Brunei Darussalam fusing a conservative approach wtih economic development

When Brunei Darussalam became fully independent from Britain on January 1, 1984, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah announced that this new, yet ancient, country would be forever a Malay Muslim monarchy. These three concepts continue to underpin the political, social, religious and cultural framework surrounding the Sultanate, which has since become one of the wealthiest nations in South-east Asia, as well holding a central role in a variety of regional and international groupings.

Now, Brunei Darussalam faces some of its toughest recent challenges as the economic linchpin of the state – its abundant oil and gas reserves – no longer provides the steady revenue stream it once did. The Sultanate is thus attempting a restructuring, moving away from hydrocarbons dependency towards a more diverse, knowledge-based and higher value-added economy. Achieving this within the Malay Muslim monarchy framework is now the goal. The country will need to open up further to global trade and influence if it is to achieve its diversification plans, while also remaining true to its principles and traditions, including a conservative approach to finance and business, as well as social life, with consensus and stability much-valued qualities. At the same time, Brunei Darussalam has a long history as a trading nation, which values its ties to the West and the East – to Asia, Europe, Australasia and North America.

Trading Empire

Indeed, go back to the 13th century, and Brunei Darussalam – or Po-Ni – as the earliest Chinese records refer to it, was an empire that included, not only its current territory, but what is now Sabah and Sarawak, along with Sulu, and other parts of what is now the south-west Philippines. In the 14th century Islam became the main religion in Brunei Darussalam, with Muhammad Shah the first sultan. The Sultanate continues, to this day, to be a majority Muslim nation, with around 67% of the population identifying as Muslim, with most adhering to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam. The Sultanate exercised its influence over the surrounding region for several of the following centuries, despite conflicts with rival Southeast Asian states, such as the Javanese Majapahit empire and the sultanate of Sulu. Two of the greatest sultans in Brunei Darussalam’s history ruled during this period – Sultan Bolkiah, who reigned from 1485-1524 and widened the Sultanate’s influence over what is now the Philippines, and Sultan Hassan who sat on the throne between 1582 and 1598 and whose descendants have ruled the Sultanate ever since.

Colonial Influence

The 16th century saw conflict with Catholic Spain, which then controlled much of the Philippines. This conflict is known in Brunei Darussalam as the Castilian War. Spain eventually withdrew, but left a weakened Sultanate, with civil war ensuing in the latter part of the 17th century.

Indeed, conflict between rivals for the throne and for regional influence were also then later exploited by the British, with English adventurer James Brooke arriving in the mid-19th century and establishing a breakaway kingdom in Sarawak. North Borneo – today’s Sabah – was then ceded to the British North Borneo Company, while Brunei Darussalam itself became a British protectorate – a status that continued for a century, until the end of 1983. British rule was interrupted when, during the Second World War, the nation was occupied by the Japanese. By this time oil had been discovered, with the first well drilled at Seria in 1928. Post-war, and back under the British protectorate, a new constitution was drawn up in 1959, under Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, the father of the current sultan. Under this constitution, Britain retained responsibility for the Sultanate’s foreign and defence policy, while other matters were under the control of the sultan and a series of councils. These included the Legislative Council of Brunei (LegCo), consisting of the sultan, his government and representatives of the four districts – Brunei-Muara, Belait, Tutong and Temburong. LegCo continued to meet until full independence was attained in 1984. Subsequently dissolved, it was then reinstated in 2004, dissolved once again, then finally reconstituted in 2005, from which time it has continued to meet.

Other post-war milestones include the 1962 Brunei Revolt, when pro-Indonesian and anti-colonial rebels launched an abortive uprising; the 1963 discovery of large gas fields; and the 1971 agreement with the UK for Brunei Darussalam to share responsibility for security, which resulted in the basing of British Ghurkha troops in the Sultanate. In 1979 Britain agreed to take a more advisory role in diplomatic matters and, in 1983, an agreement was reached for full independence the following year.

System Of Government

The sultan of Brunei Darussalam is a constitutional monarch, who is both head of state and head of government as well as head of Islam in the Sultanate. The current ruler was born on July 15, 1946 in what is now the Sultanate’s capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, but which was then called Brunei Town. In keeping with the law of primogeniture, as eldest son of the previous sultan and his wife, Duli Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Damit, Sultan Bolkiah acceded to the throne on October 4, 1967, following his father’s abdication, and was crowned on August 1, 1968.

Sultan Bolkiah married the current sultana, Pengiran Anak Saleha, in 1965, and later married two more wives – Hajah Mariam in 1982 and Azrinaz Mazhar in 2005. Both of these marriages ended in divorce, however.

Sultan Bolkiah has 12 children, with the eldest son, Al Muhtadee Billah, the crown prince and heir apparent. The crown prince also holds the post of senior minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, chairman of the board at the Monetary Authority of Brunei Darussalam, head of the National Disaster Management Committee, a general in the army and the deputy inspector-general of police.

Sultan Bolkiah also has three brothers: HRH Prince Mohammed, HRH Prince Sufri and HRH Prince Jefri, the youngest – and four sisters – HRH Princess Masna, HRH Princess Nor’ain, HRH Princess Amal ‘Umi Kalthum and HRH Princess Amal Rakiah. The sultan currently holds a variety of portfolios in the government, as well as being its head. These include minister of finance and minister of defence, along with minister of foreign affairs and trade, while he is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces and inspector-general of police.

