March 30, 2013
King Ghaz and the Question of the “Sabah Claim”
Fast forward to a morning in July 1962, I was reporting for duty at the Ministry of External Affairs (now Ministry of Foreign Affairs-Wisma Putra). The Ministry was located at the (then) Selangor State Secretariat Building (now Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad), directly opposite the (Royal) Selangor Club. It shared the building with the Treasury and a few other government departments.
Meeting King Ghaz (The Boss) of Foreign Affairs and his Professionals
I reported to the Assistant Secretary (Administration) Encik Hanafiah Ahmad (later Chief of Tabung Haji and now Tan Sri). A slight gentleman with glasses, he was friendly and helpful. With all the formalities completed, Encik Hanafiah took me to YM Tengku Ngah Mohamed, the Deputy Secretary of Ministry.
The pipe smoking Tengku Ngah informed me that I would be assigned to the Ministry’s Political Division reporting to my immediate superior, Principal Assistant Secretary (Political Division) Raja Aznam Raja Ahmad (later Tan Sri), a well- educated Malay aristocrat with impeccable manners.
Raja Aznam briefed me on the role of the Ministry and its structure, Right at the top was the Prime Minister (Tengku Abdul Rahman) and concurrently Minister of External Affairs. The top Diplomatic Service Officer was the Permanent Secretary, Encik Muhammad Ghazali Shafie.
Raja Aznam took me to the Permanent Secretary’s Office where I was introduced to the redoubtable Matthew Josef, Personal Assistant to the Boss. Josef looked at me and said, “The Permanent Secretary is expecting you. Come in, he will see you now, Good Luck.“
With that he took me into the Boss’ spacious wood-panel office. Directly in front of me were a set of sofa and 2 deep armchairs. To my left was a large somewhat semi-circular desk. Behind the desk was the Man himself. I recognised him at once. The same ear of a man that I met five years earlier in the Radio Malaya studio–in command, confident, even arrogant.
He then asked me if I knew that we had a diplomatic issue with Indonesia and the Philippines over our intention to invite North Borneo and Sarawak to form Malaysia. I told him only from I read in the newspapers. Again that glare. He snapped, “then, write me a brief summary of how you understand the situation…Get to work.”
Zainal Abidin Sulong and Jack de Silva
Raja Aznam introduced me to Zainal Abidin Sulong (later Tan Sri) who had just returned from a posting in the United Nations, New York. Zainal was an excellent office mate–well informed, calm, hardworking and with a sense of humour. He was always busy drafting. From time to time, the Boss would barge into the room and growl instructions to him.
Zainal (left) would slowly stand up. listen patiently and, when the Boss left, quietly resume his work. He was widely liked and respected. His knowledge of the personalities involved in North Borneo, Sarawak, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia was encyclopedic, and the Boss depended heavily on him. Next to the Boss, I would say Zainal was to play an exceedingly important role in the formation of Malaysia.
In the next room was Jack de Silva, a Catholic and strongly anti-Marxist. He had served as First Secretary in our High Commission in London. Articulate, gregarious, chain smoking, Jack was a hard driving officer with a mercurial temperament and a prolific drafter of documents and reports. I got my ‘sea legs’ in the ministry while sharing the small office with Zainal.
Tunku’s Singapore Statement on the Formation of Malaysia
On May 27, 1961, the Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had made a historic statement in Singapore proposing the formation of Malaysia. The (then) Federation of Malaya was intent on inviting British North Borneo (now Sabah) and Sarawak to join in and from a new nation, Malaysia.
Initially, the Philippine government did not react. But after the election of Diosdado Macapagal as president in December 1961 the “Sabah Claim” emerged as a factor. It had been on the “back burner” for a while, as it was an issue only between the Philippine and British governments.
The “Sabah Claim”
Now with the formation of Malaysia becoming reality, the clamour in the Philippine media grew stronger. The momentum built up quickly, and emotions morphed into policy.
