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The third quarter of 2004 witnessed rare constitutional changes in Negara Brunei Darussalam. In a titah on 15 July, marking the fifty-eighth anniversary of his birth, His Majesty Sultan Haji Sir Hassanal Bolkiah announced a cautious measure of reform. The main plank of the programme was to be the resurrection of the Legislative Council, which had been abolished twenty years earlier.
First, some background information. The 1959 Brunei Constitution, marking the end of the British Residential Era, saw the recovery of internal self-government by a sultanate which had become wealthy during the 1950s when its hydrocarbon resources started to make a decisive impact. The post of British Resident (colonial administrator) was abolished. The State Council was also consigned to history. The monarch (Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III at that time) was to be advised, instead, by a Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) and five new councils, of which the most significant for our present purposes was the Legislative Council. This was to have thirty-three members, of whom seventeen were ex-officio or nominated and sixteen were to be indirectly elected. The British, who remained responsible for the sultanate's foreign affairs and defence besides retaining vague rights to proffer advice on other matters, regarded the reform as a first step on the path towards a western-style parliamentary democracy. Elections were duly held (one year behind schedule) in August 1962. The Brunei People's Party (PRB) won all but one of the fifty-five District Council seats which served as an electoral college for the sixteen Legislative Council seats. Following an uprising in December 1962 a State of Emergency was declared (which continues to this day) and the PRB was outlawed. Some party members accommodated themselves to the new realities in the sultanate, whilst their more hard-line colleagues remained in exile for many years.
Further District and Legislative Council elections (from which the banned PRB was excluded) were held in March 1965 and May 1968. Although political parties were in existence, independent candidates were the most successful on both occasions. A by-election was held at least as late as April 1969. The Legislative Council was dissolved in April 1970 and replaced by a wholly nominated membership. In February 1984, shortly after the achievement of full independence, the Council was dispensed with altogether; law was made henceforth by decree. From the mid-1990s, however, plebiscites were held on persons nominated by the government for the posts of village headman and penghulu (an official responsible for a group of villages); sometimes voters even had the choice of more than one candidate.
The 2004 revival of the Legislative Council, comprising thus far a Speaker plus twenty-one appointed members will be monarchy, lords and commons rolled into one. There is provision for fifteen elective seats and a fallback power to nominate nine further councillors, which would raise the total membership to forty-five (not including the Speaker). Elections are to be held at an indefinite future date 'when the infrastructure is in place'.
The twenty-one members appointed so far comprise six ex-officio members (cabinet ministers plus the attorney-general), five official members (mostly permanent secretaries), and ten nominated members drawn from the ranks of elder statesmen, leading businessmen, and community leaders. Virtually all of these people would already have been appointed to their existing offices and/or titles by the monarch. There are no women and only one non-Muslim. The leader of the main political party is also excluded; presumably it is being left to him to win one of the elective seats.
The Speaker, nominated by HM the Sultan rather than elected by the assembly, turns out to be Pengiran Indera Mahkota Kemaludin Yassin. This eminent nobleman is father-in-law to HRH Princess Rashidah (daughter to His Majesty) and himself a direct descendant of the Brunei monarch who died in 1852. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is himself an ex-officio member of the Council (this being a precaution neglected by His Majesty's father the first time around). It is difficult to see how even elected members will be able to speak freely in the presence of their Ruler. Hence, at the first sitting of the Council, there was a 'vote of appreciation for His Majesty's presence' and 'members voted unanimously in favour' of the various resolutions up for discussion. The early indications are that this is not going to be a vigorous debating chamber.
Why should the Council have been revived at the present juncture? A measure of constitutional advance has been under consideration for some years, certainly since the mid-1990s. In NBD the wheels move slowly, and never without serious thought. Once a decision has been made, however, it tends to be implemented in methodical fashion. First, the historical circumstances surrounding the 1962 uprising no longer obtain (at that time the sultanate's separate existence was threatened by its possible incorporation within the Federation of Malaysia, then in the process of formation). Secondly, Sheikh Azahari, the PRB leader, died at Bogor on 30 May 2002. Two other former leaders of the PRB have returned to the sultanate, taken their oath of allegiance to the Sultan, and been left to live their lives in peace. Thirdly, any existing political party has to uphold the ruling MIB (Malay Islamic Monarchy) doctrine as a condition of registration; yet the government has shown itself perfectly capable of enforcing MIB without assistance from anybody else. Finally, it transpires that the new Legislative Council is actually intended further to strengthen the position of the Sultan.
The proposed amendments to the constitution, introduced at the council's first meeting on 25 September, sought 'to consolidate, broaden, and clarify His Majesty's powers' (or, perhaps, to regularise current practice). A cabinet minister explained, for example, that under the current constitution, the scope and powers of His Majesty in relation to religious matters were not defined; a new amendment clarified His Majesty's power in making laws pertaining to Islam within NBD. Another proposed amendment stipulated that His Majesty, as the (unelected) Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief, should be entitled to exercise executive authority. It also gave His Majesty authority to specify the functions and powers of ministers and to transfer the said functions and powers from one person to another without having to show cause. His Majesty 'consented to sign' these constitutional amendments on 29 September 2004, the forty-fifth anniversary of the demise of the Residential Era. In the light of the foregoing, the overall assessment must be that the revival of the Legislative Council, even if it is to have an elective element, is unlikely to be a harbinger of significant change in the sultanate. There is not going to be democracy in NBD, certainly in the short-term and probably not in the medium-term either.
Finally, reverting to a previous 'watchpoint' (May 2004 issue), the apparent reconciliation with HRH Prince Haji Jefri Bolkiah proved to be short-lived. His Royal Highness was not among His Majesty the Sultan's entourage during the return State Visit to Ukraine in June 2004 and he was not reported to have been present at either His Majesty's birthday celebrations in July or at the wedding of HRH the Crown Prince and Dayangku (later Pengiran Anak Isteri) Sarah in September. A possible reason has recently emerged: the Borneo Bulletin reported on 13 October that the Brunei Investment Agency had made an application in the sultanate's High Court earlier in the week against Prince Jefri 'to enforce the Settlement Agreement which HRH signed on 12 May 2000 with the Brunei Government and the BIA'. Another report stated that the prince was believed currently to be in London. It might be noted, further, that His Royal Highness was not nominated as a member of the revived Legislative Council.
Source material: This article draws upon newspapers (Pelita Brunei, Borneo Bulletin online, Straits Times online), and various secondary works.
WATCHPOINT: Further points to watch include the forthcoming Legislative Council elections and developments concerning HRH Prince Jefri.
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