“Sabah! A Game of Diversion” by Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr.

A Game
of Diversion


Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr.

[Delivered “before a civic group” on October 5, 1968]

I consider it my high privilege to have been afforded this opportunity to address you and, through you, the Filipino people in this time of great danger and great challenge to us all as a nation.

You are the responsible and responsive Filipino youth—and the time demands of us response, quick response, but response forged and tempered with responsibility.

It was my plan to discuss with you the growing power of youth, not only in our country but the world over. And cognizant of this youth power, I intended to issue a call to youth to participate more actively in politics, in identifying our myriad national problems, and in searching for the elusive solutions.

The role of youth, I submit, is not merely to bewail the national maladies but also to prescribe the cures.

However, the events of the past weeks made me set this aside, made me shelve my thinking on youth power for another day and instead to speak to you of the crisis problem of the day—Sabah.

Among the first acts of Mr. Marcos when he assumed the presidency in 1966 was to recognize the Federation of Malaysia, state his predecessor, Mr. Macapagal, refused to recognize “till the Sabah question is resolved.”

Marcos’ Passion

In those early days of 1966, it appeared Mr. Marcos wanted to set his ship of state on calmer waters and was content to simply leave the claim in the docket while he cultivated our Asian neighbors and sought to build an image of Asian leader. President Johnson called him “my right arm in Asia,” and in keeping with that role, Mr. Marcos tried vainly to cultivate the “Asian leader image”—thereby to be more effective as the “right arm” of the American leader in our region.

Mr. Johnson has since faded from the scene. And as a lameduck President, he has contented himself of late to playing no longer with the leaders of the world but instead with his daughters’ children.

And in the Philippines, after 1,000 days of improvisation and misrule, things have failed to jell well for Mr. Marcos. The promised Great-Again Society has wobbled, fumbled, and gotten into a bog.

I cannot say when the hex of Mr. Marcos started. Maybe future historians will point to the Corregidor massacres.

This has marked a New Era, however. Before, leaders were happy to steal money. Now, they not only steal money but they steal lives!

Rats and worms, floods and killer earthquakes, flu epidemics and death came on the heels of the Corregidor killings. Tight credit was further tightened, and scarce foreign exchange reserves continued to dwindle.

And then, from the floors of the Senate, the Filipino people were informed of monumental graft cases involving multimillion-peso on multibillion-peso public works contracts.

Taken in this context, it is understandable why Mr. Marcos is in desperate need to arrest public unrest, divert public attention from his failures to check the spiraling cost of living, our rampaging criminality, and an almost complete breakdown of our law and order. Clearly, the growing wrath of the people must be diverted, public emotion must be canalized into something else!

And so, like Sukarno of Indonesia, why not conjure a foreign devil?

Why not Malaysia?

Why not Sabah?

This we may forgive as a harried and harassed Chief Executive’s act in domestic political desperation, except that Mr. Marcos’ acts bode grave peril.

For the last several days, Mr. Marcos has spoken daily on the subject, and what I read alarms me.

I read in it, fellow youth, reckless adventure—the same stripe of amoral high adventure that led to the sorry Corregidor Jabidah massacres.

I read in it a willful and cynical design to set us on an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Malaysia, a game of nerves likely to set the two countries on a fearsome collision course.

I see in it, in other words, the same vile Sukarno play: to put on and turn on, agitate and inflame, the people.

Mr. Marcos’ pronouncements, I am afraid, leave little room for any other reading and interpretation. It is there daily.

A review of his statements of the past week shows a switch from civilized reason to induced passion, from a posture of conciliation to a warlike position.

At first he implored, he coaxed, he cajoled. And I applauded.

Then he angered and slashed and lashed at the Malaysians. And rightly, I agreed, considering how our flag was desecrated.

But then, he played to the mob, switched his attack to the big powers as the mob vented its ire on the U.S. and the British. He was going to be, he likely decided, the hour’s big man.

And so, still playing to the mob, he pictured a conspiracy among the United Kingdom, the United States, and—most far-fetched—the Soviet Union to keep Sabah where it is, to keep the territory from our reach.

