POSTSCRIPT / September 1, 2002 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Perez should shut up on Sabah legal issues

WE’RE SCARED: Let’s face it. We are too scared to press our claim to Sabah, that portion of the Sulu sultanate (and therefore also of the Philippines) that Malaysia arbitrarily annexed into its federation in 1963.

We are at our dramatic best spewing lava as we protest the Malaysian maltreatment of our compatriots in Sabah. Yet we are too weak-kneed to officially bring up the prior question of our claim to Sabah.

That’s right — our Sabah claim is a prior question. There will not be the deportation of Filipinos, and the consequent protests, if Sabah were Philippine territory as we claim it is.

But it is now the other way around. Raising the shabby treatment of Filipinos as the main point, our government has relegated the Sabah claim to a mere collateral issue to be hinted at, hopefully, at some vague point in the distant future.

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WHY WE HESITATE: We see at least two reasons for this reluctance of government to pursue the Sabah claim in earnest.

  1. The first reason, of course, is that we are not ready — either to press the claim at the negotiating table, argue it before an international forum, or fight it out on the ground. Neglect and ningas cogon have slowed down the momentum of our case.
  2. The second reason is the commercial interest shown by some presidents after Diosdado Macapagal, who initiated the claim. Business considerations have colored our official perspective.

Common to these two reasons is the fact that in this country presidents are generally not enthusiastic about pursuing initiatives and projects associated with somebody before them. A new president always starts from scratch, and loathes continuing what a predecessor had started in a grand way.

We’ve been losing our case by default. Each day of neglect that passes makes our claim dimmer.

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US-BRITAIN COLLUSION: A Bill Clinton or a George Bush (Sr. and Jr.), would see a Sabah situation the perfect opportunity to rally the nation against a perceived enemy, gain political points, and raise war-like whoops to drown out troublesome local issues. It’s an old trick.

Although GMA is being advised by her American public relations consultants to cultivate a tough “Iron Lady” image, this country under her cannot be expected to rattle its rusty saber and make belligerent noises in the direction of Kuala Lumpur.

In the first place, Uncle Sam will not allow that and ruffle the feelings of Her Majesty’s government. Remember, it was Great Britain that arranged the shotgun marriage in 1963 that federated several Commonwealth states — with Sabah dragged to the rites — into what is now Malaysia. Standing as wedding sponsor was our supposed ally, the US.

(Singapore, another victim of the forced union, left the federation not long after.)

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ASSERT THE CLAIM: So what do we do? There is still time for low-intensity measures that will serve notice of our displeasure and at the same time help preserve our Sabah claim if we are not ready to press the issue just right now.

As we said last time, one important thing the government can do is to insert a reservation, or reiteration, or an understanding into every communication that we send to Malaysia that relates, even remotely, to Sabah.

The diplomatic protest, via a note verbale, delivered days ago to the Malaysian ambassador against their inhuman treatment of Filipinos in Sabah should have contained a line highlighting the fact that we have a pending claim to Sabah.

We should reiterate our Sabah reservation every chance we have. Even the law will not protect those who sleep on their rights.

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PACIFIC MEANS: Another important step is for all officials to stop perorating on the claim. They can blah-blah till their saliva runs dry on the manhandling of Filipinos, but they should not attempt to discuss the claim except along the official line, if any.

The other day Justice Secretary Hernando Perez was caught saying that the Philippines had no legal recourse to pursue the claim, that only diplomacy and not a legal suit could get Sabah back for us.

Perez’s statement greatly weakens our position. Even assuming he is right, as a lawyer he should have thought it wise to leave it to Kuala Lumpur to say that we have no legal basis for bringing the case to an international forum. Why, is Perez also lawyering for some Malaysians?

Somebody should tell Perez that Malaysia, the Philippines and all other ASEAN members have solemnly agreed to settle disputes among themselves through negotiation, arbitration, good offices, and such pacific means. They did not confine themselves to the narrow corridor of diplomacy or bilateral discussions.

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FLAWED OPINION: Perez cited some legal opinions of his predecessors. The Secretary should be the first to know that so-called legal opinions of the Justice Secretary are sometimes tailored to suit whatever are his ulterior motives or that of his boss the President.

The claim that a legal opinion of the Justice Secretary is the law on the matter until overturned by a competent court is one of the most blatant legal anomalies of our time.

President Marcos, who was the boss of the Justice Secretary whose opinion was cited by Perez, had commercial interests in his followup handling of the Sabah claim. His Justice Secretary could not have issued an opinion that did not hew to Marcos’ designs.

Marcos summoned the heirs of the Sulu sultan and told them that he would act as their attorney in pursuing their property rights pertaining to Sabah.

While he was supposed to act, as president, to assert and protect the sovereign rights of the Philippines over Sabah, Marcos the private lawyer was double dealing and acting as the private attorney of the sultan’s heirs to clinch a commercial deal.

The merit of the legal opinion of Marcos’ Justice Secretary that Perez cited should be examined in the context of its commercial background.

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BUSINESS ANGLES: One lesson we should learn is that such initiatives involving sovereignty or those involving the national patrimony should not be tainted by the business designs of the sitting president.

The personal interests of the president may not always tally with those of the national interest. Even if they happen to coincide, his/her personal interest should not enter the official picture at all.

President Ramos, who was asked by President Arroyo to please talk with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mahamad (he declined), should make a full disclosure of all his interests touching on Malaysian business.

We remember that Mahathir came over to Malacanang to see Ramos one time, gifting him with a fully-loaded Proton car. What else he gave FVR and what for we will probably never know. We were just told by Malacanang sources at the time that “may nilalakad si Mahathir (Mahathir is following up something).”

Note that the Ramos regime saw the galloping of Malaysian business in the country, including in landmark industries and the shady world of gambling. We cannot blame people asking if those deals were among the reasons why our Sabah claim did not budge during Ramos’ honeymoon with the Malaysians.

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BROADWAY NOTES: Those who have been preparing for Broadway may find the following items interesting:

Yau Cheng, board member of Second Generation Production (2g), is looking for a children’s singing group or choir in one or two numbers to be featured at the Second Annual Concert of Excellence coming up Oct. 24 at Carnegie Hall. They will be backing up 2g’s seasoned artists, many of whom have a Broadway pedigree.

To reflect the diversity in the Asian community, Yau seeks talented South Asian children. 2g does not have specific selection criteria at the moment, but the group should be somewhat organized and have a music director who can collaborate and assist 2g in preparing the children for the performance.

If you know of a group that might fit, put them in touch with Yau as soon as possible via email at or by mobile phone 917-568-3170.

Meanwhile, the ground-breaking musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein is returning to Broadway this September — with a brand new storyline by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. A star-studded Asian American cast is led by Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon, Les Miserables) with direction and choreography by Robert Longbottom.

The first night is on Sept. 26 at Virginia Theatre at 52nd Street and Broadway. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Orchestra or first mezzanine is $100 per ticket ($35 of the price is tax-deductible).

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 1, 2002)

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