A reign supreme

Roger Kershaw

For more than four decades, the Sultanate of Brunei has successfully managed to defend itself against foreign threats and the rising tide of democratic rule. The development of a state-sponsored ideology that legitimises the role of the monarchy, a programme of moderate Islamisation and an impressively high standard of living have all helped shore up support for the Bolkiah dynasty.

The microstate of Brunei Darussalam on the north coast of Borneo, enclosed on all sides but one by Malaysian territory, faces competition from Malaysia – and other na­tions – over fishing and oil drilling rights in the South China Sea. Hydrocarbon wealth (oil and natural gas – both of which Bru­nei has in abundance) does not in and of itself buy security, militarily speaking, if an educational deficit in the wider population leaves the nation unable to operate state-of-the-art offshore patrol vessels, long-range maritime surveillance aircraft or jet fight­ers. Wealth that cannot be defended can prove positively detrimental to security if it tempts intervention by a foreign power.

The Sultanate’s response to these vulner­abilities has been largely of a diplomatic na­ture, including the forging of close relations with states of some military capacity and a shared interest in Brunei’s security and sur­vival: notably Singapore, the USA and the UK, the former colonial power. What none of these allies are able to reverse are the his­toric losses of Bornean territories, all now subsumed by Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the search for a more domes­tic form of ‘resilience’ has involved fostering the committed support of the people towards their ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (reigning since 1967). For Bruneians, he is their ‘Car­ing King’ and the source of all good things, spiritual as well as material. He has made a political asset out of territorial vulnerabil­ity by equating ‘survival’ with total internal solidarity. Yet a neo-monarchical ideology of this kind has the potential to create a gra­tuitous new vulnerability: the possibility of an educated younger generation becoming alien­ated in a world where democracy and human rights are increasingly in the ascendant, espe­cially since the Arab Spring.

Conceivably, no danger of political con­tagion has been foreseen in Brunei. In this respect, the regime enjoys the distinct advan­tage that virtually all educated citizens are employed either in the Brunei bureaucracy or in the country’s educational institutions – not known for breeding rebels. The general standard of education is such that employ­ment abroad is rarely an option for Brunei graduates (even those with a degree from overseas). Foreign workers constitute the ma­jority of both skilled and unskilled labour in the oil and gas industries, cleverly removing this vital sector from the effects of would-be political discontent, including the potential to become a platform for opposition.

More than a little strategic credit should go to the late Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III (abdicated in 1967; died in 1986) for his consolidation of monarchical rule under the British umbrella before the long-postponed independence of 1984. Straying from its nor­mal decolonisation process, Britain ceded absolute legal control of all state revenues to the sultan under the constitution of 1959.

All this became legitimised by the national ideology of a ‘Malay, Islamic and Monarchical State’ (Negara Melayu Islam Beraja, or MIB), formulated slowly from 1959, then much more intensively and officially named around 1984. The internal power structure has never been explained as a legacy of British rule. Indeed MIB, whose propagation is a major activity of the state, denies that the country was ever colo­nised: Brunei’s political arrangements are said to date from time immemorial. Rather mysteri­ously, the Declaration of Independence in 1984 referred to Brunei as ‘democratic’, but within weeks the legislature (a purely nominated as­sembly by that time) was suspended.

A further two decades of ‘consolidation’ followed. The legislative assembly was eventually reconvened in 2004, but still strictly on an appointive basis, packed with bureaucrats and lacking independent pow­ers. This remains the situation today: the an­nual ‘Opening of Parliament’ is essentially a ritual of state – like the Sultan’s Birthday, National Day and the Prophet’s Birthday procession – and not an occasion for present­ing a government programme to the nation, at least not for criticism by an opposition.

The second (and last) general election, which took place in 1965, is remembered by a mere handful of Bruneians. The only elections that most people know are for vil­lage headmen, held when a vacancy occurs. Even for these ad hoc polls, candidates are rigorously vetted by the government. Yet the regime has signed up not only to the Univer­sal Declaration of Human Rights but also to the more specific democratic commitments contained in the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration of 1991. Are there no risks at­tached to contradiction on this scale?

As far as the Commonwealth context is concerned, it is relevant that UK govern­ment pressure for liberalisation has been absent – beyond a little quiet lobbying around the time of independence for a cabi­net more representative than the royal fam­ily alone, and in 2000 for the reinstatement of the legislative assembly. This is a tribute partly to the regime’s diplomacy.

