MANILA (UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Malacañang, as the two leaders sought to reaffirm ties shadowed by a decades-long dispute over Sabah.
Mahathir is in the Philippines for a 2-day official visit upon Duterte’s invitation. The two leaders last met in July 2018 in Malaysia, where they further strengthened defense and security cooperation at the bilateral and regional level.
This is Mahathir's first official visit to the country since he returned as Malaysia's prime minister in May 2018, after a stunning election comeback in which he defeated the coalition that had ruled the nation for 6 decades since its independence from Britain.
In his previous stint as prime minister, Mahathir, now 93, undertook official visits to the Philippines in 1987 and 1994, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.
As he welcomed the Malaysian leader in Malacañang, Duterte said Mahathir’s visit was “a valuable opportunity to renew and reaffirm valued relations that must continue to grow in strength in the coming years.”
Mahathir, for his part, said his visit should “strengthen the relationship between Malaysia and the Philippines and also of course to promote the cause of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)."
In his joint statement with Duterte, Mahathir congratulated the Philippines for the ratification if the Bangsamoro Organic Law which paved the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), a political entity with greater political powers and wider fiscal autonomy compared to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
“Given the vast economic potential of this area, I believe with the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, we have to boost economic ties between both countries. I therefore assured Mr. President of Malaysia’s desire to continue to be of help in the development of Mindanao,” Mahathir said.
“I congratulated President Duterte on the success of the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and the appointment of members into the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. I look forward to the smooth transition of the ARMM through the interim government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao.”
Malaysia stood as third-party negotiator between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest Moro rebel group which is now transitioning to a political entity following the BOL’s ratification.
“The road leading to the historic transition to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region was paved in large part by the support of our international partners. Malaysia occupies a prominent role in this roster of friends. The good work will have to continue,” Duterte said.
PH-MALAYSIA ECONOMIC TIES
The two leaders also sought to improve the two neighboring countries’ economic ties, with Mahathir seeking to return the benefits Malaysia reaps from its trade with the Philippines.
Mahathir said there is still room for improvement in the two countries’ economic ties, noting that while trade between both countries are increasing, “they are largely in favor of Malaysia.”
“[From] my meeting with Mr. President, we would encourage private sectors from both countries to explore opportunities of collaboration and venture in new cooperation and investments,” Mahathir said.
The Philippines is ranked as Malaysia’s 15th largest trading partner globally and fourth largest trading partner among ASEAN member- countries, Mahathir noted.
He said he looks forward to the finalization and the signing of the memorandum of understanding on health between the Philippines and Malaysia.
He noted that Malaysia has been a “favorite” healthcare destination for the Philippines, with the number of patients from the Philippines seeking treatment in Malaysia increasing over the years.
Duterte, meanwhile, thanked Malaysia for its “robust support” for the Philippines’ Build Build Build program, citing Malaysian companies’ “active role” in the development of the sustainable and smart metropolis of Clark Green City.
NO SABAH ISSUE DISCUSSION
The two leaders did not discuss the thorny issue on Sabah dispute. Prior to meeting Duterte at the presidential palace, Mahathir made it clear he will not talk about the matter with his Filipino counterpart, stressing that the Philippines has no claim to the area.
In his toast during the state banquet in Malacañang, however, Mahathir said, “We know that there can be misunderstandings and conflicts between nations. But as far as the Philippines and Malaysia are concerned, we are able, we have always been able to overcome such conflicts and retain the relationship and a very high level of friendship.”
“We expect to do this. Malaysia expects to be friendly with the Philippines all the time and also we expect that we can extend any help that we may be able to extend to resolve some of the problems faced in the south of the Philippines island — in Mindanao,” he said.
“We know that such insurgencies only weaken nations. Only peace brings about wealth and prosperity. As long as there is result to conflicts and wars, there will be no development. And because there will be no development in a certain area, there will be disparities between different areas. And this, of course, stand in the way of good governance as well as development of the country.
Duterte said he and Mahathir discussed cooperation to address security issues, particularly on terrorism, piracy and transnational crimes, including the fight against the illegal drug trade.
They also had exchanges on people-to-people ties, including the promotion of reciprocal tourism, cooperation in health and education, as well as in the protection and promotion of the welfare of the two countries’ nationals.
The two discussed the South China Sea issue and emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight in the vital sea lane.
“Indeed, there is much to look forward to as we write a new chapter of cooperation between the Philippines and Malaysia. In closing, let me again say, the Philippines’ destiny is in ASEAN and in Asia. Asia’s destiny is in Asia,” Duterte said.