Philippines retains a dormant claim to Malaysia's Sabah State in northern Borneo. Sabah, was once ruled by the Sultan of Sulu, who was based on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Malaysia and the Philippines nearly went to war over Sabah in the 1960s. Relations with the Philippines also have been strained over allegations that members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Filipino insurgent group, have commandeered parts of Borneo as a haven. A Malaysian government official in Sabah were accused of supplying weapons to Muslim separatists in Mindanao.

Groups of Filipino militants have occasionally crossed into Sabah to stage kidnappings, including one that involved island resort vacationers in 2000. Malaysia has repeatedly intensified its patrols but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.

Dispute Between Malaysia and the Philippines Over Sabah

Some Filipinos in the Sulu area of the southern Philippines insist that Sabah, a state rich with timber and oil, had belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century and should be handed back. Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “ Sabah was a gift from the Sultan of Brunei for the Sulu Sultanate’s help in quelling a rebellion in 1685. The dispute has its origin in the signing of an agreement in 1878 between the Sulu Sultanate and a British company which “leased” the territory for a sum to be paid in perpetuity. In 1885, Spain renounced all claims of sovereignty over the whole of Borneo, in exchange for British recognition of Spanish sovereignty over the entire Sulu archipelago. That placed Sabah under the British sphere of influence. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013 >=<]

“Over the years, the British colonial government succeeded the company, with Sabah becoming a Crown Colony in 1946 and later joining Malaya, Singapore and Sarawak in the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The Philippine government came into the picture in September 1962 when an heir of the sultanate, Esmail Kiram, surrendered authority and sovereignty over Sabah to President Diosdado Macapagal’s government. However, Manila has been hesitant in its approach to Sabah. At one stage, it secretly backed Moro militants to reclaim the territory. But at other times, it left the issue dormant in favour of better ties with Malaysia. >=<

“At the center of the dispute is the 1878 agreement between the sultanate and the British company. Was Sabah leased or ceded to the British? Over the past five decades, the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate have been making unilateral claims to Sabah, including filing a petition at the United Nations for the return of the territory, arguing that the territory was only rented out.” >=<

Armed Men from the Philippines Invade Sabah in 2013

In February 2013, about 200 armed men from the Philippines snuck into Sabah by boat and entered the village of Ladah Datu are refused to leave. The militants armed with rifles and grenade launchers, had refused to leave, staking a long-dormant claim to the entire state of Sabah, which they insisted was their ancestral birthright. Lahad Datu is a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.

Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “The men, identifying themselves as the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army, declared to the Malaysian security forces who surrounded them in Lahad Datu that they were there to reclaim the ancestral land of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, one of several claimants to the defunct Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.They defied calls by the Philippine President Benigno Aquino to return home and rejected offers by the Malaysian authorities to withdraw from the village, saying that they were prepared to fight if they were forcefully evicted from Sabah, formerly known as North Borneo. After three tense weeks, the stand-off worsened to a violent confrontation between the intruders and security forces, that killed two Malaysian policemen and 12 of the armed men. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013]

Jeremy Grant and Roel Landing wrote in the Financial Times, “For three weeks Malaysian forces have been facing off against 180 followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, from a remote island in the south-west Philippines. More than 20 people have been reported killed in clashes over the past few days, in the worst violence on Malaysian territory for decades. Both governments were caught off guard when armed insurgents landed at a village in Sabah, north-east Borneo. The group are followers of Jamalul Kiram III, who says that his claimed title of Sultan of Sulu gives his people an ancestral right to the region. The violence in Sabah spread to Semporna, a stopover used by foreign diving enthusiasts off the southeast coast of Sabah, as well as to the village of Kunak, to the north of Semporna. [Source: Jeremy Grant, Roel Landing, Financial Times, March 4, 2013]

The armed group was led by Azzimudie Kiram, the younger brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu. Azzimudie told Philippine Radio dzMM that his men will not return to the Philippines as it would be an "embarrassment" for them and the Sulu sultanate. "We cannot go back to the Philippines because that will be a great embarrassment on our part. We have already stated our intention in coming here.” He said he and his 275 followers were bent on staying in Tanduo village in Lahad Datu while the Philippine government is in talks with the Malaysian government on how to settle the issue.

