By M. Veera Pandiyan
The Star/Asia News Network
The Philippines' claim to Sabah, a thorny issue dating back to the 15th century, is back in the spotlight.
Mr Rodrigo Duterte, the country's tough-talking President-elect, has vowed to pursue it.
"We have to stake our claim," he said last week, in response to a question during one of his late-night media conferences in Davao, the largest city in Mindanao, where he has been mayor for 22 years.
The statement drew irate responses from the Malaysian Government and leaders of Sabah, but in Cebu where I was last week, it hardly made the news.
The remarks were part of Mr Duterte's tough talk to assert the country's claims over disputed territories, including the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea, where China has rival claims.
On Sabah, Mr Duterte said he would recognise the claim of the Sulu Sultanate, which used to rule over parts of southern Philippines and the Borneo state before it joined to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
Three years ago, followers of the late self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III invaded Lahad Datu in Sabah to claim their rights over the land.
The standoff resulted in 68 deaths - 56 Sulu sultanate fighters, nine Malaysian security personnel and six civilians.
But how serious is Mr Duterte, who is known for making jokes and sarcastic remarks, about reviving the claim?
According to Cotabato governor Emmanuel "Manny" Pinol, the incoming Department of Agriculture Secretary, the president-elect's position in supporting the so-called Sulu Sultanate's rights over Sabah did not mean making a territorial claim over Sabah, which was leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878. This even though the self-proclaimed Sultan and his heirs argue that Sabah was given to them by the then Sultan of Brunei for the quelling an uprising in the 1600s.
In a recent Facebook posting, Mr Pinol said Mr Duterte was of the opinion that the status quo could not be undone, as Sabah is a state of Malaysia and that the people there had already expressed their preference to stay with Malaysia via a referendum.
However, he said Mr Duterte noted that Malaysia was still paying RM 5,300 (S$1,773.5) yearly to the heirs of the so-called Sultan, as "cession" payment for the land, which his descendants consider as still theirs but underpajak (lease).
Mr Duterte has also been quoted as saying that the issue could be resolved through bilateral negotiations between two nations belonging to the same Malay race.
But then again, the brash and blunt 71-year-old President-elect who has many nicknames - "DU30", "Digong" "Rody", "Duterte Harry" and the '"Punisher", among others - is an unpredictable enigma.
The macho candidate swept to power in the country of 102 million people on a promise to wipe out crime within six months, brazenly declaring that dead criminals would be dumped into Manila Bay, fattening the fish in the sea.
Other elected officials quickly jumped onto the Duterte bandwagon.
Mr Tomas Osmena, the mayor of Cebu City whom I met during the trip, for example, declared that he would offer a bounty to the police for each criminal killed.
He said would not care if the move would encourage vigilantism in Cebu, where crime has doubled in recent years.
"I will not compromise the safety of my people. I don't care who gets in the way," Mr Osmena said after handing out 50,000 pesos (S$1,472.9) to a policeman who shot two suspected robbers.
The most noticeable thing about Mr Duterte is that he doesn't care about appearances or being politically correct.
The divorcee with a mistress openly admits to being a womaniser and has no qualms about kissing female supporters in public.
He is also notorious for showering expletives in interviews and making sick jokes, like the one about an Australian female missionary who was raped and shot during a hostage-taking incident by prisoners in Davao in 1989.
"I was angry because she was raped. That's one thing. But she was so beautiful. As mayor, I should have been first," he joshed during the campaign.
The gun and motorcycle-loving strongman later apologised for saying this but has shown no similar remorse for his tough stance on fighting crime and corruption.
Among his strong credentials include cleaning up Davao, a former cesspool of crime, into one of the safest and most prosperous cities in Asia.
But his methods have been strongly condemned by human rights groups who accuse the mayor of being the hidden hand behind mysterious vigilante death squads which are believed to have killed more than 1,000 people.
Although his brutal means appear contemptibly unlawful, they seem to resonate with citizens who are weary of the crimes and corruption vexing the country for decades.
He is also popular because of his proposal to change the country's system of administration towards "federalism", under which regions would be allowed to keep 70 per cent of their revenue and remit only 30 per cent to the central Government.
Mr Duterte won much support for denouncing the current system under which local Governments send all of their revenue to the central Government and get 40 per cent of taxes collected, as grossly unfair.
There is no doubt that Mr Duterte is hugely popular in spite of his bizarre persona and usage of foul language, even towards the clergy.
"You sons of w*****, aren't you ashamed?" he said in his latest tirade last week in which he described the church as the "most hypocritical institution".
But surprisingly, the majority in the predominantly Catholic country do not appear to be outraged by his remarks.
In Cebu, where his family originates, almost everyone I spoke to shrugged off the remarks against the church.
Most said they were looking forward to June 30 when he would formally take his oath as president for a six-year term.