Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 March 2013

My colleague Conrad de Quiros points out, in his March 19 column, that in all that has been written hereabouts regarding the Sabah issue, “You will not find in them a single, solitary, teeny-weeny mention of the Sabah people themselves. Specifically, you will not find in them mention of the fact that the Sabah people struggled to be free, gained self-rule in 1963, and voted to become part of Malaysia.”

I beg to disagree. A column I wrote (published in BusinessWorld on March 14) did make more than a single, solitary, teeny-weeny mention about how the people of North Borneo were consulted way back in 1962 by the so-called Cobbold Commission (CC, formally known as the Commission of Enquiry, North Borneo and Sarawak, 1962). The thrust of my column was that the whole thing was more of lutong makaw—because it had to be obvious that the CC’s conclusions were practically preordained.

What are the reasons for the foregoing statement? To name a few:

(1) Of the five-member CC, three were British and two Malayan; there was no member to represent the indigenous peoples of either Sarawak or North Borneo.

(2) It took only four months between the time the CC landed in Kuching and the time it submitted its report. This despite its own admission (the Reader is invited to read the CC report, available on the Internet) that the introduction of the Malaysia proposal to North Borneo was “somewhat sudden”—the government-authorized paper “North Borneo and Malaysia” was released less than three weeks before the CC arrived there.

(3) This “somewhat sudden” introduction of the proposal for a Federation of Malaysia takes on even more ominous significance when combined with the literacy data of North Borneo: The 1960 census data show that only 25 percent of the total population aged 10 years and over were literate. If you take out the Chinese and European populations, the literacy rate goes down to less than 10 percent. The CC report itself noted this lack of literacy. So how could most of these people possibly have been in a position to have views on North Borneo and Malaysia, let alone share them?

Moreover, let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that a referendum or some form of election was held in North Borneo where people directly voted to be a part of Malaysia or not. Not the case. As a matter of fact, elections had not been held (not even a teeny-weeny one) in North Borneo up to that point, although political parties had already been formed.

And yet, after holding about 20 hearings in 15 centers all over North Borneo, the CC reported—actually, its members merely adopted the Chair’s opinion—that one-third of the North Borneans were absolutely in favor of the Malaysia proposals, one-third were absolutely against, and one-third wanted certain conditions to be met before agreeing. And on this basis, it was the CC’s considered opinion that joining the Federation of Malaysia was in the best interests of North Borneo and Sarawak.

The Philippines and Indonesia were, not surprisingly, less than convinced by the process and its results, both objecting to the Federation of Malaysia. But in April 1963, in the so-called “Manila Accord”—this now from the statement of Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Salvador Lopez at the 18th UN General Assembly—the three Malay heads of government (Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia) agreed to resolve their differences. Indonesia and the Philippines were prepared to accept Malaysia, “provided the support of the people of Borneo territories is ascertained by an independent and impartial authority, the Secretary General of the United Nations or his representative.”

This ascertainment was to take place under three conditions: that the approach should be “fresh” (i.e., scrap the CC); that the ascertainment operation should be genuine and not pro forma; and that observers from the three countries should witness the entire process.

But yet again, the lutong makaw took place—the fell hand of Great Britain: The process, which was to have taken four to six weeks, took only 10 working days, and the observers, because of British red tape, only witnessed the last three days. What red tape? Example: The British refused landing rights to the one airplane that was to bring the Filipino observers to Borneo.

And here’s the bigger kicker: The British secretary of state for foreign affairs, Lord Home, publicly announced in the midst of the ascertainment that the new Federation of Malaysia would be proclaimed on Sept. 16, regardless of what the UN Secretary General’s findings were.

The effect, of course was that UN Secretary General U Thant, probably unwilling for the UN to go into crisis if its findings were blatantly disregarded (he called it a slap on the UN), took the only dignified path available to him: His report, which in effect gave his blessing to the Malaysian federation, was released two days before the federation was proclaimed. Crisis averted. The Philippines screwed.

BTW, the Philippines urged again, again, again, and yet again, that the parties—Great Britain, the Philippines and Malaysia—bring the case to the International Court of Justice for adjudication. As far as I know, Great Britain didn’t even bother to reply, and the Malaysians refused.

Do the Sabahans want to be with the Philippines? Of course not. But one has reason to doubt that they wanted to be with Malaysia either, at least at the outset. Think of it: In 1992 FVR won with 23 percent of the vote—but barely six months later, the majority of the people claimed they had voted for him.