Taking a sabbatical

One of the shrillest voices ever to join the Greek chorus regarding the issue on the West Philippine Sea was that of former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. Styling himself as a foremost “expert” on the subject, Carpio broke with the tradition of judicial restraint when — even as a sitting member of the High Tribunal — he went not only around the country, but even all over the world, speaking on the topic. And when he retired from the Court and was thus no longer fettered by the constraints of public office, he attacked the matter with greater vigor.

Coming in a close second was Albert del Rosario who, making capital of his having been a former Foreign Secretary, took every opportunity to glorify his former boss Noynoy Aquino for the supposed “historic ruling.” Adding to the affray was a slew of pseudo-intellectuals who faulted President Duterte for not being gung-ho enough in pressing for our “rights” given under the ruling.

So, it strikes many as odd that these same people who want us to practically go to war over a decision that others say is nebulous at best are so quiet over a landmark victory handed to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu over something that has festered the national psyche all these years: The question of Sabah.

Briefly, the problem stemmed from a contract signed by the Sulu Sultanate over Sabah with the British North Borneo Company. The Sultanate claims the contract was a lease; Malaysia says the Sultanate ceded the land to the company and, thus, to Malaysia when it became the successor-in-interest. But then, Malaysia is on record as paying rentals over the same territory and so, to paraphrase Shakespeare, therein lies the rub.

The rubbing persisted, and the resulting friction began to chafe relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur. It was said that in 1968, when the Philippines was still a regional military power to reckon with, President Ferdinand Marcos tried to hatch a plan to invade Sabah. Things allegedly went south when the soldiers tasked with the invasion mutinied. And in 2013, poorly-armed partisans of the Sultanate launched an ill-conceived attack aimed to “liberate” Sabah, which ended in tragedy and casualties for both the attackers and the Malaysia army.

Things took a twist when a French arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Sultan’s heirs and awarded them a munificent monetary award of almost $15 billion (US!) for Sabah. The triumphant lawyers of the Sultanate lost no time in seizing Malaysian assets all over the globe as the Malaysian government scrambled to protect its properties.

The descendants of the Sultan have appealed to the new government for help in collecting the award, and the Marcos administration is reportedly studying their plea.

But going back to the West Philippine Sea warriors Carpio and Del Rosario and their ilk, why are they so silent on the issue?

The decision of the French arbitration court in Paris favoring the Sultanate of Sulu is, at the very least, no less authoritative than that of the Permanent Court of Arbitration as regards the West Philippine Sea, although in both cases, the losing party expectedly refuses to recognize the ruling. The heirs of the Sultan, however, see no succor from Carpio and company. No scholarly papers coming from them, no jingoistic jabber, and definitely no traipsing around the world to rally support.

Adlai Stevenson once said that “true patriotism is not manifested in short, frenzied bursts of emotion,” but it is rather “the tranquil, steady dedication of a lifetime.” One cannot be nationalistic in one thing and indifferent in another when both concern the national interest.

Unluckily for the Sultanate, when it came to Sabah, the self-declared champions of the country’s weal seemed to have taken a sabbatical.


Ferdinand S. Topacio had been a multi-hyphenate long before the term was invented. Best known for being a lawyer (to two former presidents, actors and actresses, business moguls and high-profile individuals), he is also a professional jazz singer and bandmaster (The Jazz Wholes), radio commentator (“Yes Yes Yo! Topacio!” over DWIZ) and a published writer. The latest hat he wears is that of an impresario (Borracho Films), who has managed to churn out three major movies and a concert even during the pandemic.

After a stint in government for an aggregate of nine years in various capacities, Topacio has chosen, since 2001, to focus on continuing his father Arturo’s legacy, the Topacio Law Office (founded 1962), a boutique law firm that has a small but highly select clientele. From there, he and his partners try their best to fight unbeatable foes, oftentimes succeeding.

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