At this point, I disagreed with him.

A conspiracy between Whitehall and “KL”, I will agree. A conspiracy among Britain, Malaysia, and the United States, this may be a possibility. But a conspiracy including the Soviet Union, this is beyond the pale of reason!

A Slogan of Hate

And in a further acceleration of his hate-all campaign, he next pronounced, and I quote him: “If the Malaysians step on Philippine soil, I will lead this country to war.”

The statement is gratuitous. For it goes without saying that as Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces, he has to lead us if we are invaded. This gratuitous statement is pure, simple, and irresponsible rousing of the rabble!

Mr. Marcos has turned Sabah into a slogan of hate, a battlecry of indignation, a call to arms!

He has purposely infected our people with righteous wrath, inflamed them with indignant rage, keyed them to make of this dispute a question of honor trampled, of peace or war!

But why? And for what?

Is Sabah truly that: a problem we can resolve only by arms and not by reason?

Are we truly no longer afforded the path of reason and must now trod the road of passion?

I am afraid the President has, as a Manila columnist sharply noted, lost his cool.

Mr. Marcos could have taken the sober and statesmanlike stand in the face of Malaysian unreason and emotional outburst, and displayed to the world a sober and mature Philippines.

Mr. Marcos, for example, could have told the Malaysians and the world, in clear and definitive terms, that the Philippine government position as embodied in the recent law that caused all the rhubarb was nothing new at all.

The provision in question is merely a reiteration of a standing policy and position enunciated by our government not only in congressional resolutions but also in diplomatic notes communicated to the British and Malaysian governments on various occasions.

He could have explained the new Philippine law as Sen. Juan R. Liwag succinctly explained it:

“There is nothing in the law which has physically incorporated or annexed Sabah to the territory of the Philippines. The law does not provide for an effective annexation of Sabah. This was not intended by our lawmakers. The law does not delineate Sabah to form part of Philippine territory for the present. The provision in question merely provides for a future delineation of the baselines of the territorial sea covering Sabah if and when the territory shall have come within our physical control.”

I am sure the Malaysians would recoil in shame for their emotional outbursts once given this clarification by no less than our President Marcos. The Malaysians would have been exposed as emotionally unstable and politically immature before the peoples of the world.

To ape the Malaysians in their misbehavior did not speak well of ourselves. And for Mr. Marcos to out-Tungku the Tungku in the Tungku’s outbursts of emotion is reprehensible!

The problem calls for arbitration, negotiation, and discussion, but Mr. Marcos has set us on a course of passion!

War or peace, he and his propagandists have made it!

As this juncture, I address the President: Mr. Marcos, do you really want war?

Have we fallen really into bad days, into a bankruptcy of leadership, that we must now flex our muscles and talk of war in the pursuit of a legal claim?

Or have you really bungled this claim so badly, as some say after the Bangkok talks, that you must now resort to uncivilized norms, like argumentation by force, to cover your failures and come out looking good?

Sukarno Is Lesson

And I say to you additionally: Take heed of history, Mr. President.

History shows the Italians were a happy, singing, spaghetti-eating people until one Benito Mussolini, who called himself Il Duce, took over, whipped them up with visions of a modern-day conquering Roman Legion, gave them back the salute of the Caesars, invaded Abyssinia, Libya, and Ethiopia—and thereby set his Italy straight to doom. Germany, vanquished in World War I, was well on the way to recovery until one Adolf Hitler, an ex-Army corporal and ex-house painter, ascended to power, conned the Junkers and mesmerized the German people with his grand design: a Third Reich peopled by supermen ruling the world. Hitler led his Reich straight to disaster.

Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, a living Egyptian folk hero, sought to weld the Arab world and establish Egyptian primacy by taking on the defiant Jews. The Jews were no longer the hapless people of Biblical times, however, and Nasser, et al, are still licking their wounds.

To bring us closer to our home and our problem, there is Bung Karno, father of his country, as another example. Sukarno was Big Brother to all the Indonesians, was elevated to President-for-Life by his people, and was a demigod of sorts—until he outplayed himself.

