B. A. Hussainmiya, Associate Professor in History,
Universiti Brunei Darussalam
Negara Brunei Darussalam is unique amongst the Southeast Asian states. Aside from being the smallest country in the region, Brunei has a novel, albeit neo-traditional form of government that is sometimes seen as anachronistic on account of the absence of elected representative institutions present in the other ASEAN member countries. Despite this, Brunei has emerged as a significant player in the region, and has attained a status well beyond its size in important international organizations, but especially so within the ASEAN group.
Brunei is an Islamic Sultanate ruled by a monarch who is both the Head of State and Head of Government. The Sultan embodies the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches of government. He both reigns and rules, with assistance from a Privy Council, on matters concerning the royal household and customs and by a cabinet and bureaucracy, on most other matters. Under the Sultan’s benevolent leadership, Brunei has remained a socially, politically and economically stable country in the region. Moreover, his popularity as a paragon of justice buttresses the State’s ability to elicit a high degree of compliance from its citizens, desirous of amicable resolutions of differences and conflicts.
Most of the Sultan’s subjects attribute the economic and social stability to the country's unique political institutions being seen as having provided the necessary protection against the recent economic and political upheavals that occurred in Malaysia and Indonesia – particularly the social unrest. Thus true to its name, Darussalam: the Abode of Peace, Brunei has remained an inordinately peaceful country having avoided serious strife and conflicts both internally, and externally with neighboring countries for the past forty years or so. What explains this success? This article is an attempt to provide insights into the harmonious development of the Bruneian society.
Brunei Darussalam is a tiny state of 5,765 square kilometers situated in the northwest corner of Borneo and sharing a common border with the East Malaysian State of Sarawak. The country’s population is around 350,000. Malay Muslims comprise 67 percent of the total population. The religious composition of the rest of the population is as follows: Buddhists constitute 13 percent, Christians are 10 percent, and others (Hindus, Sikhs, free thinkers, and undeclared) are 10 percent of the total population. Ethnically, Brunei’s indigenous population comprises of seven groups namely, the Bruneis, Kedayans, Tutongs, Dusuns, Bisayas, Belaits and Muruts (as defined under the Brunei Nationality Enactment of 1961).
Thus despite being a multi-ethnic country, there has been little evidence of religious or communal strife, although muted rumblings have been heard among the more recent immigrants who feel excluded from the benefits of the State's largesse. The Chinese population in particular may harbor some grievances against the unequal treatment at the hands of the state, especially as regards the naturalization process for citizenship of Brunei. Nonetheless the Chinese community appears to be reluctant to overturn the apple cart by politicizing their concerns. Attempts to form a Chinese political party during the turbulent 1950's were shelved for fear of losing the economic clout the community has traditionally enjoyed. Except for a minor skirmish between the Chinese and the Malays, which took place in the aftermath of the Second World War, the relations between the two communities have remained appreciably cordial. The government on its part has been very careful in maintaining harmony among the ethnic groups whose members remain satisfied, for the most part, with the status quo. Gentle persuasion by the government has also contributed to the reluctance of the Chinese community to express dissent more openly.
Brunei is a new nation, but an old state which attained full independence in 1984. The reigning monarch, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, is the 29th ruler in an unbroken line of succession established in the mid-14th century. A vast kingdom in the 16th century, the Sultanate’s hegemony was over large parts of coastal Borneo, and extended to the Sulu islands and the Southern Philippines. However, by the 18th and 19th centuries, due to internal squabbles and external threats exacerbated by the arrival of Europeans in the region, Brunei had become an impoverished state coveted by its neighbours, namely Raja Brooke’s Sarawak and the British North Borneo Company. Although Brunei became a British Protectorate in 1888, moves were afoot in the British Foreign Office to obliterate it from the map of Borneo at the turn of the 19th century. However, in the end the British intervened to safeguard Brunei’s sovereignty by introducing a Residency system in 1906. It stipulated that the British Resident’s advice must be accepted by the country’s ruler in all matters, except on matters relating to religion. Brunei’s fortunes changed for the better with the discovery of oil in 1929, thus making it one of the largest oil producing countries of the British Commonwealth. Present day Brunei is a long way from the appalling poverty and misery that hounded the country prior to the second half of the 20th century.
Although contemporary Brunei is blessed with a malleable citizenry, it does not mean that the society has not experienced violence in resolving serious political and social conflicts. Historically, there have been instances of strife and fighting in the settlement of issues pertaining to royal succession. Public dissatisfaction with governance of a rapacious ruling class had lead to the Tutong rebellion of 1901. The last of the major disturbances in Brunei’s public peace occurred in December 1962, when a rebellion was staged by the military wing of Partai Rakyat Brunei, the country's sole political party. The revolt was effectively crushed within a week by the military might of the British, who were committed to defending the Sultan of Brunei. Various reasons for the causes for the rebellion have been given, but the main aim of the revolt was the uprooting of British colonial influence in the State, and defeating efforts towards the proposed merger of Brunei with the proposed Malayan Federation.
