Unloading a white man's burden

By Dr. B. A. Hussainmiya


Brunei Town.


McArthur Report cover page.

Part. V of the Series on Why Did Brunei Accept British Protection in 1906?

Why did McArthur paint such a bleak picture of Brunei politics in his 1904 report when in contrast he was sympathetic to its beleaguered Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam? If the Consul's mission was designed to recommend administrative reforms in a moribund sultanate, this was anticipated. All his predecessors had sung in chorus the ills of a decrepit State.

McArthur, by comparison, was not virulently anti-Brunei, although he mumbled that it was a pity that Brunei "was not finally disposed years ago." Like others before him, he commented judgmentally, albeit disparagingly on the government, its revenue methods and more importantly, of its shaky judicial system.

Brunei "had no Government in the usual sense of the term - only ownership" as in Macarthur's view who spoke of 'no salaried officials, no police, no coinage, no roads, no public works (except a wooden mosque) and only the "semblance" of a judicature'. In reality, Brunei was but a collection of small and semi-independent fiefdoms acknowledging one head of State, much akin to the feudal system of the medieval Europe.

The Sultan and his pengirans, (nobles) held all the land the people lived on it divided under three forms of tenure: kerajaan (crown lands); kuripan (lands held by the wazirs-ministers ex officio), tulin (private hereditary domains). Although the system looked simple, it was difficult to differentiate the results of ownership and the revenues which would accrue to the government 'in a properly governed country' as McArthur put it.

In fact 'to talk of a government seems ridiculous' was his verdict where the privileged class was competing 'for cash advances from foreign governments (Sarawak and North Borneo) or private speculators, seizing all they dare from their luckless subjects, and valuing their position solely as a means of self indulgence and extravagance.'

There was no state treasury; everything earned went into the pockets of those in charge. Peter Blundell, in his book, City of Many Waters, relates an interesting story as to how Sultan Hashim, seated on the open Balai of the Istana used the binoculars gifted to him by the cutch factory manager to gaze at the trading vessels entering the mouth of the Brunei river. Because, the officials such as the harbour master, Pengiran Shabandar and others were known to have been expropriating the tolls and taxes for themselves instead of paying the dues to the Sultan.

McArthur's tirade on a loose government in Brunei was in some ways overdone given the nature of a Malay Government of the era. On the other hand, Sultan Hashim, who was accused of inaction in his doting age, did indeed on several occasions try to impose his royal authority but to no avail.

When the Sultan proposed to launch expeditions to subdue the rebels he was restrained by the United Kingdom or the Rajah. Thus he was in a no-win situation having been caught between the devil and the deep sea. When he tried to launch Brunei's own coinage in 1886 the British prevented him from doing so and the Chinese traders were reluctant to accept it.

Evidence suggests that the original Protectorate Treaty of 1888 not only deprived the Sultan of his prerogatives in external affairs, but also restricted his freedom of action in certain internal matters as well. Even on such petty issues the Sultan was made answerable to the visiting British Consuls.

Confidential clerk of Sultan Hashim complained to McArthur about the non-payment of three month contract pay. It turned out to be that the Sri Lankan was sheltered in the house of a Bengali man expecting the appointment!

One of the problems of Brunei judiciary that came under scrutiny by McArthur, was compounded by the miscreants often fleeing to Sarawak and returning to Brunei flying the Sarawak flag.

If action taken against them the Rajah might retaliate. For example, a Brunei Malay named Si Radin had run into a debt of about 177 dollars to Teoh Ah Gau, a most respected Chinese trader in Brunei who was given the title of Pehin Bendahari and a seat in the Sultan's Council. Only a part of the loan was recovered by the Sultan's initiative by selling a set of brass gongs valued at 60 dollars left behind by Si Radin. When pressed further, he fled to Limbang and returned with the Sarawak flag.

Such incidences related by McArthur himself contradict his own version of the Sultan's failure to punish the culprits in his kingdom. Even so, it cannot be denied that the Sultan scarcely wished to cross swords or sit on judgment with his own kin and the privileged pengirans for their wrong doings for fear of political alienation much to the annoyance of the self-righteous visiting Consuls.

At any rate by 'the constitution and custom of Brunei' the Sultan could not interfere in other peoples' domains as McArthur admitted.

McArthur's condemnation of the Sultan's Government was excessive to say the least, and deserves some rebuttal. Elsewhere, I have argued in my book "Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III and Britain: The Making of Brunei Darussalam", that Brunei did have Government, in a form that was not peculiar to it. In the Malay States in general, Government was conducted more on a personal basis than in a bureaucratic style. In the words of Heather Sutherland, a modern scholar of the Malay States, 'authority was not specific, functional and institutionalised, but personal and generalised.' Such government was different from that in the modern West. R. H. Hickling, then the Acting Attorney General of Sarawak who came to Brunei on a fact-finding mission in 1954 prior to the drafting of the first written Brunei Constitution, contested the views of many of his predecessors.

He pointed out that not only was the Government in Brunei based on customary law but it also had its own (unwritten) Constitution. To illustrate, Hickling quoted extensively from a letter written by Sultan Abdul Mumin (r.1852-1885) in which the Sultan described key features of the Brunei 'Constitution' and said, 'Since we became Sultan this long time we have followed the ancient custom of former Sultans. After our death our successor must follow these customs, in order that no complications may arise in the country.'

Needless to say a rudimentary form of government would stand comparison with the Government of England that had evolved through the centuries of historical experience based on clear divisions of judiciary, executive and legislative branches.

McArthur was a by-product of the British imperial power at its zenith when writing the Report just six years after the humiliation of French at Fashoda and seven after Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee.

No wonder McArthur shared the prejudices of his time and class, for example, detesting all non-British methods of administration. In this respect, he was no different from the White Rajahs of Sarawak who claimed that they came to civilise Brunei. So by recommending a Residency system to Brunei -- to be discussed next week-- did McArthur intend to unload one of that white man's burdens?

To be continued.

(The writer is an Associate Professor of History at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. He can be contacted by e-mail: hmiya@fass.ubd.edu.bn)