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “The crisis has caught both countries by surprise. Few in Malaysia or the Philippines even know about the Filipino group led by Jamalul Kiram III, who claims to be the sultan, or the hereditary ruler, of the southern, predominantly Muslim province of Sulu in the Philippines. Sabah and Sulu are separated by a narrow strip of the Sulu Sea that at its shortest span can be traversed by boat in 30 minutes. The two provinces have shared traditional ties and people, who are of the same ethnic stock, frequently travel back and forth. Some 800,000 Filipinos, mostly Muslims, have settled in Sabah over the years to seek work and stability. [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, March 6, 2013]

Clashes After Armed Men from the Philippines Invade Sabah in 2013

In early Malaysian soldiers and police attacked the area occupied by Kiram's followers for three weeks in an assault codenamed "Operation Sovereign" involving fighter jets, ground troops and mortar fires. Clashes between the Filipino militants and Malaysian security forces left 19 intruders and eight policemen dead.

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “What began as an outlandish but peaceful occupation turned violent after the Filipinos fatally shot two Malaysian policemen last week. Six other police officers were ambushed and killed by other Filipino assailants believed to be linked to the clansmen at a waterfront village in another Sabah district on Saturday. The Malaysians shot and killed 19 clansmen and their suspected allies.[Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, March 6, 2013]

At the height of the fighting in early March 2013, Malaysiakini reported: “The Malaysian security forces ended the 17-day stand-off in Kampung Tanduo, Lahad Datu this afternoon after an exchange of fire with the Sulu sultanate intruders that resulted in 14 deaths, including two Malaysian police commandos. The two Malaysian police commandos killed are Inspector Zulkifli Mamat and Corporal Sabarudin Daud. Three others were injured, one of who is in a critical condition, and they have been hospitalised. They are from VAT69, an elite police commando unit with its roots in counter-insurgency against the communists, and which has since been re-tasked for counter-terrorism and special operations. [Source: Malaysiakini, March 1, 2013]

“Sabah police chief Hamza Taib confirms at a press conference that 12 Sulu gunmen were killed in the operation, besides two Malaysian commandos. Hamza is quoted by The Star Online as saying the shootout began after the five elite General Operations Force (GOF) members tightened their perimeter around Kampung Tanduo and were met with gunfire when they stumbled upon the intruders. In the 9.59am incident, Hamza said, the GOF members were forced to return fire and the skirmish lasted some 30 minutes. Security forces recovered some weapons form the Sulu militants and are now holding their ground around within an area of 10sq-km around the village, he added. The policemen were killed by a mortar shell.

Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez said, "Malaysian authorities, particularly the Malaysian police, are now pursuing the group. Two were killed and one wounded from the Malaysian police after their vehicle(s) were fired upon by the Kiram group. What we have from the Malaysian ambassador is that 10 of Kiram's (Azzimudie's) men surrendered and one owner of the house where Kiram stayed was killed. From the Malaysian authorities, two were killed and one was wounded after the Malaysian police vehicle was fired upon by the Kiram group," read the statement by Hernandez. The report said two of Azzimudie's men escaped and ran towards the sea, according to the Malaysian ambassador. Manila also requested clearance for a Philippine Navy vessel, AT-296 BRP Tagbanua, to proceed to Lahad Datu to enable Philippine medical personnel abroad to attend to the wounded and ferry them and the remaining members of the group back to their respective homes and families.

“According to ANC Dateline Philippine, Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram's spokesperson Abraham Idjirani said the sultanate is not bent on taking revenge for the death of his men, saying the group wants to settle the matter peacefully. According to ABS-CBN news Azzimudie confirmed that 10 of his men were killed and four others wounded in the shooting incident. "He saw the bodies himself," Idjirani told a press conference in Manila. "The fatalities included one woman." Idjirani appealed to the Malaysian government to stop the attack, saying Azzimudie's men were armed only with ' bolos ' (machetes) and knives and only a few had guns. He claimed that Malaysian police commandos were using snipers to get at Azzimudie's men. Idjirani said, "This morning is a moment in history, that the Malaysian security forces fired the first shot," he was quoted as saying. On the other hand, he noted that Azzimudie could not ascertain if the first shot had been aimed at his people.

