By Mohsin Abdullah
Deputy foreign minister Datuk Kamarudin Jaffar sees the Philippines claiming Sabah as part of it as this: it has always been an issue used by Filipino politicians for their benefit.
"This issue has always been politicized by politicians from Luzon on the pretext of patriotism when in reality it is only cosmetic to gain support from the people of southern Philippines," he was quoted by the New Straits Times as saying in the Parliament's special chamber recently.
Kamaruddin went on to say, "The matter usually arises when elections in the Philippines are near."
Many, if not most, of Kamarudin's political allies share his view that Filipino politicians use the issue to win support of the Filipino people.
Kamarudin and his friends are probably right. But how about our politicians? Are they using the Philippines' claim on Sabah to gain political support as well?
Consider this. Kamarudin's remarks came with the Sabah state election around the corner. Did he have an eye on the polls when he made the remarks?
One can only guess and speculate.
A day after the deputy foreign minister made the remarks, his political rival, caretaker Sabah chief minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, called on the federal administration to have a government-to-government talk with the Philippines through an Asean platform to solve Manila's never-ending claim on Sabah.
According to Shafie, the issue must be solved completely so it would not arise again, as "we don't want it to be considered a small matter, but if we don't stop it, it will escalate for the worse."
Was Shafie out to score political points for the coming election?
Say what you want, but the fact is his suggestion to the federal government makes sense.
But then Malaysia has always maintained that the Sabah claim is a non-issue and non-negotiable, and has therefore rejected calls, including those from the Philippines, to resolve the dispute in the International Court of Justice or ICJ.
Seizing the "opportunity", former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak took to Facebook to label Shafie's suggestion for government-to-government talks as "giving legitimacy to the Philippines claim", and called it Shafie's "big mistake which will trouble Sabah for a long time".
As expected, Najib's cousin foreign minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein also posted on Facebook a statement to say Shafie should be "more assertive and not yield to foreign claims that undermine Sabah's sovereignty".
To DAP's Liew Chin Tong, an ally of Shafie's Warisan-Plus coalition, it is appalling for Hishammuddin to take the cue from Najib to attack Shafie.
As he sees it, "this is nothing more than political opportunism", going on to say that "for Hishammuddin to attempt to turn this into an issue to portray himself as tough and Shafie as soft on the Philippines is utterly disgusting political opportunism".
There are more allegations and counter-allegations as what has or has not been done on the issue.
And Sabah BN leader Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin even went to the extent to say the phrase "In God We Trust" used on billboards that have Shafie's face on them resembling a slogan used in neighboring Philippines.
He was reportedly to have said that Shafie should not imitate words or slogans especially from a country that makes claim on Sabah.
News portal The Daily Express quoted Bung as saying, "Why does this sentence resemble the slogan of the neighboring country?"
Never mind the phrase "In God We Trust" is used by countries, organizations, sport teams and what-not the world over.
"Some parties are trying to paint Shafie as pro-Philippines or pro-migrants," says Sabah-born political analyst Dr Oh Ei Sun, without pointing fingers though.
According to Oh, there are attempts to "subtly coalesce the Filipino claims and mainly Filipino undocumented migrant issues and pin the blame on Shafie for allegedly selling out Sabah and opening its doors as well as legitimizing undocumented migrants, whereas it's the instigators who have been doing what they are trying to tar Shafie with at least for last half century".
But can it work?
"The urban crowd would see through this, but many Kadazan-Dusun and Murut communities in the interiors may be swayed," says Oh.
Ilham Center CEO Mohd Azlan Zainal puts it this way: Many Sabahans, he says, see this as an old issue which "has been resolved".
Information from the ground, he says, suggests that majority voters are critical of the contesting candidates while issues gaining traction are mostly people-related, like land ownership.
And of course, politicians hopping parties, or to put it crudely, political frogs. There is even a term coined for the occasion, so to speak -- "katakrasi", a blend of "katak" or frogs and "democracy".
Creative, I must say.
Whatever it is, the point is this: what Kamaruddin accuses Filipino politicians of doing, his fellow politicians here are also doing, i.e. using the Philippines claim on Sabah to win support.
Whether it works or not, it's another matter.
(Mohsin Abdullah is a veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.)