Thus Sukarno and Macapagal joined forces in opposition to the Tunku’s proposal. Macapagal (left) hoisted a Philippine “claim” on Sabah and Sukarno vowed to “ganyang” (crush) Malaysia.
Both Indonesia and the Philippines regarded the idea of Malaysia as a “Neo-colonialist plot”. They claimed that the British no longer had any moral authority to hold on to the two colonies and were using the concept of Malaysia to perpetuate their influence in the region.
The Boss was the main figure in the gathering storm, helping Prime Minister and his illustrious Deputy, Tun Abdul Razak, and tasked to design and implement a strategy to bring about the formation of Malaysia.
A team of competent and dedicated officers in the ministry was assigned to assist the Boss. They did a Herculean task of keeping in touch with events and developments in North Borneo and Sarawak, in the United Nations,in our neigbouring countries, and among our allies. It was a small but effective and ably led team.
Sometime in April, 1963, the Boss told me that there would be a meeting of top diplomatic officials of Malaya, Indonesia and the Philippines at the Padre Faura (the Philippine Foreign Ministry) in Manila. He would lead the Malaysian Delegation and I was to attend it as a member.
On the morning of the meeting, the Boss, Ambassador Zaiton Ibrahim Ahmad, First Secretary Hashim Sam-Latiff were greeted by Pete Angora Aragon, Chief of Protocol at the Padre Faura and taken to the reception room where Philippine Undersecretary Salvador P. Lopez and the Indonesian First Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Suwito Kusumowidagdo were waiting. The three men greeted one another warmly. Lopez was the very epitome of Philippine charm and bonhomie and Dr Kusumo was all smiles. Each diplomat tried to project an air of earnest amity.
Right of Self Determination
This meeting was in every sense historic. It was the first time that the three adversary countries actually sat down at the official level to try to solve their problems diplomatically and avoid a military conflict. From the outset the Boss took the position that the two territories should not be viewed as pieces of real estate, devoid of human inhabitants, to be carved up and divided cynically by neighbouring countries.
But both the Philippines and Indonesia did not accept the Cobbold Report as the last word on the wishes of the people of North Borneo and Sarawak.
Clearly, these officials could decide on the issue after several days of deliberations (April 9-17, 1963). It was finally agreed that the meeting would recommend to their respective governments that the Foreign Ministers of the three countries should meet early in May. They further agreed to recommend that the Foreign Ministers meeting should be followed by a meeting of the Heads of Government of the three countries.
Two more Tripartite meetings followed. One was at the Foreign Ministers’ level on June 7-11, 1963, where our side was led by the Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak. The Philippine delegation was led by Vice President Emanuel Pelaez, Dr. Subandrio headed the Indonesian side. The Ministers reaffirmed in the Manila Accord (Clause 10) the principle of self-determination and “would welcome the formation of Malaysia provided support of people of the Borneo territories is ascertained by an independent and impartial authority, the Secretary-General of the United Nations or his representative”.
As quid pro, Malaysia “undertook to consult the Government of the Borneo territories with a view to inviting the Secretary-General of the United Nations or his representative to take the necessary steps in order to ascertain the wishes of people of those territories.” (Clause 11).
Clause 12 reflected the long discussion on the issue of the Sabah claim and the subdued compromise that the Foreign Ministers “took note” of the Philippine claim to North Borneo and its rights to pursue it in accordance with international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. This was another fig leaf that we could live with, but it was to lead to lingering tensions with the Philippines.
The successful June 7-11 Foreign Ministers meeting paved the way for the Summit Meeting of Malaya’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, Indonesia’s President Sukarno and Philippine President Macapagal which produced the Manila Declaration of August 5, 1963. The Heads of Government of Malaya, Indonesia and the Philippines “welcomed” the formation of Malaysia.