Malaysia Launches Air Strikes While the Sultan's Filipino Army “Sneaks to Safety

Associated Press reported: “Malaysia has launched air strikes and mortar attacks against nearly 200 Filipinos occupying a Borneo seaside village in a dramatic escalation of a bizarre three-week siege that has turned into a security nightmare for both Malaysia and the Philippines. The assault follows firefights in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state that killed eight police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen. [Source: Associated Press, March 5, 2013]

The Malaysian national police chief, Ismail Omar, said Malaysian security forces suffered no casualties in Tuesday's offensive but he did not give details about the Filipinos. Air strikes "achieved their objectives in accordance to the targets" while ground forces who encountered resistance from gunmen firing at them were carrying out "mopping up" operations by searching houses in the village, Ismail said, without elaborating on how many had been detained.

Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Filipinos, told reporters in Manila that the group would not surrender and that their leader was safe. Idjirani said he spoke by phone with Kiram's brother, who saw fighter jets dropping two bombs on a nearby village that he said the group had already abandoned. "They can hear the sounds of bombs and the exchange of fire," Idjirani said. "The truth is they are nervous. Who will not be nervous when you are against all odds?" He said they will "find a way to sneak to safety". "If this is the last stand that we could take to let the world know about our cause, then let it be," Idjirani said, describing the Malaysian assault as "overkill".

The next day,Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “Malaysian security forces battled a group of Filipino intruders in the rugged terrain of Borneo after they escaped a military assault with fighter jets and mortar fire on their hideout, police said. One Filipino was shot and believed killed. It was not clear if any of the intruders suffered any casualties the assault before they melted away into the jungles, chased by hundreds of Malaysian security forces. [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, March 6, 2013]

Malaysia's national police chief Ismail Omar said security forces exchanged gunfire in a hilly coastal district thick with foliage slightly after dawn. One clansman was shot and possibly killed, he said. "We're in a good position. We ask the public not to panic," Ismail said, adding that authorities would expand their search area beyond the current 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles).

"Bombs were dropped, but they are still safe," Jacel Kiram, the sultan's daughter, said in Manila where she and her father are based. She said her father's brother, who is leading the occupiers in Sabah, informed her by telephone that he and his followers were unhurt. Commenting on Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman's announcement this week that the group was being formally considered terrorists, Kiram said, "Malaysia wants us dead, and all we want is to talk."

Background of the Sabah Crisis in 2013

Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “Amid the stand-off were questions raised as to who really owns Sabah. It is 1,143 kilometers from Manila, 1,495 kilometers from Singapore, and 1,678 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. By geographical distance, Sabah is nearer to Manila than Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. Does it mean that Sabah belongs to the Philippines which includes the Sulu archipelago? Kept under wraps for the past five decades, the issue of claims to Sabah has now resurfaced with such urgency that it can no longer be conveniently swept under the carpet. The stand-off has raised questions as to why it took place at a sensitive time when both Malaysia and the Philippines are about to hold major elections. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013 >=<]

“One theory that is making the rounds is that the ailing Sultan Jamalul Kiram III was trying to reinforce his claims to the sultanate. There have been several claimants to the throne in recent years, none of whom have gained international recognition as the Sulu Sultanate ended after the death of the last sultan in 1936. Sultan Jamalul Kiram III is apparently upset that he was not included in the negotiations with the MILF last October, and he planned the “reclaim” of Sabah in order to undermine the peace process. Reports from Manila have claimed he was being secretly backed by Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, as he himself was also left out in the negotiations with the MILF, its breakaway group. Several of Misuari’s MNLF fighters are among the intruders. >=<

“Another theory is that the heirs of the sultanate staged the armed publicity stunt that turned ugly to demand a renegotiation of the “rent” of RM 5,300 (US$1,700) which they received from Malaysia annually for the Sabah “lease” made during British rule. Over the years, they have written to the Malaysian government requesting a larger sum — as much as $855 million — but to no avail. Malaysia has never officially acknowledged such payment but analysts say that it is a gesture of goodwill by Kuala Lumpur to the descendants of the sultanate and not a recognition of their claim of sovereignty over Sabah.” >=<

Impact of the Sabah Crisis in 2013

According to Associated Press: “Although tensions between the two communities are not uncommon, it is feared that the Kiram's claims and the violence over the past week will sour relations further and could lead to retaliation against the long-staying Filipino settlers...The crisis could have wide-ranging political ramifications in both countries. Some fear it might undermine peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines. It also could affect public confidence in Malaysia's long-ruling National Front coalition, which was gearing up for general elections at the time of the incursion. The coalition requires strong support from voters in Sabah to fend off an opposition alliance. [Source: Associated Press, March 5, 2013]

Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “Kept under wraps for the past five decades, the issue of claims to Sabah has now resurfaced with such urgency that it can no longer be conveniently swept under the carpet. The stand-off has raised questions as to why it took place at a sensitive time when both Malaysia and the Philippines are about to hold major elections. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013 >=<]

“The incident has raised concern that it could spark a renewed MNLF militancy with support from Tausug immigrants, who are natives of Sulu, in the Malaysian state in solidarity with their Filipino cousins. In the worst-case scenario, some analysts say the MNLF could revive its rebellion against the authorities in Sabah and the Philippines that would have long-term implications on ties between the two countries and the region. >=<

“As it is, the stand-off has reignited demands in the Philippines to place the Sabah claims on high profile in its relations with Malaysia. Even President Aquino has ordered his legal team to study the claims, generating wider interest on the issue. Kuala Lumpur too felt the heat from its citizens, who demanded stern action against the intruders so as to uphold Malaysian sovereignty in Sabah and from having to answer criticisms of security lapses that had allowed the armed men to enter the state without firing a shot. >=<

“Seeking international arbitration through the International Court of Justice in The Hague may be one option. But this would require the consent of both sides to seek such recourse. This does not seem likely as both countries do not appear keen to take that path because of the risks involved should either party lose its claims. Both countries must look for common ground to meet each other halfway and consider available options, including cash settlements, to solve the age-old issue. As long as it is not settled, the issue will resurface because of the maneuverings of the sultanate’s many descendants still struggling to reclaim the land of their ancestors.


Land and maritime negotiations with Indonesia are ongoing, and disputed areas include the controversial Tanjung Datu and Camar Wulan border area in Borneo and the maritime boundary in the Ambalat oil block in the Celebes Sea.

In 2009, The Straits Times reported: Anti-Malaysian sentiments in Indonesia erupted again after an incident in disputed waters near the Riau archipelago in August 2009. Seven Malaysian fishermen were arrested in what Indonesian maritime officials claimed was Indonesian waters. A nearby Malaysian sea patrol begged to differ and in retaliation detained the three Indonesian officials. All those arrested were soon freed, but many Indonesians felt slighted by the incident and demanded that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono take a strong stand against Malaysia. Yudhoyono attempted to calm the situation with his speech— standing firm on Indonesia’s territorial claim but urging that diplomacy be given a chance — was predictably jeered by the warmongers. While his speech had gone as far as possible in staking out Indonesia’s position, some would not have been satisfied with anything short of a declaration of war. And looking at the public reaction to the speech, the warmongers appear to have widespread support. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

In the 1960s, Indonesian President Sukarno instituted a policy of “Confrontation” and threatened war against Malaysia on several occasions, primarily over the Malaysian-Indonesian border on Borneo. See Konfrontasi, Below

Tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia have run high over the deportation of illegal Indonesian workers in Malaysia. University of Malaya scholars Khadijah Khalid and Shakila Yacob warned that the question of Indonesian labour in Malaysia remains the most "contentious issue" in their relationship. See Labor, Maids


Indonesia opposed the Federation of Malaysia. For a number of years it supported guerilla attacks against Sarawak, Sabah and Malaya. In 1960, the northern states of Borneo, , which bordered on Indonesian Kalimantan, were somewhat reluctant to join Malaysia. Indonesian President Sukarno saw himself as the true leader of the Malay people. Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism. The Indonesian army increased its budget. British forces provided assistance to Malaysia in their fight against the Indonesians. A brief war—known as Confrontation (Konfrontasi) —soon involved Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China and eventually settled rival claims in Borneo.

The Indonesian government led by Sukarno contended that the new federation of Malaysia was a neocolonialist plan to prevent Indonesia and Malaysia from combining into a Greater Malaysia, an entity that Malaysian leaders had previously supported. Soon after the Federation of Malaysia was established, Indonesia attempted to spark a popular revolt in the fledgling country by engaging in acts of terrorism and armed confrontation in various places. However, these actions strengthened popular support for Malaysia, and in 1964 Australia, Britain, and New Zealand sent troops and military aid to Malaysia.