The chief executive body is the Cabinet, headed by the sultan, with the crown prince as senior minister. The other members, who are all appointed by the sultan for five-year terms, are the heads of all the government ministries, their deputy ministers and two non-ministerial posts – the chief mufti and the attorney general.

Two ministries – finance and foreign affairs and trade - also have a second minister, who is responsible for the day-to-day running of affairs. The Cabinet is also subject to periodic reshuffles, with the most recent at the time of publication occurring in October 2015. Subsequently, in December 2015, there was also a reorganisation of a number of ministries, with the Ministry of Primary Resources and Industry (MPRI) becoming the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources, while the Energy and Industry Department at the Prime Minister’s Office took over some of the responsibilities previously held by the MIPR.

Advisory Councils

In addition to the Cabinet, the sultan also heads the Privy Council, the Council of Succession and the religious council. The first of these councils has the duty of advising the sultan on matters of state, such as the amendment or revocation of articles of the 1959 constitution, appointments of rank and the authority of mercy. The Privy Council’s members are usually senior statesmen, viziers and cheteria – the Brunei Malay nobility – and they are all appointed to the council by the sultan. The second, the Succession Council, advises on matters pertaining to the succession, while also appointing the new sultan, while the third, the Brunei Islamic Religious Council (MUI), advises the sultan on Islamic religious matters, while also making policy for the Ministry of Religious Affairs to carry out, at the sultan’s discretion. A further body is the Adat Istiadat Council, which advises the sultan on matters relating to state custom.

Under the 1959 constitution and its subsequent amendments, all these councils are strictly advisory, as is the LegCo, The constitution originally foresaw LegCo as a partly indirectly elected body, with 16 seats chosen by directly elected district councils. One election was held for the districts in 1962, yet following the subsequent Brunei Revolt, LegCo was dissolved.

Today, the unicameral LegCo continues its advisory role, while it has also become the forum for some questioning of government officials and for debate on issues such as the budget. The council has 33 members, all of whom are appointed by the sultan, who is also a member, along with the Cabinet. Other members include representatives from the four districts and members of title and distinction, who are appointed by the sultan as he sees fit. LegCo meets, in public, in March each year. Constitutionally, LegCo members are also able introduce their own bills, first for debate and then for the sultan’s approval or dismissal.

Judicial Systems

Brunei Darussalam inherited a legal code from the British, based on English common law. At the same time, the Sultanate also has a sharia law system, which is expanding significantly.

Indeed, in October 2013, the sultan announced that the country would be moving towards the complete institution of sharia law, via a three-phase process. Phase one was implemented in May 2014, and includes minor punishments for Muslims for infringements such as failing to observe fasts and missing Friday prayers. Phases two and three tackle increasingly more severe breaches with more severe punishments, yet neither phase has so far been implemented.

Press reports indicated in early 2016 that the sultan was keen to press on with implementation, however, its rollout is delayed at present, likely because of the lengthy vetting process for the new sharia courts Criminal Procedure Code. The Supreme Court (SC) is the highest judicial body, consisting of the president of the Court of Appeal, the chief justice, the judges and the judicial commissioners of the SC, all of whom are appointed by the sultan. The court has jurisdiction over original and appellate civil and criminal cases of the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Brunei Darussalam does not have a jury system, with judges ruling on cases alone or in congregation with two others.

Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal in the Sultanate exist within the SC’s hierarchy, with civil or criminal appeals from the first taken to the second. In civil cases, an appeal from the Court of Appeal can, in certain instances, also be taken – on the sultan’s approval – to the Judicial Committee of the UK Privy Council. In criminal cases, however, this recourse is no longer applicable. There is also a system of intermediary courts, which act in the same manner as the High Court, except that they may not try cases where possible punishments include death or life imprisonment. Civil matters in which the claim lies between BN$15,000 ($10,700) and BN$100,000 ($71,200) may also be tried at this level. Below this are the magistrate courts, where the prescribed monetary limit in civil cases is BN$30,000 ($21,300) or in special instances, BN$50,000 ($35,600). The sharia courts, meanwhile, consist of the Sharia High Court (SHC), the Appeal Court and the Sharia Subordinate Courts. Judges for these are appointed by the sultan in consultation with the MUI.

The SHC may try both civil and criminal cases, with the former including those which relate to marriage, property claims, gifts and inheritance and many other civil matters for Muslims. The subordinate courts have jurisdiction in cases which involve a maximum of BN$10,000 ($7120) in fines or a total of seven years imprisonment.

Looking Ahead

With the Sultanate encountering strong economic headwinds in recent years, many of the expectations of ordinary citizens have had to face a recent re-examination. A shift towards an economy based on innovation, greater use of IT and greater value-added processes is being undertaken, with a concomitant decrease in the role of the state as the principal provider.

While this restructuring is attempted, the Sultanate also appears to be moving towards stricter enforcement of sharia law, a move that has caused some controversy both inside and outside the Sultanate. Meanwhile, the country is also facing greater openness in terms of international trade due to its role as a founder member of both the ASEAN Economic Community and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while it also tries to protect domestic industry and agriculture, to ensure the survival of home-grown talent and produce. There are thus a number of contrary winds blowing around the Sultanate today, with the next few years crucial in determining how they will shape the Brunei Darussalam of tomorrow. With a long and distinguished history behind it, however, abundant natural resources, and a reputation for stability and consensus building, the Sultanate will likely be able to confront these challenges with confidence.

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