Eventually, with the fall of Sukarno and with the installation of the New Order government led by General Suharto, Malaysia reached an amicable solution with Indonesia. However, normalisation of relations with the Philippines took longer as the issue of the Sabah claim lingered on. In fact, bilateral relations underwent some strains over the issue.
Malaysia will not enter into any further dialogue on the Question of the Claim
A defining bilateral meeting was held in Bangkok, Thailand on July 15, 1968. The Philippine delegation was led by Ambassador Guerrero, an aggressive diplomat who played hardball. The Malaysian delegation included the brilliant lawyer R.Ramani (who was also our Permanent Representative to the United Nations), Zainal Abidin Sulong and Zain Azraai.
This meeting did not start, nor did it end for that matter, too auspiciously.The Philippine delegation began with tactical moves to cause delays and with sweeping dicta and claims. It declared that its claim on Sabah was valid based on history and on its own security arrangements and made clear that it would not entertain any further clarifications sought by Malaysia.
The Boss rose to the occasion and demolished the Philippine claim with devastating logic and I quote:
“…Our questions indicated that we wished to challenge your basic assumption that the Sultan of Sulu had in fact sovereignty over the territory. his rights and powers over which he purported to convey to Dent and Overbeck in 1878. We did receive any precise answer from you on this question; and you were unable to point to anything in support of the Sultan’s claim to sovereignty, except to say in the vaguest terms that the Sultan of Brunei had ceded the territory to him, and you mentioned several dates when such cessation was understood to have taken place…
“We drew your attention to various authorities which cited different dates when the Sultan of Sulu acquired some rights and powers over the territory. Was it therefore in 1650, or was it in 1704, or was it about 1836, or near 1842, or was it 1878? You yourself gave several possible dates. It did not seem to occur to you that each particular date destroyed every other date and the fact of cession was, thereby, at the highest, left in doubt. Nor were you able to indicate the circumstances of his acquisition, whether rebellion in the territories of Brunei, a war of succession or an act of capitulation…
“We drew your attention to the documents of that time…Whether your case should not go no further than mere assertion of Sulu sovereignty…You are unable to do so, and we did not any intelligible answer from you as this, except that you had not heard of the Anglo-Philippine Talks in London in 1963…
“… in fighting subversion and terrorism Malaysia has the best record in this region…Malaysia has a good record of cooperation with Thailand and Indonesia on these matters. It is common knowledge that Malaysia and Thailand have a working arrangement on the Malaysian/Thai border…likewise along the Malaysian/Indonesian border.”
He concluded his long address with…
“Let me say this once again, Excellency. Do not pursue your claim to Sabah in order to satisfy these economic and security needs. These can only be fulfilled through cooperation with us. But your persistent pursuit of the claim will destroy that cooperation and therefore will not achieve for you the very things which you desire most for your economy and security…
“Therefore, let us maintain the good relations between our two countries and discuss our common needs. But at the same time let it be clearly understood that my Government will not enter into any further dialogue on the question of the Claim, or with that claim as its basis”.
*The above by Dato Hamzah Abdul Majid is an abridged and edited excerpt of his tribute titled King Ghaz: Personal Recollection, which appears in the National Archives publication titled King Ghaz: A Man of Time (2010) edited by Dato Seri Utama Dr. Rais Yatim.
I have chosen parts that deal with the Philippine Claim on Sabah. It is intended to provide a historical account of what happened during the period leading to the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Dato Hamzah was a member of the Malaysian foreign policy team led by (Tun) Muhammad Ghazali Shafie that dealt with the struggle to form Malaysia.
Filipino politicians are now apparently using the Lahad Datu Incursion as a pretext to revive this issue of the Sultan of Sulu’s claim on Sabah which is now a sovereign state in Malaysia. As far as Dato Hamzah and I are concerned, this matter should be put to rest in the interest of good relations between the Philippines and our country. Sabah belongs in Malaysia and the Philippines must learn to respect the wishes of the people of Sabah to be part of Malaysia.–Din Merican