Sukarno was backed by the powerful Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Indonesia backed a Communist insurgency in Sarawak, mainly involving elements of the local Chinese community. The Indonesian army mounted offensives along the Kalimantan–Malaysia border and the PKI demonstrated in the streets in Jakarta. Indonesian irregular forces were infiltrated into Sarawak, where they were contained by Malaysian and Commonwealth of Nations forces.

On September 23, 1963, Sukarno, who had proclaimed himself President-for-Life, declared that Indonesia must "gobble Malaysia raw." Military units infiltrated Malaysian territory but were intercepted before they could establish contact with local dissidents. When the UN General Assembly elected Malaysia as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council in December 1964, Sukarno took Indonesia out of the world body and promised the establishment of a new international organization, the Conference of New Emerging Forces (Conefo), a fitting end, perhaps, for 1964, which Sukarno had called "A Year of Living Dangerously."

The period of Konfrontasi—an economic, political, and military confrontation—lasted until the downfall of Sukarno in 1966. An abortive coup attempt in 1965 forced Sukarno to step down, and on August 11, 1966, Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace treaty.

Brunei Revolt in December 1962

In the 1960s, Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism there. In 1962, an armed rebellion linked to Indonesia was put down in Sultan of Brunei. President Sukarno of Indonesia supported a left wing inspired rural insurrection against the Brunei government. Although flying in police units from British North Borneo and Gurkhas from Malaya swiftly put this down, a hidden jungle campaign continued throughout Borneo for several subsequent years. British troops led by a Gurkha contingent together with the Brunei police and the new Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, saw-off these erstwhile "liberators". Unfortunately, the experience proved a watershed for democratic reform. The experiment with democracy was ended and the legislature dissolved.

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “On the night of Dec 8, 1962, simultaneous attacks were launched against the government and police throughout Brunei, in Limbang and down as far as Sibuti in Sarawak. Why such violence? In the most recent elections, the Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB) swept all but one of the elected seats in the Brunei legislature, and expected the win would lead to legislative and executive power. The sultan, his British advisers and the Malayan government were not happy with PRB exercising real power in Brunei. So, the sultan kept postponing any meeting of the legislature, and meanwhile, was actively discussing the terms under which Brunei would become part of the proposed Malaysian federation. PRB was opposed to that policy, and firmly committed to a Borneo Federation of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo, with Brunei’s sultan as the constitutional monarch of “Bornesia”. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~\]

“Frustrated, a number of PRB members commenced military training in the jungles of Brunei and in the Lawas district of Sarawak. Their armed wing, Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU), obtained a small supply of weapons from various sources. For the PRB, the constitutional path remained blocked, and they feared that security powers would shortly be handed to a new Malaysian government, as was the British intention in Singapore. Influential PRB members then planned to forcibly take over power in Brunei, and adjacent areas of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), and to do so during celebrations on Christmas Eve — when it was assumed that the British would be least capable of responding! Arrests of TNKU leaders in Lawas precipitated the early action and the revolt did not go as planned. Capturing the sultan was key to success, as was his cooperation, but PRB failed to reach him. Instead, the sultan was surrounded by expatriates, and with their encouragement, he requested British military assistance to defeat the rebellion.\~\

“Greg Poulgrain, in his book, The Genesis Of Confrontation, sees that revolt in the context of broader British strategy to undermine President Sukarno. He accords a more manipulative and Machiavellian role to the UK in the abortive revolt, but I think he gives too much credit to British intelligence. However, there is still much to be discovered about the events of December 1962. After some significant casualties, especially in Seria and Limbang, the Brunei revolt was suppressed, but it sent shockwaves throughout Sarawak.” \~\

Impact of the 1962 Brunei Revolt

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “The government immediately gazetted a range of emergency powers and gave wide publicity to these new threats of violence. Newspapers were proscribed, political activists arrested and held without trial, and the participation in the revolt of many Malay and Kedayan Sarawak United Peoples PARTY (SUPP) members, especially those in the Sibuti area, was widely publicised. Following the crackdown, there was a steady flow of young Chinese communist cadres across to West Kalimantan, training in preparation for armed struggle. TNKU was headed by a highly influential Sarawak Malay leader. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~\]