When Indonesia’s domestic problems went from bad to worse, Sukarno resorted to the dictator’s traditional tool: pick a foreign devil, a whipping dog, and fan public hate against this target-demon. In other words, the tested game of mass agitation and diversion.

Sukarno’s devil, as it turned out, was “nekolim” (neocolonialism). Into this unholy role the Bung first committed the discomfitted Dutch when he laid claim to West Irian, the western half of New Guinea, a territory lifted out of the history book’s chapters on prehistory. As it developed, it was a correct pick Sukarno took.

The Dutch, as it developed, were in no mood to get into a protracted international rhubarb—much more into open conflict—over the God-forsaken place. And Sukarno won his domestic points.

So successful was Sukarno in West Irian he could launch Indonesia forthwith into konfrontasi with Malaysia over Kalimantan (Borneo) and tell his people:

“Look, many countries in Asia are in fact not standing on their own power, are not relying on their own force. These countries may look prosperous but live on help, live on aid, live on money poured on them by another country. When these countries lose these supports, they will collapse. The Indonesian nation does not want to become such a country, my brothers…

“No mendicancy! Self-reliance! No mendicancy!”

As it turned out, mendicancy was a real part of Indonesian life American, Soviet, and Chinese Communist aid propped up Indonesia even while Sukarno denounced this and asked his people to keep on tightening their belts.

It was, in Sukarno’s words, the “politics of crisis.” It was good for a while, but where is Sukarno today?

Unhappily for Indonesia, Sukarno left behind a country in shambles, an economy in chaos, and a people in utter need to rehabilitate and ameliorate.

This is what Sukarno, konfrontasi, and the hate-all drive brought to the Indonesians.

Brinkmanship is a calculated gamble! And costly!

War is even worse. It is man-made horror and terror, the optimum in man’s inhumanity to his fellow man!

Anguish, despair, grief, calamity, and tragedy in a mass scale—these have, as a matter of fact, sobered up the superpowers not to be rash, but instead to try and strike accord even when their smouldering problems seemed to defy solution.

I am sure Filipino courage will not flag, love of country will not run cold, and life and limb, blood and sweat, will not be denied our country by her sons if the Malaysians invade us—with or without Mr. Marcos leading or exhorting us.

But to play now, at this time, Sukarno’s risky game of konfrontasi, Sukarno’s politics of crisis, is—I must protest—needless and pointless. It is idiocy!

Over What?

And over what?

Over, it would seem, an exercise in futility.

At the risk of being misread and misrepresented, at the risk of being misconstrued and misunderstood, allow me to spell out my thinking on Sabah.

I believe all this fuss and all this excitement is nothing more than an exercise in futility and we are being brainwashed to wage a campaign of hate and possibly war over a territory we surely will never want to get—if we abide by our holy preambles and prime principles as a people.

We have enshrined in Article II, Sec. 1 of our Constitution that “sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.”

And here lies the most basic flaw in our claim to Sabah.

The people of Sabah have chosen to be a self-governing state within the Federation of Malaysia. Granting that we have a historic and legal claim to that piece of precious real estate, can our claim be more superior to the will of the people of Sabah?

I say this is an exercise in futility because assuming, for the sake of argument, that we finally succeed in getting physical possession of Sabah after so much effort, we would then be bound by our solemn commitments to recognize the cardinal principle of self-determination. Hence, after so much effort and so much sacrifices, we will have to turn around and give to the Sabahans what they now possess—their freedom and their right to govern themselves.

Speaking through President Macapagal, the Philippine government in 1963 told the world:

“In laying claim to North Borneo in pursuance of the legal and historic rights and security interests of the Philippines, we recognize the cardinal principle of self-determination of which the Philippines has been a steadfast adherent. In the prosecution of our valid claim, it is agreeable to us that at an appropriate time, the people of North Borneo should be given an opportunity to determine whether they would wish to be independent or whether they would wish to be part of the Philippines or be placed under another state. Such referendum, however, should be authentic and bona fide by holding it under conditions, preferably supervised by the United Nations, that would insure effective freedom to the people of North Borneo to express their true and enlightened will.”

