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Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah remains the driving force within Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD). An analysis of His Majesty's speeches (titah) furnishes a useful guide, therefore, to the trend of events in his country.
Before pursuing this matter further, however, some important developments in His Majesty's personal life might be narrated. On 29 July 2005 the monarch and HM Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Hajjah Saleha celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. Between 28 October 1981 and 2 February 2003, as permitted under Islamic law, His Majesty was also married to HRH Pengiran Isteri Hajjah Mariam binti Abdul Aziz DKMB DPKT PHBS, a former air hostess, who has been rarely mentioned in the local press following their February 2003 divorce. As his third wife (still concomitant with HM the Raja Isteri) the Ruler wedded Azrinaz Mazhar Hakim in Kuala Lumpur on 20 August 2005. A twenty-six-year-old from Malaysia, where she was a television newsreader, the new addition to the NBD royal family takes the style Yang Teramat Mulia, Her Royal Highness, but is yet to be awarded a title (Hajjah Mariam, for example, was known as Pengiran Bini after her marriage and was subsequently promoted to Pengiran Isteri). YTM Azrinaz's public appearances in NBD have been comparatively few so far, although she lined up during the three days of the 1426/2005 Hari Raya Aidilfitri open house celebrations in early November, when nearly ninety-five thousand people filed through the Istana Nurul Iman. YTM Azrinaz also accompanied HM the Sultan and HM the Raja Isteri to the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur in mid-December. The Pengiran Isteri used regularly to make speeches (sabda) printed in full on the flagship second page of the government's weekly newspaper, Pelita Brunei, where she was featured no fewer than twenty-two times between 1996 and 2002 alone; YTM Azrinaz has hardly had time so far to be thus honoured. HRH the Pengiran Isteri was also Colonel Commandant of the Company of Women Soldiers (Royal Brunei Armed Forces) and patron of many charities and friendly societies; by contrast, the public role to be fulfilled by YTM Azrinaz is yet to become clear. Nevertheless, she is now the second-highest-ranking woman in the sultanate after HM the Raja Isteri, with HRH Crown Princess Sarah displaced to third place, followed probably by HRH Princess Masna (the sultan's sister) in fourth spot.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah remained largely out of the public eye between mid-September (when His Majesty was present at the United Nations in New York) and mid-October (when he gave the titah marking the Nuzul Al-Quran). Sir Hassanal even missed the Hari Guru celebrations (in honour of HM's late father) held every year since 1991 on 23 September; the thirty-fifth anniversary of Brunei Town being renamed 'Bandar Seri Begawan' (also in honour of HM's father); and Public Service Day (in commemoration of the Constitution of 29 September 1959 in which, again, His Majesty's father was instrumental). Subsequently, however, there has been a fairly crowded schedule, including attendance at the APEC, OIC, and ASEAN summits. HRH Prince Mohamed Bolkiah was deputised to work the CHOGM in Malta in late November and the World Trade talks in Hong Kong in the month following. HRH the Crown Prince gained further experience as Deputy Sultan during His Majesty's absences on international duties.
In the titah during the Nuzul al Quran celebration on Thursday, 20 October 2005, Haji Hassanal counselled thankfulness to Allah for the continuing peace and prosperity the country enjoyed and which allowed the ummah to live in happiness without any fear or oppression and without the need to seek humanitarian help from anyone. He also indicated that responsibilities for religious education would be returned to the Ministry of Religious Affairs (from the Ministry of Education) at the start of the 2006 school year to ensure 'proper religious education' in the sultanate. (BBO 21.10.05; also PB 28.9.2005:1, PB 26.10.2005).
An agreement to launch Islamic bonds was signed on 26 September by BLNG, the Islamic Development Bank of Brunei (IDBB), and IDBB Sukuk Inc. (Asian Analysis, November 2005). The IPO was due to close on 14 December (BBO 27.9.05). In a titah on 3 November marking Hari Raya Aidilfitri (following the Fasting Month) HM the Sultan confirmed that the government intended to establish an Islamic capital market in the country, to be initiated through the issuance of sukuk al-ijarah early in 2006. It was planned initially to offer bonds with a three-month maturity period. Three main objectives were stated. First, to encourage corporate bodies to issue their own Islamic bonds, thereby reducing their reliance on banks for funding. Secondly, to furnish the public with an opportunity to invest in internal projects based on the principles of Islamic Law. And, thirdly, to reduce capital outflows from the country. The possibility of providing longer-term instruments in due course was under consideration (BBO 4.11.05).
His Majesty took advantage of the season of goodwill to pardon five persons, including two foreigners, who had been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act since February 2004 for their involvement in counterfeiting currency (BBO 3.11.05; also Asian Analysis, May 2004). All five were released after undergoing several months of rehabilitation at Jerudong. Four other individuals involved in the syndicate had been released in April 2005.
In yet another titah, on 12 November, HM the Sultan, burnishing his image as a 'caring monarch', stressed the importance of non-governmental organisations in tackling social problems. The Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation in the capital was ready to provide necessary financial support to assist NGOs with any programme beneficial to the community in line with the teachings of Islam. The main aim seems to be the eradication of poverty (BBSO 13.11.05). Veteran politician, Yasin Affandy, currently President of the new National Development Party (NDP), said his organisation welcomed the titah, adding that social issues must be tackled by NGOs and should not be left solely to the government.
On 18 November, at the APEC Summit in Busan, His Majesty had several worries: first, the responses to major natural disasters in the region; secondly, health threats such as avian influenza; thirdly, terrorism; and finally, 'the economic insecurity that could affect the confidence of the people in the future, particularly in villages, communities, families and small businesses'. His Majesty called on the United States to provide expertise and assistance (BBO 19.11.05).
Briefly, in other developments, the National Development Party has cemented its organisation, establishing a presence in all four districts and having its activities chronicled in the local press. However, it is difficult to assess, as yet, the level of public support it enjoys. Secondly, the (apparently-interminable) trial of the former Minister of Development (Pengiran Indera Wijaya Ismail Damit) continued throughout the final quarter of the year. Finally, the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company had made a further discovery of oil, this time just offshore from Anduki (BBO 20.12.2005).
The foregoing analysis illustrates the many and varied burdens, which weary the modern-day absolute monarch: religious leadership, finance, subversion, social problems, public confidence and international affairs, to name a few. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, though, is showing few signs of tiring in the role.
WATCHPOINT: What will be the public role of YTM Azrinaz?
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