“This threat to public order had a decisive impact on public opinion in Sarawak and was crucial in swinging Dayak opinion in favour of Malaysia. No longer was it easy to argue that Sarawak should continue as it was, or seek independence just on its own — as SUPP had been arguing. With the welter of government publicity, there was a groundswell either toward active support for the idea of federation or the passive view that Malaysia was a better option than Indonesia.The Sarawak government made much of the links between PRB leader Azahari and Indonesia, even though it has since been shown that top Indonesian security officials had no confidence in Azahari’s ability to work strategically. \~\

“The government trumpeted clear that the simple choice for Sarawakians was a promising future in Malaysia. Radio Sarawak, beamed throughout the state, gave considerable publicity to resignations of native members of SUPP, and certain government officers pressured influential Dayaks to abandon their membership and support for SUPP, stressing the themes of communist influence and subversion. Just the month before statewide elections in Sarawak, credibility was given to government arguments when Indonesian “volunteers” attacked the Tebedu police station, seizing weapons and killing officers — including the brother of Sarawak’s future first chief minister.” \~\

Brunei Revolt and the Indonesian ‘Konfrontasi’

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “That was the start of the Indonesian armed konfrontasi against Malaysia. One might well argue that the title Bapa Malaysia should be held jointly by Tunku Abdul Rahman and President Sukarno, for without Indonesia’s support for the PRB and commencement of armed confrontation, it is quite unlikely that a majority of Sarawak’s Council Negri would have supported Sarawak making Malaysia. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~\]

“The actual outcome from the 1963 District Council elections was much, much closer than many care to remember. The actual votes cast gave the SUPP/Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) coalition 35.7 per cent, the Alliance 34.2 per cent and Independents 30.2 per cent. In 1963, the composition of the Council Negri was based on a three-tiered system, with each district council selecting members of the Divisional Advisory Councils (DAC). They would then chose who would represent them in the Council Negri. At each level it was “winner takes all”. Whether the Alliance would carry the day was actually in doubt until the last minute. That was because Panas and SUPP had formed a coalition, a link based upon pragmatism, not ideology. Panas and its leader, Datu Bandar, were savagely attacked for “selling out the Malays”. \~\

“Intervention of the Malayan Alliance added ferocity to that attack and the intense hostility between the top leaders of Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawal (BARJASA) and Panas became both personal and political. After polling, the SUPP-Panas coalition controlled the 1st DAC and only needed to win a majority in the 3rd DAC in order to nominate 21 of the 36 elected members of Council Negri. In the 3rd DAC, the Alliance and the coalition had secured 10 votes. The outcome swung on the support of one independent member of the Binatang District Council, who held the pivotal swing vote. \~\

“Had the Panas/SUPP coalition then won the 3rd DAC, with the support of just one of four Mukah independents, they would have gained control of the Council Negri. The Panas/SUPP coalition agreement, signed by their respective leaders, stipulated that the United Nations conduct a referendum before the implementation of Malaysia. Had that agreement held, it is doubtful that the Tunku would have waited for a favourable outcome, given the international and domestic pressures bearing heavily upon his government, and his absolute refusal to merge with Singapore prior to the inclusion of the Borneo states.” \~\

Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ For decades, Uni Histayanti has performed the enigmatic movements of her country's traditional pendet dance. She learned the rhythms as an infant and years ago opened a dinner theater in Jakarta where, dressed in native costume, she performs nightly. As she flutters her arms bird-like, darts her eyes and tilts her head at exotic angles, she invokes the welcoming spirit of the Hindu-majority Bali island where it originated centuries ago. That's why it floored her to hear that neighboring Malaysia had reportedly tried to seize the pendet as its own. It's pure cultural piracy, Histayanti insists. And it makes her mad. "It's a symbol of our heritage, not theirs," she said as she applied makeup in a backstage dressing room of her theater. "If you have something and someone tries to steal it, you take it back." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 <>]

“These two predominantly Muslim neighbors, which share ethnic and physical traits, are engaged in a tense struggle for superiority. Nowadays, the rift is widening. It's cultural. It's political. And recently, it has gotten personal. Many Malaysians dismiss the teeming Indonesian archipelago as a source for the low-class maids, parking-lot jockeys and waiters who work in Kuala Lumpur and other cities in Malaysia. For their part, Indonesians icily counter that Malaysia is so desperate for a culture that it will resort to anything -- even outright theft -- to acquire one. <>