In clear and unmistakeable terms, the Philippines has renounced any ambitions to become a neo-colonialist. Furthermore, over and above any legal or historic claim, the Philippines recognizes the true and enlightened will of the people of North Borneo to be superior to any other rights.

A host of new countries has joined, since World War II, the community of nations by this great innovative political process, by this process of self-determination. And each time a new state knocked on the U.N.’s door, we were either co-sponsor or proctor. In any case, we were always there in every instance to applaud and welcome.

Issue Is Self-Determination

In Sabah’s case, as is and where is, can we single-mindedly press this claim—reintegration, by our claim; annexation, by the others’—with a sense of morality?

Can we push this unswervingly, without relent and without conceding the Sabahans their basic human rights, and yet keep our heads high and unbowed by shame?

Let our record as a people, as a once-subject people, stand. And by this, let our ethics be judged.

Here, in a brief rundown, is our record:

First, when we were a colony, we waged our struggle for independence on one soul-stirring assertion: our right to a status of our own choice, our right to our own government, our right to be free. In other words, our right to self-determination.

Against this clamor, the United States had to bow, despite the fact that U.S. sovereignty and title over the islands were beyond dispute in international law. The U.S. had right over us, a right by conquest and by cession.

Second, when we joined the United Nations, we adhered to the U.N. Charter, Chapter 1, Article 1, Paragraph 2 of which bound us to “respect the principle of self-determination of peoples.” This was clear and concise, commanding and compelling, and to this we gave our solemn word.

Third, as a U.N. member, we joined in the “Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories.” This changed the relations between colonial rulers and subject peoples from master and servant to trustee and ward, with a view to readying them for self-determination. By this, the colonies became U.N. trust territories—and this we accepted and applauded.

By these, as by other acts, we have placed ourselves foursquare against colonialism, against colonialism of any hue, color or stripe, and for the right of all peoples, as a basic human right, to choose and opt for a government and a system of their liking.

My point is: Can we rightly, given this national background, be unmovingly obstinate, obdurate and intransigent in pressing and pushing this territorial claim?

Can we morally, again given this national background, stonily tell the Sabahans, “You are ours, like it or not”?

But what is the will, what is the wish, of the Sabahans?

In December 1962, the North Borneo legislative council elections were held. A total of 111 seats were contested, of which 96 were won by candidates who favored a self-governing state within the then projected Federation of Malaysia, a few favored complete independence, but none championed annexation by—or, as we pictured it, return to—the Philippines.

A U.N. survey, commissioned by the three Maphilindo states, affirmed the Sabah polls’ verdict. It was the Sabahans’ will, U.N. Secretary General U Thant reported, to assume self-government and join Malaysia as a constituent state.

Again, in April 1967, an election was held in Sabah, purposely to show the Indonesians, now under General Suharto, and the Philippines, too, where the Sabahan heart lay. Of the 32 Sabah assemblymen elected, 31 rejected the Philippine claim.

This, I must now stress, is not a brief for Malaysia. This is a politically perilous position I take—not out of timidity, not out of subservience, not out of moral bankruptcy. This is a position taken in the spirit of our own holy political writs, in the ultimate interest and glory of our own country!

We must restore our peso to stability, improve productivity, combat illiteracy and provide educational opportunity to all—to bring abundance to all—not sap our vitality with so much bellicosity.

We must train our manpower in production, not send them headlong to their destruction.

We must devote the major portion of our resources to social construction, not spend whatever little we have on the tools of annihilation.

Unless social reforms are made, unless we afford opportunity to all, unless all are allowed to share in whatever prosperity our land brings forth, we, the leadership, shall have failed.

The real challenge to us, therefore, is from within, not from without. Are we going to be our own main enemy?

I am afraid, however, President Marcos is minded otherwise. Caught in a web of errors, he now seeks to wash all these away in hysteria over threatening war he himself has set off.

Duty, Not Expediency!

Countrymen, I deplore this. I deplore this as an act of political expediency placed over and above responsibility in duty!

