Brunei Darussalam: His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Reaches the Age of Sixty


AVM Horton

On 15 July 2006, HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of his birth (Hari Keputeraan 60), a joyous occasion which gave the entire nation an opportunity to express its love and affection for the raja pemedulian or 'caring monarch'. His Majesty, whose reign now stretches back the better part of forty years, exercises complete domination over his homeland. This supremacy takes several forms. One manifestation is his personal monopolization of high offices of state. Sir Hassanal takes priority in every sphere, whether political, economic, religious, security (military and police), or educational. The names of places and institutions are further indicators (Hassanal Bolkiah Silver Jubilee Mosque, Jame' 'Asr Hassanil [yes] Bolkiah, Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium, Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation, Hassanal Bolkiah Aquarium, Hassanal Bolkiah Theatre, Hassanal Bolkiah Freeway, Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education, Hassanal Bolkiah Quranic Studies Institute, Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy, to provide a preliminary list). His Majesty is also the ultimate source of all patronage. Finally, anybody reading the local press coverage will quickly appreciate that, rather like the King of Thailand, His Majesty is regarded as infallible and beyond criticism. Therefore, should anything happen to go wrong in the sultanate (such as the alleged 'improper withdrawal' of state funds on a massive scale and over a prolonged period by a former government minister), naturally no fault is to be imputed to Sir Hassanal.

Despite His Majesty's perfection, the 'Abode of Peace' (Darussalam) takes the precaution nevertheless of exercising a strict censorship. The Pusat Dakwah Islamiah, for example, is entrusted with ensuring 'that all publications entering the country are not against any Islamic policies, do not create suspicion and anxiety among the public, and do not infringe the Undesirable Publications Act'. The statistics provide testimony to the energy with which the agency fulfils its remit. In fifteen years (1990-2004), according to the Borneo Bulletin, no fewer than 19,233 books (in various languages) were censored; and, of these, 3,552 were deemed to be inappropriate. During the same period nearly 2.7 million 'publishing items' were 'scanned' by the centre, including more than two hundred thousand video cassettes. Business premises were inspected on 1,436 occasions (BBO 4.10.05).

Let us analyse the 24-page special supplement (keluaran khas) to Pelita Brunei dated 12 July 2006 issued in conjunction with Hari Keputeraan 60. Pelita Brunei, which celebrated its own golden jubilee earlier this year, is the official government newspaper, produced by the Department of Information, a division of the Prime Minister's Office. It is almost nugatory to add that His Majesty himself has been Prime Minister since independence in 1984 - the first, and, indeed, so far the only, holder of the post. Given that Haji Hassanal is universally beloved of his people, there would seem to be no need for unwanted Western imports, such as democratic elections.

The front cover of PBKK comprises virtually a full-page colour photograph of Sir Hassanal, albeit a somewhat grumpy-looking monarch on this particular occasion. The back cover has further polychrome images coupled with words of wisdom taken from His Majesty's titah on the anniversary of his birth three years earlier. Noteworthy here is the special royal language (such as the royal personal pronoun beta instead of saya (I), used by commoners). In other words, distinctions of speech are used to provide royalty with a higher status, fenced-off from the rest of humanity; and, for that matter, only a sultan or a consort of royal status in her own right can deliver titah (lesser royalty, even the crown prince, give sabda, non-royal ministers ucapan, whilst the rest of us merely berkata).

The main contents of the special issue comprise nine articles, each two or three pages long, liberally illustrated with pictures. Hence we have His Majesty mingling with the people, His Majesty addressing the United Nations, His Majesty with President Putin, His Majesty receiving an honorary degree in Singapore, His Majesty as diversifier of the economy, His Majesty as instructor of youth, His Majesty as guarantor of national defence.

The introduction (pp 2-4) by Haji Timbang Bakar sets the scene and serves as a summary of the articles to follow. They cover His Majesty's closeness to the people; foreign affairs (the building of a just and peaceful world); the health service; economic diversification; another piece on the economy ('a strong economy as source of national development'); public administration; youth; and national defence. Sir Hassanal is praised for having won the respect of the international community, a respect, which, by extension, devolves upon the sultanate as a whole and gives it a new prestige. He has brought the country peace, stability and security. He has provided the population, whether in town or village or in the interior, with basic facilities: water supplies, electricity, and places of worship. He has brought NBD up to the status of a developed country. Housing for the people has been a priority. His Majesty makes regular visits to mukim throughout the country in order to share the experiences and hopes of his people. These tours are also an indication of the good relations subsisting between raja and rakyat. They are the traditional Brunei way of doing things. Unscheduled royal inspections of ministries and departments help to keep civil servants on their toes.

Meanwhile, His Majesty's stature on the international scene is indicated by the calibre of the 'special guests' who attended the celebrations on 15 July. Pride of place went to HRH Princess Basma (of Jordan) and her husband. There were also several presidents and prime ministers, including Dr Thaksin Shinawatra (before he was ousted as premier of Thailand), as well as the deputy prime minister of Malaysia and the Foreign Minister of Indonesia (PB, 'Edisi Tambahan' supplement, 23.7.06). It appears that President Bush, who celebrated his own sixtieth birthday a week or so earlier, was too preoccupied with affairs in Iraq to be able to attend personally (but he sent a message of goodwill, PB 19.7.06:7); HM Queen Elizabeth II was otherwise engaged on the great day; the name of Prime Minister Howard did not surface on the guest list; and, hélas, Mr Chirac had to remain in Paris for Bastille Day.

WATCHPOINT: Barring a major upheaval in NBD, HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's presence and influence looks set to persist into the indefinite future.


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