“The pendet dance tiff is only one example of battle over so-called proprietary traditions. “A fresh skirmish of the culture wars breaks out now and then when Indonesians claim Malaysians have yet again plagiarized their indigenous art and music. Malaysians have reportedly laid claim to the Indonesian reog performances -- a mix of dance and magic, as well as the angklung, a bamboo musical instrument, activists say. In 2007, Indonesia threatened legal action against Malaysia for allegedly co-opting Indonesian songs and dances in its national tourism campaign. That resulted in a high-profile panel being convened to settle the dispute. <>

“Many in Indonesia claim that even Malaysia's national anthem borrows from an Indonesian song. Experts solicited to settle the fight reported that both songs borrow from a 19th century French tune. At home, many Indonesians say, Malaysians are protective of their own culture. When a wave of Indonesian pop music began receiving play on radio stations there a year ago, officials sought to set a strict quota: 90 percent Malaysian songs and 10 percent Indonesian.” <>

Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia Get Ugly

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ““The pendet dance tiff emerged in the summer of 2009 when rumors spread that Malaysia was responsible for television ads claiming the invention of the pendet dance. Within days, a private company producing a program for the Discovery Channel admitted they were behind the ads and that they had mistakenly picked the wrong dance to promote their upcoming program. The Malaysian government, they explained, had nothing to do with the foul-up.” [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 <>]

“But it was too late. Indonesia's feathers had been ruffled. Indonesia's tourism minister demanded a written apology, which he said was needed for the record. Meanwhile, outraged Indonesians waged a "Crush Malaysia" campaign reminiscent of a nationalistic tirade in the 1960s. This time, mobs burned the Malaysian flag, which features a crescent moon and sun, and threw rotten eggs at the embassy in Jakarta. <>

“For days, protesters wielding sharpened bamboo sticks stopped traffic in search of Malaysian motorists and pedestrians. Six Indonesians were arrested. No one was injured, but the Malaysian Embassy complained about the safety of its citizens. Internet hackers attacked Malaysian government websites. One nationalist youth group began collecting signatures on the Internet for volunteers willing to go to war with Malaysia. Though the leaders of the youth group concede that such a face-off is extremely unlikely, they say they have stockpiled food, medicine and weapons such as samurai swords and ninja throwing-stars.” <>

The Straits Times reported: “The curious tiff between Malaysia and Indonesia defies rationality. Vigilante gangs in Indonesia have sought to "sweep" Malaysians out at roadblocks. Protesters have pelted the Malaysian embassy with bad eggs. These came about after Indonesians accused Malaysians of hijacking a Balinese dance for a promotional campaign on Malaysia. The affair is doubly irrational when one considers the fact that the error was committed not by Malaysia but by the widely watched cable Discovery Channel. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

Bitter Feelings Behind the Cultural War Between Malaysia and Indonesia

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Such high jinks baffle many Malaysians, not to mention Indonesians."These guys with pointed sticks, they're from the loony left," said Ong Hock Chuan, a Malaysian-born public relations consultant who lives in Jakarta. "If it wasn't Malaysia, they'd vent their anger at something else." But many others here say the resentment is widespread and runs deep. Newspapers run stories about mistreatment of some of the 2 million Indonesian workers by their bosses in Malaysia. Last year, Indonesia temporarily stopped sending maids to Malaysia until better security was provided for the workers. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2009 <>]

"Many who want to invade Malaysia are former migrant workers or people who know one," said Aleksius Jemadu, a political scientist at Pelita Harapan University in Indonesia. "There is a sense that Malaysians look down on us. They insult us. And to tell you the truth, many Indonesians are secretly envious because they view most Malaysians as being better off than us." The two governments also remain at loggerheads. "Each wants to be seen as the regional leader in Southeast Asia," he said. "They both claim to be the leading Muslim nation." <>

“The vitriol and bad feelings spill over into politics. Animosity rose this summer after two Jakarta hotels were bombed, an attack apparently planned by a Malaysian citizen linked to Al Qaeda, Noordin Mohammad Top, who was later killed. Ong, the Malaysian Indonesian consultant, writes on his blog that Indonesians should be angry at their own government "for doing so little to capitalize on their culture, which is varied and rich beyond description, and hence letting great opportunities slip away." But Ong says there is much blame to go around. The Malaysian government, he says, "needs to get off its high horse" and treat Indonesian officials as equals. For now, Histayanti says, she will continue to perform the pendet dance for all her customers -- even Malaysians. "I feel sorry for them," she said. "They're just jealous of us." <>

