By Rashid Ating
I am a sixth-generation Sabahan from Lahad Datu, and I have lived in Kuala Lumpur since 2016.
The Netherlands’ Court of Appeal’s decision on the Sulu claim on Sabah was welcome news not only for the Malaysian government but for many Sabahans like me as well.
The court in the Hague dismissed an appeal by eight descendants of the former Sulu sultanate in their attempt to enforce a $15bn (RM70bn) arbitration award against the Malaysian government.
Many Sabahans have been waiting for this news for a long time – this is the joy we have been waiting for.
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For almost six decades, the issue had been hotly debated since the formation of Malaysia in 1963, even after Sabah became part of the federation.
The verdict favouring the Malaysian government nullifies the purported final award of $15bn issued by Spanish arbitrator Dr Gonzalo Stampa to eight persons who claimed to be heirs of the defunct Sulu sultanate.
Sabah is a state that has its own sovereignty, and the Dutch court’s decision to dismiss the appeal shows that the Sulu claim is baseless.
However, this matter is far from over, as the claimants will most likely appeal to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands to keep their case alive.
For now though, the Netherlands’ appeals court decision means two things.
First, it is a victory for the Malaysian government against the purported Sulu heirs, who are backed by British global litigation fund Therium Capital Management Ltd.
Second, this never-ending saga between the Sulu sultanate and the Malaysian government has almost reached the end of the tunnel.
Why does this matter to me so much?
My ancestors came from South Ubian in Tawi-Tawi Island, Philippines. They migrated to Sabah a long, long time ago. We are from the Bajau tribe, the Bajau Ubian, to be precise.
Because the Philippines is so close to Sabah – about an hour’s normal speedboat ride – it was fairly easy for many people from the southern islands of the Philippines, where socioeconomic conditions are poorer, to move to Sabah in search of a better life.
My ancestors and my family have lived in Lahad Datu for many years, and we have adapted to the new environment and are comfortable with it.
I do not come from a wealthy family; my parents are illiterate. They and my siblings do not know what I am doing here in Kuala Lumpur. Among my family members, relatives and colleagues, I am the only one fortunate enough to further my education at postgraduate level.
For the past few years, the purported Sulu sultanate and the Philippines government seemed to have taken a more aggressive stance on this issue.
When we heard that the Sulu sultanate had filed a claim over Sabah, we were totally against it.
Many Sabahans were worried about this claim. We have been part of Malaysia since 1963. We grew up here, and our ancestors are buried here. We are legal citizens and have Malaysian identity cards. This is our homeland. We belong here.
Our worries heightened after the Tanduo incursion in 2013. We felt our safety and security threatened, as this kind of attack was the first in Sabah’s history. It is not impossible for it to happen again.
Back then, the invaders calling themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” landed their boats at Tanduo village. They later engaged in a shootout with Malaysian security forces, who had surrounded the village. Other incidents took place elsewhere in Sabah.
The incursion and the ensuing bloodshed traumatised many Sabahans. Ten Malaysian security personnel – national heroes – and 68 Sulu invaders were killed. This was a terrifying experience for everyone back then and fuelled anger among people in Lahad Datu.
This issue was perceived differently by citizens in both countries, depending on their proximity to Sabah.
For those living in the central region of the Philippines, like Manila, the Sulu claim does not affect them directly. In contrast, those in the Philippines nearer to Sabah may feel Sabah belongs to them because they believe the northeast Borneo territory was given as a ‘prize’ to the Sulu sultanate in return for help rendered to the Brunei sultan against his enemies.
Over in Malaysia, we have a similar situation. Those living in the big cities are not too bothered about the Sulu claim compared to, say, Sabahans living in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere.
Apart from this, in the Philippines, some Filipino politicians raise this issue as a campaign ploy to win over domestic voters.
For now, the Malaysian government has taken some decisive action in international tribunals and courts. But why only after the claim in favour of the Sulu heirs was awarded? Why not before? After all, the Philippines’ claim over Sabah is not something new. It had been prolonged for six decades.
Sabah also has its sovereignty, like other states in Malaysia. Changing the status of Sabah from ‘state’ to ‘territory’ is not enough. Promising and electing another deputy prime minister from Sabah and Sarawak as Borneo’s representative in the federal government is also insufficient.
Hopefully, the Malaysian government will persist in putting an end to this claim on Sabah.
Yes, many Sabahans are aware of the government’s efforts, and we appreciate them.
But just a small request from some of us Sabahans: please put an end to this territorial dispute between the Malaysian government and the Sulu sultanate so that the lingering uncertainty can be lifted from our lives.
That would be more than enough for us to get on with our lives.
Rashid Ating is a researcher with the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Malaya. His research interests are ageing and retirement, financial literacy, Malaysia’s education system with a focus on Sabah, tourism and data visualisation.
He wrote this piece at a writers’ workshop, “Writing for Change” organised by the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya, the university’s International Relations Society, and Aliran.