Philippines-Malaysia relations

From one Marcos to another: Malaysia’s Anwar promises enhanced ties with PH

Bea Cupin

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From one Marcos to another: Malaysia’s Anwar promises enhanced ties with PH

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos host Malaysian Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his wife, First Lady Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail to Malacañang during Anwar's official visit to the Philippines from March 1-2, 2023.

Bongbong Marcos Facebook

While in Manila, the Malaysian Prime Minister draws attention to the human rights situation in Myanmar even as there are unresolved human rights issues in his host country, too

MANILA, Philippines – Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim vowed on Wednesday, March 1, to “not only reaffirm but to enhance” ties with the Philippines during his administration and that of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Anwar, who was in Manila for a two-day official visit, made the statement in a joint press conference with Marcos after their bilateral meeting in Malacañang. He was also feted to a dinner banquet hosted by the Philippine president that day.

Speaking before the media in Malacañang, Marcos said the two leaders “[reaffirmed] our two countries’ desire to revitalize relations as we traverse past the pandemic then through the years towards a new normal.”

“President Marcos Jr., let me assure you that the new administration in Malaysia will be more than happy to further enhance this collaboration,” said Anwar in response.

Anwar, who became Malaysia’s prime minister in November 2022, is the first head of government to visit the Philippines under the Marcos administration. Anwar has been to several countries already ahead of Manila – Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Thailand, and earthquake-hit Turkey.

In his remarks at the joint press briefing, Anwar shared that his first-ever visit to Malacañang was as a young agriculture minister, and that Marcos’ father and namesake was president at the time.

“I must reiterate again that I was first here in Malacañan Palace when President Marcos was the president, as the young Minister of Agriculture, and how pleased I am to be back here with Marcos Jr. Bongbong to be there,” he said.

Anwar had previously praised the late senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. – the political foe of Marcos Sr. Aquino’s killing set off a series of events culminating in the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution that ended the Marcos dictatorship and sent the Marcos family, including the current president, in exile.

Promises and commitments

Marcos and Anwar agreed to continue existing cooperations on political and security matters, and also to “rekindle” joint commission meetings between the two countries. The last meeting was held in 2011. On the economic front, the two countries agreed on “reinvigorating” trade exchanges, particularly involving the halal industry, agriculture and food security, and the digital economy.

Anwar also committed to continue helping the peace process in Mindanao. Malaysia is one of several countries that have, through the years, aided in the peace process in the Southern Philippines.

The Malaysian leader praised Marcos for the “strides” he made in the Mindanao peace process under his presidency – though much of this was achieved during past administrations. “It has to succeed in the interest of the Philippines and Malaysia and the region and then utilize this enormous potential to the benefit of our people,” said Anwar.

On the South China Sea, where China’s aggression has only intensified, Anwar said he and Marcos agreed to “engage and take the position at a multilateral level between ASEAN so that we have a comprehensive approach and achieve an amicable resolution to this outstanding problem.” Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.

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What was not said

Notably absent from Anwar and Marcos’ discussion was the Philippines’ dormant claim to Sabah.

To this day, the claim has not been dropped although Philippine presidents, through the decades, have stayed mum on the issue. Even Marcos has not said a word about Sabah – even before Anwar’s visit, even when asked by Philippine media.

Marcos’ father, in 1968, plotted to retake the resource-rich gem: Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr.

It was in March 1968, 55 years before Anwar’s visit, when the Philippine military under Marcos Sr. massacred young Muslim recruits who were being trained to invade Sabah. The Jabbidah Massacre and the failed plan to invade Sabah, called Oplan Merdeka, was exposed by a former war journalist, Senator Ninoy Aquino, on March 28, 1968.

The massacre would spark the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao – wounds that Malaysia has been key is mending.

Marcos Sr. tried to drop his claim in 1977, announcing before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that he was “taking definite steps to eliminate one of the burdens of ASEAN – the claim of the Philippine Republic to Sabah.”

Yet neither the elder Marcos nor the presidents after him have “managed to take those ‘definite steps’ to abandon the claim to Sabah, at least not in terms acceptable to Malaysia,” according to the late ambassador Rodolfo Severino.

Ties between the Philippines and Malaysia have certainly normalized through the years. Malaysia was the Philippines’ 10th major trading partner, 11th top export market, and 9th import supplier in 2021.

ASEAN and human rights

On the last day of his official visit on Thursday, March 2, the University of the Philippines (UP) conferred Anwar the degree of Doctor of Laws Honoris Causa for his work on Jose Rizal, among others.

He referenced Rizal, as he called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to confront human rights issues in junta-led Myanmar, saying “non-interference is not a license for indifference,” referring to the bloc’s core principle.

Myanmar is a thorny issue in ASEAN, with Marcos himself admitted that Myanmar’s place in the bloc – that is, whether it should still be invited to high-level gatherings or if it should remain a member at all – was “contentious” during the last gathering at Phnom Penh in November 2022.

“It bears repeating these immortal lines from Dr. Rizal, who I must reiterate, remains truly an Asian Renaissance Man, that ‘Justice is the foremost virtue of the civilizing races. It subdues the barbarous nations, while injustice arouses the weakest,’” said Anwar at UP, who was gifted an early edition of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere during his visit to Malacañang.

Over a decade ago under a different Philippine president, Anwar reminded an audience at UP that “without freedom and justice, prosperity is unsustainable and limited to the powerful and well-connected,” again drawing from the world of Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino.

Anwar, who was then deputy prime minister, said in 2011: “As Asia moves on and more and more of its member nations embrace freedom and democracy, then these erring states will find themselves increasingly isolated and one day will succumb. Let’s hope that day can come sooner than later.”

There are human rights issues in Manila, too – most glaringly, atrocities during Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship and drug war killings under the previous president, Rodrigo Duterte, with whom Marcos Jr. is allied with. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.