Brunei Darussalam: HRH Prince Mohamed Bolkiah and the Sultanate's Foreign Policy

2007

AVM Horton

The 'fundamental reference point' of Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD)'s foreign policy remains HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's address to the United Nations in 1984, which upheld the UN Charter and the sultanate's own right to maintain its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. NBD insists on the peaceful resolution of disputes and proclaims its duty to enhance the economic and social wellbeing of all its peoples, along with their political, cultural and religious identity. The titah also affirmed NBD's belief that the ultimate purpose of international relations was to build friendship and cooperation between the peoples of the world.

The Foreign Ministry has 'the freedom to be as flexible and as skilful as possible' in implementing these policy guidelines. HRH the Perdana Wazir (the premier vizier) puts 'a premium on politeness, good manners, tolerance, and hospitality'; this encapsulates what the sultanate stands for in international affairs (page 146 of his autobiography; see below). NBD wishes to be positive: 'We are small, modest, and moderate. We have no quarrel with anyone. We are willing to do what we can to help' (p 147). Person-to-person contacts are also emphasised: 'I have always appreciated meeting other leaders face to face, formally or informally. I have never felt patronised as a representative of a small country' (p 172). His Royal Highness has a long historical perspective, given that his own realm, once a powerful empire, had been reduced to pitiful straits by the start of the twentieth century. The lesson he draws is that 'it does not take long for today's superpower to become tomorrow's village on the river'.

'It is a well-known characteristic of Brunei people', the prince adds, 'that we shy away from direct confrontation. We prefer to gain any advantage by cleverer means. Some may say by more devious means'. Diplomacy, he considers, 'must always operate rationally. We feel this involves giving everyone the chance to resolve differences with dignity. To put it simply, a rival must be allowed to "save face". This is the key, I believe, to understanding why ASEAN has so far succeeded' (pp 98-9).

His Royal Highness identifies several phases in the development of the sultanate's foreign policy since 1980, when he was asked to take part in the formation of Brunei's Diplomatic Service Department.

First: 1980-3, when preliminary staff for a future Foreign Ministry were recruited and trained. Welcoming the opportunity it gave him to participate actively in the process of nation-building, the premier vizier familiarised himself with his future role. The assistance he received from the United Kingdom and from ASEAN governments is acknowledged. 'Disasters were commonplace', the prince recounts. 'Some of them, I gather, I am still not aware of even to this day and comprise part of cherished Ministry folklore' (p 137).

Secondly: 1984-9, when the task of the immediate post-independence era was that of introducing the sultanate to the world. 'We were young, inexperienced and new to international affairs. ... In truth, though we tried not to let on, we stood very nervously' (p 146). The fledgling Foreign Ministry slowly accumulated expertise, all the while gaining in respect from the international community. 'Overall, I believe we were successful and I gradually began to feel less like a curious representative of the richest man in the world than a real live Minister with a real live set of informed and concerned diplomats in my delegation' (p 159). These years were overshadowed by the death, in 1986, of the Seri Begawan Sultan: the main question was whether the younger generation in the royal family would be able to move successfully out of his shadow.

Thirdly: 1989-95, when the period of apprenticeship was over and NBD was becoming more assured in the global arena. This period also marked the end of the Cold War. The ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan in July 1989 is taken as marking the sultanate's coming of age. As regional tensions were reduced, these six years were tremendously exciting, marking the establishment of the ASEAN Free Trade Area, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and, shortly afterwards (in 1996) the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). ASEAN, in the Perdana Wazir's estimation, 'is more than a political or economic association. It is a family. To those of us who grew up in the war-torn, hostile, suspicious and sometimes near-anarchic Southeast Asia of the fifties and sixties, that is an astonishing achievement by the leaders of the region' (p 171).

Fourthly: the period from 1995 onwards (he was writing in 2000) was an age of 'globalisation', when economic affairs came to the fore, particularly the Southeast Asian crisis of 1997 and its aftermath. The prince's judgement is that human values must be allowed to prevail over the workings of the market (pp 197, 199).

Without the need for re-election, the NBD government can formulate a long-term 'national agenda' as opposed to a 'party platform' and does not have ministers 'demanding to know the electoral implications of every action or statement'. The result, HRH the Perdana Wazir suggests, 'is tremendous freedom for the public servant to exercise his or her individual talent. With it, however, goes responsibility in equal measure. The officers have no detailed reference book' (p 143).

On 1 August 2005 His Royal Highness was upgraded to 'Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade' (Asian Analysis, August 2005).

He was born on 27 August 1947 at a time coinciding with the re-birth of his country after the Second World War. He grew up and was educated with HRH Prince Hassanal Bolkiah, his elder brother. The age difference between the two is little more than a year; they were educated together, notably at the Victoria Institution (Kuala Lumpur) and at Sandhurst; they were 'almost inseparable' and have enjoyed 'a lifelong friendship'. When the Crown Prince succeeded to the throne in 1967, however, 'relations would subtly change as we began to take on the different roles public life would demand of us' (p 94). Enter HRH Princess Zariah, the bedrock of his adult life, whom he married in 1970; the couple has ten children.

HRH Prince Mohamed Bolkiah's background and formation is explained in his autobiography, Time and the River. Brunei Darussalam 1947-2000: A Memoir (Brunei Press Sendirian Berhad, Bandar Seri Begawan), launched on 6 August 2000 (Pelita Brunei 9.8.2000:16). The book furnishes an insight into the prince's thought processes, his outlook, and his working methods. What is more, the narrative structure is exquisitely crafted, showing the various stages of his development: the child, the teenager, the adult, the military officer, the vizier, the cabinet minister, the all-round public figure, and the world statesman. All this is skilfully interwoven from different standpoints, for example the child's point of view and the adult looking back at the child. The book portrays the prince's growing awareness of himself, his country, and the world around him. It is quite brilliantly done.

His Royal Highness emerges from this self-portrait as disarmingly modest, reflective, and well balanced; he is also impressively witty in places (p 65). He is the listening and watching prince, taking everything in, and, when the time comes, pouncing to deliver his ruling. The biggest influence on him was the Seri Begawan Sultan, who offered pearls of wisdom, such as: 'Never be tempted to blow your own trumpet'. Sir Omar Ali's preferred method of teaching, we are told, was through old stories and the lessons they offered (pp 138-9).

At peace with himself, HRH the Perdana Wazir has a strong sense of his own identity as a Bruneian, a prince, and a Muslim. He takes pride in national survival. He roots himself in his country and people. He highlights his influences (the river; his royal birth; his religion; his parents; his military training; the British Protectorate; his elders and ancestors) and the lessons he has learnt. His Royal Highness has an abhorrence of 'ideology', which he denounces at regular intervals in the book. He remains friendly towards the United Kingdom.

His job, he says, is to get the best out of those who advise government (p 145): 'Options are important to me. So is the value I place on those whom I trust to present them to me' (p 47). Or: 'I instinctively feel comfortable in the royal tradition of having clear straightforward options. I like to make any judgment after I have heard from trusted, experienced advisers who have proved themselves over the years' (p 130). He suspects the abstract and the philosophical (p 145). Nowadays, he prefers public speeches to be short, sharp, and clear: 'I admire plain, straightforward expression both in Malay and English. I strongly believe that any other type of language serves to damage or even destroy meaning. If we destroy simple meaning, straightforwardly expressed, we lose contact with the people we are supposed to represent' (pp 160-1).

Although there are undoubtedly other sides to the story, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah has a glittering record by any standards.

WATCHPOINT: We can expect a process of further integration in Southeast Asia as nations within the region seek to further their separate and collective interests.

 

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