Since December 1962, Brunei has been governed under emergency regulations provided in the 1959 Constitution. Under the emergency provisions, the country’s legislature remains suspended. Presence of threats to stability and security lapses is cited as reasons for the Government’s reluctance to lifting emergency rule, and hence have continued to be renewed every two years. There are many who believe that the regulations serve as a strong deterrent to internal instability resulting from the actions entities seeking to exploit feelings of deprivation and/or perceived inequalities. Open political disagreements with the authorities are frowned upon in the society. Despite the fact that the state has at its disposal a formidable array of instruments of coercion, such as the Internal Security Act and a very effective security establishment to ensure acquiescence, it is common knowledge that the public compliance is out of respect for the government rather than fear of government.
As regards political activism, the public apathy is reflected in the lack of support for political parties. Government regulations forbid public servants from becoming members of political parties even if the parties recognize the supremacy of the institution of monarchy. The situation in Brunei is in contrast to that of the now defunct Baathist Party in Iraq whose members controlled virtually all sectors of government service and yet, they were unable to prevent the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Brunei’s apparent tranquility is in large part attributable to the wealth of the State. A burgeoning oil and gas income allows the subjects of the Brunei Sultan to enjoy a higher per capita income (of nearly 24,000 US dollars annually, besides comprehensive welfare benefits) than most of their Asian neighbors. In contrast to many developing countries, most of Brunei’s challenges stem from its affluence and not from poverty. Government servants, who form almost 70% of the working population, and state-supported students tend to shun social leadership resulting in the absence of any overt criticism of the ruling class; hence, the absence of conspicuous militant student activities especially at tertiary level including the only university in the country. Voluntary and non-government organizations are strictly monitored by the government. Even on such benign issues as human rights, little discussions take place in Brunei unless they are within the terms set by the government in mass media including Television ‘Forums ‘.
Active promotion of a national ideology, known as the MIB (Melayu Islam Beraja or Malay Islamic Monarchy), by the State in Brunei has helped in no small measure to bring about conformity in the thinking of the Sultan’s subjects. By invoking age-old traditions of respect for one’s parents, the State, religion, and the Monarch --- which have been incorporated as a mandatory component of the school and university curriculum --- Bruneians are being imbued with Calak Brunei or Cara Brunei , that is roughly speaking, the ‘Bruneian way’ of conflict resolution through dialogue and compromise. Consequently, at best open conflicts are avoided, and at worse one observes a penchant for Surat Layang (‘flying letters’) among Bruneians as an avenue for airing their grievances or the injustices of authorities, a fellow citizen or a state agency. For instance, in response to recent exchanges on the Internet maligning high level Brunei public servants and ministers, a permanent secretary at the Prime Minister’s department reminded the public that participating in such activities was deemed unpatriotic for Bruneians. It must be added that Cara Brunei also stands in the way of legal action being brought against offending parties. For instance, in the aftermath of the abortive 1962 rebellion which resulted in the loss of lives, hardly anyone was brought before courts to answer their actions. In the recent Amedeo fiasco, court cases were instituted not so much to punish the perpetrators of the financial scandal, which depleted the government treasury by several billions of dollars, but to recover any remaining assets. The Amedeo Corporation, now defunct, was headed by the country’s finance minister, who is the youngest brother of the Sultan.
In a State where the news media is under constant vigilance, globalization has begun to erode some of the inherited values of compliance especially among the younger generations, faced with diminishing prospects of employment, and a gradual erosion of the once generous welfare system. Mass media, especially access to the Internet has caused a loosening of state control of information, and has resulted raising the expectations of the younger generations, thus demanding more and better facilities, more accountability, and the right to voice their concerns. Brunei-specific chat rooms on the Internet, such as Brunei talk.com and Bruclass.com, allow dissenters, albeit anonymously, to discuss serious government issues and lapses which otherwise would not have been discussed openly. Interestingly, the state has permitted such Internet exchanges, though there have been expressions of displeasure regarding character assassinations of leading Brunei personalities. There are indications that the Brunei establishment is slowly coming around to accommodate expressions of political and social discontent. Moreover, it is understood, that there are preparation underfoot to introduce a new revised Constitution incorporating certain freedoms of elections and representations.
Recourse to the ‘Bruneian way’ as an accepted means of resolving conflicts ought not be seen as a substitute to improving opportunities for the younger generations to participate actively and effectively in State affairs through education, employment, promotions on meritocracy and continuous welfare facilities to shield the aggrieved from latent economic downturn in times of global turmoil. Also it is hard to predict the outcome of liberalization of politics, society, and economy as envisaged to a level far higher than what is enjoyed at present in the micro-State of Brunei. One should wait and see if the natural forces of conflict would emerge among an otherwise docile population. Meanwhile Brunei’s opulence should underwrite the stability of the State for sometime to come. As a modern day Brunei watcher comments on the strength of Brunei economy as a counterbalance to social upheavals-- “if its economy remains intact, the mould of Brunei’s recent past may well define its future.”
B. A. Hussainmiya is an Associate Professor in History at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam. His research interests include the History of Brunei; the History of South Asia; Malay Manuscripts Studies; Classical Malay Literature; Malay Diaspora; and Comparative Education in South and Southeast Asia. Professor Hussainmiya is a fluent speaker of English, Tamil, Singhalese and Malay and also reads Arabic and Dutch.