideration to some, probably like in the case of the PHL Sulu Sultanate.

    May the tormentor and the tormented parties come to their right senses and may God (whom the opposing parties called Allah) intervene for goodness sake, if mortals failed in search of elusive peace.

  2. Ben Oteyza says:

    Sabah belongs to the Sulu Sultanate and is needed by the people of the Sultanate. The British and Malaysia cannot just lay claim on it, but must submit to international arbitration, esp. now that Sabah has become more valuable from its rich resourcess. England, for many years, and lately also Malaysia took advantage for a pittance. They better be more reasonable and come to amicable and just settlement.

  3. Samuel Yap says:

    I am a Filipino, but I believe that we should respect the will of the inhabitants of Sabah to stay within the Malaysian Federation. For ultimate authority emanates from the people, and not from an absolute ruler with the obsolete principle of the divine right of Kings – their mandate to rule comes from Divinity, and so their family is destined to rule over their country. We Filipinos have practiced, lived and died for this principle over five centuries, since the Spaniards took over out country by the mere expediency of planting their flag on our soil. 30-odd revolutions over 5 centuries prove this.If we are consistent, we should respect the claim of the Sabah people what country they should belong to, and not the obsolete claims of royal sultanates. Let us stop the bloodshed and be true to our principles.

    • pat Talens says:

      Great analysis, Mr Yap. I can not concur more. Let the inhabitants of that place decide what is good for them—economically, politically, et al….

      Let not their destiny governed, guided, and dictated by ragtag monolithic system of dynastic monarchy.

  4. albertO says:


  5. Terry Sarigumba says:

    Territorially, Sabah belongs to Malasya but by estate ownership, it belongs to the sultanate of Sulu. The estate ownership, however, does not justify that Sabah belongs to the Philippines. If some Filipino citizens own pieces of land in the US, does that mean these pieces of land belong to the Philippines? Of course, not. The landowners develop their property in accordance with US laws and pay taxes on them. The sultanate of Sulu should legally clarify its ownership of Sabah and once this is done, the sultanate of Sulu manages Sabah as an estate within the territory of Malaysia, respecting Malaysian laws and paying taxes on the estate. If the Malaysian government wants ownership of the estate, it should purchase it from the sultanate at an agreed price. It looks to me that what Malaysia and the British Company had been paying were rents, not mortgage payments. Real estate brokers can handsomely profit from this potentially lucrative real estate deal.

    • st john says:

      you have a curious and interesting of analogy of real estate, sir. But I think you are looking on the wrong side of the coin. Yes, Filipinos owning estates in the US pay taxes to the US for economic dev’t/use of the estate. However, the Sabah situation is in the reverse of what you presented, sir. Malaysia is paying a measly amount to the Sultanate of Sulu for the development they are doing in Sabah.

  6. ot ah says:

    This story introduce another sultan Jainal Abirin Bahjin when the sultan doing the hard yards are the kirams.
    The kirams claims and stories are all over the news and can be searched in google and youtubes etc.
    Strange reporting by the BBC.

  7. Nowor Never says:

    Sabah & the Sultan of Sulu – the North Borneo Confusion.

    “In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei ceded the northern and eastern portion of Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu in compensation for the latter’s help in settling the Brunei Civil War in the Brunei Sultanate.

    In 1865 the American Consul General of Brunei, Charles Lee Moses, obtained a 10-year lease over North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei Abdul Momin. Ownership was then passed to an American trading company owned by Joseph William Torrey, Thomas Bradley Harris, and some Chinese merchants.

    The rights of the trading company were then sold to Gustav Baron Von Overbeck, the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Hong Kong (though he was actually a German national), and he later obtained another 10-year renewal of the lease. The lease was subsequently converted into a cession via a treaty which was signed by the Sultan of Brunei Abdul Momin. In the treaty, the Sultan appointed Overbeck as “Maharajah of Sabah and Rajah of Gaya and Sandakan.” The treaty granted Overbeck the right over whole region of Sabah, including parts purporting to be the dominion of the Sulu Sultanate including Sandakan and Tawau. The treaty was signed on December 29, 1877 at the Brunei Palace.

    On the east coast of North Borneo near Sandakan, William Cowie, on behalf of Dent’s company,[20] negotiated and obtained a lease in perpetuity from the Sultan of Sulu over its holdings in this region in 1878. This lease was signed on January 22, 1878 in the palace of the Sultan of Sulu.[21] The lease would later be the subject of dispute by the modern republic of Philippines regarding the sovereignty of the state of Sabah. The rights were subsequently transferred to Alfred Dent, who in 1881 formed the British North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd.[22] –

    In 1962, the Cobbold Commission was set up to determine whether the people of Sabah and Sarawak favoured the proposed union. The Commission had found that the union was generally favoured by the people but wanted certain terms and conditions incorporated to safeguard the interest of the people. The Commission had also noted some opposition from the people but decided that such opposition was minor. The Commission published its report on August 1, 1962 and had made several recommendations. Unlike in Singapore, however, no referendum was ever conducted in Sabah.

    The intention had been to form Malaysia on 31 August 1963 but due to objections from the Philippines and Indonesia, the formation had to be postponed to 16 September 1963. At that point North Borneo, as Sabah, was united with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore, to form the independent the Federation of Malaysia. [33][34]” – from


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