The joke in Sabah is there are so many claimants to the sultan of Sulu throne that every other datu (of Sulu royalty) you meet is a sultan-wannabe.
In the 2000s, there was a datu who made the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu in Kota Kinabalu his office. “Sultan R” wore all white and a songkok with the crest of the Sulu sultanate. He told anybody who would listen that he was the real claimant. And like other “genuine” claimants, he would have in his James Bond bag a chart to show his royal genealogy.
Those who believed his claims would be sorry they ever met him, as they would be conned into some scam connected to the romance of the lost sultanate.
At the height of its power in the 16th century, the Sultanate of Sulu covered Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Sibugay, Palawan and North Borneo (Sabah).
Since the death of Sultan Mahakutta Kiram in 1986, the Philippine government has not formally recognised a new sultan of Sulu. This gave birth to uncountable pretenders to the throne of the once mighty sultanate.
In 2011, Sabah chief minister Musa Aman said the state government did not recognise the Sulu sultanate.
“Let the relevant authorities take appropriate action,” he said in reference to a case where a businessman caused uproar in Sabah when he was allegedly proclaimed as the sultan of Sulu. Photographs of the purported installation of Datu Mohd Akjan Datu Ali Muhammad in his house in Kampung Likas in Kota Kinabalu were published in the newspapers and posted on the Internet. Akjan later denied he was crowned sultan of Sulu.
There was also a claimant who made the lobby of the Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu his office. He claimed to be a nephew of a so-and-so Kiram.
“He is a slimy character,” a senior Sabah journalist told me. “He tries to show that he is living the high life. But somehow he will manage to squeeze some money from you.”
It seems these pretenders will either be Kiram I, Kiram II, Kiram III, Kiram IV or Kiram X.
Then you have the sultan of Sulu and North Borneo. He and others who have claimed the non-existence of the royal family for themselves, have conferred honorific titles on Malaysians despite controversy surrounding the legitimacy of the titles.
In 2010, in a rented boardroom in Kuala Lumpur, Putra Eddy T Sulaiman, who called himself “executive secretary and Keeper of the Royal Seal for the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”, presented the titles Justice of Peace and Darjat Kebesaran Kesultanan Sulu to several Malaysians.
There are more claimants to the sultan of Sulu throne in the Philippines, especially in Jolo, an island in Sulu province. Jolo used to be the centre of the Sulu sultanate government.
In 2000, I was in Zamboanga City to cover the Sipadan kidnapping, in which 21 people, including foreigners, were abducted from the island, famous for diving, by the Abu Sayyaf militant group, who brought them to Jolo. My Filipino contacts told me that they could arrange a meeting with “Sultan E”, who according to them, had a more legitimate claim to the throne.
Sultan E agreed to meet, but refused my suggestion that I meet him in his “palace” in Zamboanga City. I was curious about his palace, as I was told it was just a house. So, I suggested dinner at Skypark Hotel, the tallest hotel in Zamboanga City, with a restaurant on the top floor with a majestic view.
Sultan E arrived at the restaurant. The 60-something man looked like he could have worn better clothes. He introduced me to his “chief of staff” who was also poorly dressed.
Then, one by one, Sultan E’s subjects trooped into the restaurant. There were about a dozen of them. They looked downtrodden and hungry.
“Oh my god, don’t tell me that they want to be fed,” I thought, smiling as I shook their hands.
Not sure, I asked the Sultan to order dinner.
Sultan E ordered a feast fit for a king. One of the dishes I remember him ordering was sweet and sour lapu lapu (grouper in the Philippines is named after King Lapu-Lapu, who resisted Spanish colonisation).
The “sultan” told me that he was the legitimate claimant. He also said Malaysia owed him billions of pesos for taking resources (oil and timber) from his property.
All the while I was getting anxious as his subjects, who were sitting at another table, kept ordering more food and drinks.
The waiters glanced at me as if to ask: “Who’s going to pay for all the food?”
I did. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid. Probably it was worth a king’s ransom.
Anyway, will the real sultan of Sulu please stand up?