Calling a spade
Business World, 13 March 2013


I have had three very long conversations on the Sabah issue with historian Samuel K. Tan (PhD from Syracuse), who taught at UP for 30 years and was at one point the chairman of the History Department. Tan is a very prolific writer with at least six books under his belt, including A History of the Philippines, The Muslim South and Beyond, Suratsog (annotated Bibliography of Jawi materials of the Muslim South), Selected Essays on the Filipino Muslims. His interest in the Sabah issue may be because he himself was born and raised in Sulu, but he is a treasure trove of information on the topic. And I’d like to share some of what I learned from him, as well as from his brother, lawyer Ancheta Tan.

First, the question of whether the transaction between the Sultan of Sulu (Jamalul Kiram I) and Gustave Baron Overbeck in 1878 was a cession (grant) or a lease. The contract was written in Tausog — the sultan spoke no English — and the controversy centers on the translation of the Tausog word “padjak.” You have American, Dutch and Spanish linguists on one side (lease) and the British on the other (cede/grant).

Well, Tan is Tausog, and his Suratsog is an annotated translation of Tausog documents spanning the reign of Sultan Jamalul Kiram II. And he says “padjak” is unambiguous: it means lease. Aside from the fact that the $5,000 annual payment in perpetuity is consistent with a lease contract and not with a cession, there is one argument, this time forwarded by Chet Tan, that should convince anyone but the British government, and now the Malaysian government. In Tausog, there is a specific term for “sale” (“dagang“), and “buy” (“bi“). So if North Borneo was sold or bought, the term used would not have been “padjak.” That British translation was clearly in bad faith, with malice aforethought.

I have elsewhere discussed another action in bad faith of the British government — when it annexed North Borneo as a colony a mere six days after the Philippines became independent, and faced with humongous problems related to the aftermath of WW II. But Samuel K. Tan points out another: this time related to the so-called Cobbold Commission.

But first, a little background. The Federation of Malaya, composed of 11 states in the Malay Peninsula, won its independence from Great Britain in 1957. It seems that there was growing international pressure at that time on the latter, including pressure from the United States, to grant independence to its colonies (their unpreparedness being no excuse, per the UN resolution). Two of its largest colonies were Sarawak and Sabah (formerly North Borneo) in the island of Borneo. Whether it was Tungku Abdul Rahman of Malaya or the British government who first got the idea to enfold Sabah and Sarawak into the Federation of Malaya (and call it Malaysia) is immaterial — but both countries certainly were enthusiastic about it. For the Federation, it would mean increasing their land area by two and a half times. For Great Britain, it would at least ensure that the former colonies would be “safe” from Indonesia and the Philippines.

And so the Cobbold Commission (CC) was created (Jan. 1962) formally known as “Commission of Enquiry,” with the stated purpose of ascertaining the views of the peoples of North Borneo and Sarawak on the proposed merger.

The CC was composed of three British: Cobbold, former governor of the Bank of England, plus a former governor of Sarawak, and a former official of the Federation of Malaya; on the Malayan side, a former chief minister and the top official of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Samuel Tan points out a glaring flaw: the citizens of Sabah and Sarawak had no representation in the CC.

Tan also points out another glaring shortcoming: that no referendum was actually held, in the sense of the people of Sabah and Sarawak casting a vote to be part of the proposed Malaysia. What instead happened was either that their “leaders” were consulted and/or “hearings” were conducted.

Understand, Reader, that Sabah and Sarawak together have a land area about two-thirds the size of the Philippines. And yet by June of 1962,or scarcely five months after the CC was formed, its report was submitted (in confidence) to their principals — the prime ministers of Great Britain and the Malayan Federation respectively.

And guess what it said? That one-third of the people of Sabah and Sarawak were fully supportive; one-third were conditionally supportive (safeguards had to be included); and one third-wanted either that Sarawak and North Borneo gain independence first before thinking about a merger, or were totally against the merger.

That was June, right? And yet in August of the same year, the CC final report stated that more than 70% of the people of North Borneo and Sarawak were in favor. What kind of arithmetic did they use between June and August? Reportedly, the North Borneans were very surprised at the result.

What is not a surprise that the CC declared itself to be in firm support for a federated Malaysia.

In contemporary lingo, the whole process, although Samuel K. Tan was too polite to say it, was “lutong makaw.”

There is more: Tan says that when it was proposed that the UN step in, in light of several objections raised internally and internationally, Great Britain gave notice that it would not be bound by the findings and recommendations of U Thant (UN Secretary General at the time) Can you imagine the effect that announcement would have on the UN’s report?

And as if to add insult to injury, Tan also recalls that observers sent by the Philippines and Indonesia were hampered by bureaucratic obstacles.