The permanent stationing of a British Gurkha battalion in the oil field since 1962 has provided not only external reassur­ance against any foreign aggression but a psychological deterrent to domestic disaf­fection and subversion, whether in the old socialist/nationalist mould or from the Is­lamist stirrings in the region today. Simul­taneously, Britain’s unwavering support of Brunei has been guaranteed by the signifi­cant inducement of a whole British infantry battalion garrisoned in South-East Asia, at Brunei’s expense, consequently prolonging the life of the Brigade of Gurkhas following the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

As the world’s fifth richest nation, it may be that the populace simply benefits too much from Brunei’s $48,000 GDP per capi­ta, and is too well aware of the contrast with standards of living found in the rest of South­East Asia for any critical thoughts, let alone anti-government action, to arise. Why would they want to upset the status quo when the state provides them with so much? (Brunei’s welfare system comprises free education and hospital care, a non-contributory pension for all, a subsidised Hajj, and interest-free hous­ing and car loans for civil servants.)

Since the last futile flourish of Brunei democratic nationalism in 1991, the ‘Is­lamisation’ of Brunei society has proceeded in step with the Islamic revival across the region and in the Middle East. It is certainly hard to exaggerate the importance of royal legitimisation through Islam, the increas­ingly dominant ‘I’ in the state ideology. While strictly in a conservative, anti-Islam­ist mould, the Bruneian version of Islamisa­tion has never been as conservative as its counterpart in the puritanical kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to whose monarch the Sultan of Brunei looks up as an ‘older brother’.

Given the anti-monarchical tendency of Islamism, the persistently ostentatious dis­play of ‘personal’ wealth by the sultan and his family remains something of an Achil­les heel. It is thus merely prudent that Sultan Hassanal attempts to project himself simul­taneously as a sort of ‘Caliph’, God’s repre­sentative at the national level and the guard­ian of good values, so that Islamisation does not exact retribution on ‘The Richest Man in the World’ instead of legitimising him.

Local Muslims of all strata are increas­ingly primed to appreciate Brunei’s moder­ate Sunnism, including the doctrine of a lo­cal ‘Caliph’. However valid, theologically, this form of the religion may be in its own right, there is no doubting its importance in maintaining social cohesion and political stability in a Sultanate such as Brunei’s. But this can only be effective if there is constant reinforcement, by the state, of understand­ing and acceptance of these Sunni Muslim truths. Apart from religious lectures and courses in MIB in schools and universi­ties, there has been a steady intensification, year on year, of exposure for government ser-vants within their departments, includ­ing prayer meetings during working hours. The second of the country’s universities, established in 2007, is a specialised Islamic University, named after a reputed medieval ruler of Brunei who was an Arab immigrant claiming descent from the Prophet.

Also since 2007, the intensification of Islamic identity has produced the supple­mentary doctrine of a Negara Zikir (‘Pray­ing Nation’), which may be intended to provide, in face of the temptations of nu­merous foreign models, a new touchstone of national loyalty and political reliability. The more pragmatic, less prayerful, kind of Brunei Muslim may not take it more seri­ously than other emanations of this highly ceremonial and didactic monarchy. But for the remaining non-Muslim indigenous groups of the interior, such as Muruts and Dusuns, and the Chinese community, it may be experienced as yet another instru­ment of pressure towards conversion to Is­lam and surrender of ethnic identity, as the price of avoiding suspicion of disloyalty.

In any event, on the South-East Asian scene, this microstate will remain a small ‘space to watch’. Yet if the regime’s most fundamental commitment – continuity – can be realised, Brunei Darussalam, ‘Abode of Peace’, will proffer little change to titillate the international media. It was indicative of the will for continuity that, while the sultan was in the UK to attend the British mon­arch’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, it was the 38-year-old Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah who, as acting sultan, delivered the usual royal pep talk and plaudits to the nev­er-yet-tested Royal Brunei Armed Forces on their 51st anniversary on 31 May.

Roger Kershaw is author of Monarchy in South- East Asia (2001). He was a lecturer in South- East Asian politics at the universities of Hull and Kent before moving to Brunei for ten years

About the author:

Roger Kershaw is author of Monarchy in South- East Asia (2001). He was a lecturer in South- East Asian politics at the universities of Hull and Kent before moving to Brunei for ten years


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