Understanding Philippine-Malaysian relations

WHAT MATTERS MOST - Atty. Josephus B. Jimenez - The Freeman

The recent state visit of President Rodrigo R. Duterte to Malaysia, a proximate neighbor, but not a very close friend, did not yield so many agreements signed. It was a very brief visit and the issues are quite multiple and even complicated. It was highlighted by President Digong singing a duet with Prime Minister Najib Razak to the tune of "Sha lala lala." But did it accomplish any breakthrough on any political, security, economic, commercial, trade, or immigration issue? The answer is no. There was not even any concrete talk on the hitherto mediation role played by Malaysia in the peace talks towards the goal of establishing an autonomous Bangsamoro.

The truth of the matter is that there so many underlying irritants in the relationship between Malaysians and the Filipinos. As between Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which share with the Philppines a number of strong historical and cultural ties, aside from sharing geographical borders and kinships among our peoples. There is no doubt in my mind that  Indonesia is a better friend to our country than Malaysia. The still unresolved Sabah claim and the constant irritations in many illegal immigration cases in northern Borneo by many of our compatriots were exacerbated by the unfortunate ''invasion'' by  ragtag forces of the former Sultan of Sulu in Lahad Datu and Sandakan.

Although I lived in Malaysia from 2005 to 2008 as a labor diplomat, working in our embassy at Jalan Kia Peng, Kuala Lumpur, I cannot claim mastery of the many intricacies and nuances of the Philippine-Malaysian relations. There are career diplomats that I know like Ambassador Louie Cruz, Ambassador Vic Lecaroz, and, of course, Ambassador Ed Malaya who have understood deeply the political and economic underpinnings of such bilateral relations. To my mind, however, the ones who immersed himself so deeply and so long was Ambassador Chito Brillantes, a brilliant lawyer, diplomat and administrator, who even as he was not a career diplomat, enjoyed the respect of Malaysian foreign affairs top honchos, and the esteem and love of the Filipino communities.

I do understand however that the number one irritant in this bilateral relations is the still unresolved Philippine claim over the Sabah territory. This large track of land is oil rich. It was ceded by the then Sultan of Brunei to his cousin, the Sultan of Sulu, as  a gift of gratitude  for helping him repel and internal rebellion. Malaysia continues to pay rental to the Sulu Sultanate for the use of the territory but it insists that political sovereignty reside with the government of Malaysia.  During the time of President Marcos, an invasion force was supposedly trained in Corregidor with the intent of taking back the Sabah territory which is admittedly owned by the Sultanate of Sulu. But that secret Jabida Mission was exposed by a privilege speech made by the late Senator Ninoy Aquino.

As a result, Malaysia cut its diplomatic relations from the Philiippines. Our ambassador and all diplomatic staff were sent home, and our chancery and embassy was closed. It was only diplomatic missions where the resumption of our diplomatic relations with Malaysia was revived. Today, our relations are not very strong. Trade and commerce are not brisk. We have a few hundreds of thousands documented Filipinos in the peninsular Malaysia at the same time half a million undocumented ones in Sabah, Sarawak, and in the federal territory in the island of Labuan. Many Filipinos have intermarried with Malaysians. But there a large number inside the immigration detention centers waiting for deportation from Sandakan to Zamboanga every Friday. Every Monday, however, most of them come back with other names and other identities. 

Well, we really cannot stop the fish from going back to the seas. They consider Malaysia as a means to get a better life. What matters most is for  them  to get a means of livelihood that, sadly, is not available in our country.

[email protected].


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