Let us not cover up our inadequacies and failures with ugly war clouds we ourselves induce, but instead make up for our shortcomings and errors with fresh, sincere, dedicated efforts. This, I hold, is true, selfless and patriotic leadership.

Leadership demands, Mr. President—if I may address you again—that we do not lose sight of the more compelling fact: that our real problems are domestic. Soaring prices, grinding poverty, mounting joblessness galloping crime, unabashed graft, inept government—these are our real problems!

And these are monstrous problems, and they need a total effort by our people, a commitment of towering dimension.

And so, I submit, we must marshal our resources and enlist our collective energies in the great task of restructuring our social patterns and leading our people to progress, not mobilize them in a vain war effort.

I am afraid, however, Mr. Marcos’ main interest here is self-help, not service to country. I see in this, and I deplore it, a bald attempt at mass deception—to hoodwink the poor people, the little people, out of the hopes he had held aloft with golden promises he now could not keep.

Already, he has given indication. In Baguio last week, he told the North’s leaders, his own Solid North leaders, he could not give as much patronage as he had promised because Sabah impelled him to give top priority to military spending.

And in that brief statement, down went in the order of priorities the ballyhooed Marcos infrastructures, and up went defense spending—”by two knots,” he said.

And he asked the people to tighten their belts.

This, as I read it, is the real reason behind Mr. Marcos’ Malaysia bogeyman: a need to have a plausible and believable way out of his certain failure to make good his aborted grand public projects and stillborn big political promises.

I see in this a brazen attempt to unhook himself off the stirring promises he until recently was making to the barrios: the P100 million rural development program, perhaps.

I see in this a vile attempt to smokescreen the continuing collapse of our monetary system, a collapse evidenced by refusal of both the United States and the Eurodollar countries to give him further credits.

I Believe, But…

I believe in the validity of our claim to Sabah per se.

I believe we must pursue our claim to a legal end in the International Court of Justice, that the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu or their assignees and successors in interests must in any case be compensated.

I believe in upholding the national patrimony and national dignity against any and all odds, but I hold we are called upon, as the leaders, to caution against acts of rashness.

I believe in country—”My country, right or wrong,” as somebody said—but I must take issue with those who will plunge us into undue tragedy by selfish motives.

As the Liberal Party has positioned itself, again speaking through Sen. Juan R. Liwag, I say to Mr. Marcos:

“We, from the Opposition, express the wish that the critical situation now prevailing between the Philippines and Malaysia be not taken advantage of by this present administration to further its political claims. It is likewise hoped that the President would not find this crisis between our two neighboring countries as a justification for the use of extraordinary powers under the Constitution, such as the imposition of martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and other forms of curtailment of civil liberties of our citizens. Finally, let not this critical situation be exploited by this administration to cover up the evils of our present leadership, such as overpricing, kickbacks and all sorts of corruption in government, the corroding peace and order problem, the economic deterioration, and all other shapes of misgovernment which are the real issues against this administration.”

We have shown a capacity to endure stoically and stolidly when faced with adversity, but need we afflict our people with calamity and tragedy needlessly?

We have shown we can be revolted and revulsed, but need we yield to blind passion, to rage, over reaction to something I we started in the first place?

Our courage, our valor, and our love of country were tested under enemy fire in Bataan, Corregidor, and the hills around Batac, but need we sacrifice our youth and our future in an exercise in futility?

The need, Mr. President, is reason, not arson; sanity, not madness. And war, I dare say, is the optimum in madness.

If we must, let us pursue this claim in a spirit of conciliation, not wrath; and let us seek a solution in friendship, not by force of arms.

Let us not even think of taking up the implements of war, the tools of violence and killing, but labor instead for an honorable settlement at the conference table, in the council of nations, in the world court, or in whatever forum and wherever place it may be.

But most importantly, let us together—the Malaysians and us—strive for a settlement that will give paramount value to the will of the people of Sabah themselves.

Aquino, Benigno S.. A Garrison State in the Make and Other Speeches. Legaspi Village, Makati, Metro Manila: Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. Foundation, 1985. Print.