Philippines-Malaysia relations

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar slams PH ‘attempts to claim Sabah’

Sofia Tomacruz
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar slams PH ‘attempts to claim Sabah’

Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim (C) speaks to journalists outside a hotel in Kuala Lumpur on February 29, 2020, before departing to the National Palace for an audience with Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

'Now is not the time for political grandstanding and unprovoked saber-rattling,' says Malaysian opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim slammed the Philippine government’s latest “attempts to claim” Sabah as its territory, asserting the area was “unequivocally a part of Malaysia.”

In a statement on Thursday, September 3, Anwar, who was previously poised to become Malaysia’s prime minister, said “Malaysians are united in defending every inch of our territory.”

Anwar was reacting to reports that suggested the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was planning to reestablish its North Borneo Affairs Office. 

“The attempts by some Philippines officials to question Malaysia’s sovereignty over Sabah are unwelcome,” Anwar said, adding he “supports efforts by our government to assert Malaysia’s territorial integrity in all regional and international bodies.” 

Who is Anwar Ibrahim?

Anwar, who was once the political rival of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, had been regarded as Mahathir’s successor after the two old rivals joined forces to oust the previous ruling government. 

Mahathir had promised to hand over the top position to Anwar after the two formed an alliance, though a date was never specified. But that coalition cracked earlier in February, reportedly due to “internal rivalries.”

After Mahatir unexpectedly resigned last March 1, it was Malaysian interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin who assumed the top post. 

Anwar has since been confirmed as opposition leader in Malaysia’s parliament. 

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Why this matters

Anwar’s statement is the latest in an unfolding spat between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah, a territory claimed by the Philippines but occupied by Malaysia. 

Although the Philippines has never relinquished its claim of sovereignty over Sabah, it has for the most part kept that claim dormant to maintain harmonious ties with Malaysia.

Despite this, the decades-old controversy was recently revived after Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr berated the US embassy for tweeting that America donated hygiene kits to Filipinos from “Sabah, Malaysia.”

Locsin’s tweet prompted Malaysia to summon a Philippine official, which the Philippines likewise did in response. 

Anwar stressed “now is not the time for political grandstanding and unprovoked saber-rattling.” He instead highlighted the two countries’ cooperation in addressing security issues as well as combating piracy, kidnapping, illegal immigration and terrorism that were “essential aspects” for the two Southeast Asian neighbors. 

“It is the time for an unwavering focus on fighting COVID-19, supporting the millions of poor and marginalized families impacted by the economic crisis, and charting a course for a new future that can be more peaceful and prosperous for the people of Malaysia and the Philippines,” he said. –

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at