The Straits Times reported: “ Malaysia has progressed much faster than Indonesia and jobs are more plentiful than could be created in Indonesia for its much bigger population. The economic gap has resulted in a flood of surplus Indonesian workers into Malaysia to do '3D' (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) jobs in sectors such as construction, plantations and household help. Against this backdrop, ordinary Indonesians rile against being treated as second-class by their kinsmen. Some insensitive Malaysians exacerbate matters when they assert their position in the superior-subordinate relationship. The curious tiff between Malaysia and Indonesia defies rationality. Vigilante gangs in Indonesia have sought to "sweep" Malaysians out at roadblocks. [Source: The Straits Times, September 14, 2009]

“Both countries would do well to stress their common and shared cultural heritage, rather than allow their citizens to score nationalist points by declaring exclusive ownership of cultural symbols. As one Malaysian minister has noted, India did not make any noise about Hindi songs being sung in Malaysia and Indonesia. (To buttress the point, India has also never protested against the use of its great Ramayana and Mahabharata epics in Indonesia's wayang kulit.) [Ibid]

Malaysia’s Arrogance Versus Indonesia’s Envy

Endy M. Bayuni wrote in the Jakarta Post, ““Malaysians are arrogant, Indonesians are jealous” was how Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s foreign minister from 1988-1999, put it during a seminar that looked at relations between the two countries. He made this remark two years before his passing in 2009, when anti-Malaysian sentiments flared in the wake of near skirmishes between Indonesian and Malaysian naval ships in the disputed Ambalat block in the Sulawesi Sea. If Alatas was still with us today, he would surely have used the same explanation for the recent resumption of tensions between the two nations. [Source: Endy M. Bayuni, Jakarta Post, September 4, 2010 <<<<]

“Anyone looking for a rational explanation as to why two nations — which could not be more similar because of their shared Malay cultural roots — are at odds again for the umpteenth time can’t go wrong by remembering what Alatas said. The Malay commonality has made this relationship special, more so than with other neighbors such as Singapore, Australia and Timor Leste, with whom Indonesia has its share of disputes and tensions. But as the recent development illustrates, this Malay commonality has also become the source of a problem, especially when it is underpinned by the perceptions that one country is arrogant, and the other is envious. <<<<

“The series of spats in the relationship, from the Ambalat case to accusations of Malaysia’s theft of Indonesia’s cultural heritage to constant reports of abuses against Indonesian workers, contribute to the perception of Malaysian arrogance. Malaysia started its development at the same level as Indonesia in the 1970s and even received assistance from Indonesia, which sent teachers and lecturers to Malaysia. The fact that Malaysia today economically is far more successful than Indonesia makes the case for Indonesian jealousy. <<<<

“It is also for this reason that rather than the “love/hate” sentiment that usually develops between close friends, Indonesian and Malaysian relations today are looking more like the “hate/love” kind. Indonesian diplomats, whose task it is to resolve disputes with other countries, often jest that Indonesia has far better relations with Iceland than with its close neighbors Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. They are not wrong to use the total number of conflicts to measure the warmth of any relationship. <<<<

“One of the consequences of having a deep and intense relationship is that there are bound to be frictions. The more intense the relations, the more likely and frequent the frictions will be. This is exactly what is happening between Indonesia and Malaysia. Relations have become deeper, more intense and more complex. There are more than two million Indonesians working in Malaysia (of which half are undocumented), and thousands of Malaysians are also working in Indonesia, as well as investing in the Indonesian economy. The exchange of visits by people of the two countries is not only underpinned by the economic interests of the two countries, but it goes deeper to include social, cultural and even political interests. <<<<

“There will be more Indonesians arrested on criminal charges and facing death sentences, and there will be more Indonesians abused by their employers, given that there are two million Indonesians working in Malaysia. There may be more skirmishes in the disputed areas, and there may be more accusations of Malaysia stealing Indonesia’s cultural heritage. And there will be new issues emerging in the future. The task for any country is how to manage these frictions and prevent them from dragging on and becoming an open conflict.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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