Brunei Darussalam: His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's Birthday Titah and its Echoes


AVM Horton

In a nationwide address (titah) on 15 July 2005 marking the fifty-ninth anniversary of His Majesty's birth, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced that efforts to boost national development were required. Faced with globalisation, he said, economic competitiveness needed to be improved. The government was implementing measures to nurture local entrepreneurship, intensify industrial activities, and expand opportunities for foreign investment in Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD). His Majesty insisted, further, that corruption and bureaucratic obstacles to business success had to be eradicated. Wearing his hat as Minister of Finance, His Majesty noted that government efforts were in progress to amend the Insurance Act, Banking Act, Financial Companies Act, and the Pawnbroking Act, in order that financial institutions might be supervised in line with international standards. He commented that it was encouraging that the Brunei International Finance Centre, founded in 2000, had already issued nearly three thousand licences. With regard to foreign policy, Sir Hassanal said that NBD intended to continue as a 'well-mannered member of the international community', 'to stand tall in upholding the nation's principles', and to 'join hands with other countries to build a fair and peaceful world' (BBO 16.7.2005).

One commentator echoed His Majesty's sentiments suggesting that the sultanate would maintain a good relationship with other nations in keeping with the interests of NBD's sovereignty. Domestically, it would 'forever uphold the MIB [Malay Islamic Monarchy] concept'. Democracy would continue to be practised in accordance with Islamic teachings and the principle of 'by the people, for the people, to the people' (BBO 10.8.2005). It is quite possible that the people of NBD approve of the MIB system; thus far, however, they have never had an opportunity to confirm their assent via the ballot box.

If there have been no elections in NBD, the country is nevertheless to become the proud possessor of a multi-million dollar Legislative Council chamber: on 28 July His Majesty 'consented to officiate [at] a ceremony to pour concrete into a pillar for the new building', which is scheduled for completion in March 2007 (BBO 29.7.2005). Quite what will be done in the parliament when it is ready is a matter of some puzzlement: none of the financial measures (mentioned above), for instance, appears to have been debated even by the nominated councillors. On 31 August (BBO 1.9.2005) the monarch 'consented for the present Legislative Council to be dissolved' and for new members to be appointed with effect from 2 September. (Again, the Legislative Council itself does not appear to have had a vote on the matter). The Speaker has been re-appointed (not re-elected) and the number of ordinary members raised from twenty-one to twenty-nine. Six persons have departed, fifteen have been retained, and there are fourteen newcomers, comprising mostly ministers appointed in May (including HRH the Crown Prince) and persons involved in district administration (penghulu and ketua kampung). One departing cabinet member has been rested, and none of the others has been co-opted as an 'elder statesman'; but non-inclusion in the legislature is not necessarily a sign of royal displeasure. A further fifteen seats have been reserved for elected members; but, as mentioned, thus far no such election has taken place.

The trial of the former Minister of Development (Pengiran Indera Wijaya Ismail) is set to resume in November (BBO 14.9.2005). The corruption charges are denied; and this long-running case is beginning to assume 'Jarndyce and Jarndyce' proportions of interminability (cf. Dickens, Bleak House).

Meanwhile, in a completely separate development, the Audit Department has discovered that NBD$1.4m was embezzled from the government during 2004. An additional $1.89m was reported in 'wastage', $2.9m in 'loss', and 'excess payments' totalled nearly $1m. Payments due to the government as at 31 December 2004 stood at $380 million. The department's constraints included a shortage of manpower, an insufficient training budget, and a lack of expertise (BBO 18.8.2005).

In the July titah, His Majesty proposed a merger of two local banks, the Islamic Bank of Brunei (IBB) and the Islamic Development Bank of Brunei (IDBB). The aim was 'to strengthen their capabilities and competitiveness, both locally and internationally'. On 20 August the IBB duly held an extraordinary general meeting at which the merger was approved. The combined entity was expected to become the largest bank in the country in terms of total assets and the number of account-holders, thereby enhancing the position of Islamic banking in the country. For the financial year ending 31 December 2004, the IBB showed a net profit of nearly NBD$32m, being an increase of 55 per cent compared with the previous year. It was agreed that a 'dividend' of twenty cents per share could be afforded, compared with only fifteen cents last time (BBSO 21.8.2005).

The May cabinet reshuffle had been intended, His Majesty confided in his July speech, 'to improve competence and expertise in the government'. At the time the PPKB (Parti Perpaduan Kebangsaan Brunei or Brunei National Solidarity Party) had welcomed the induction of corporate figures into the government because 'their wide experience could help hasten national development' ( website, 26.5.2005). In June the party 'attributed the achievement and the growth of the nation to the able administration of HM the Sultan, which enable[d] the people to live in peace and harmony' (BBO 8.6.2005). In early August the party congratulated the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company on making a new offshore oil discovery in the Seria North Flank, the second such find in a year. This was 'a gift from Allah' to the NBD people, a gift which was 'due to untiring efforts of His Majesty's Government in its continued effort towards providing for the welfare of the people' (BBO 5.8.2005). Later that month the PPKB 'warmly welcomed' a call by a government minister, himself echoing the July titah, for better governance and transparency in order to attract foreign direct investment to the sultanate (BBO 17.8.2005). The PPKB would appear, therefore, to bear something of the characteristics of an echo chamber.

Another local political party, Parti Kesedaran Rakyat Brunei (PAKAR) or Brunei People's Awareness Party, has been in crisis. In March there were two factions, both of which held separate meetings to choose their own officials. The split attracted the attention of the Registrar of Societies (the Commissioner of the Royal Brunei Police Force, ex officio) and threatened the party's legal existence. By late August the contending sides had agreed to settle their differences and to elect a new committee, recognising meanwhile the board in place before the breach (BBO 29.8.2005).

A third political organisation, the National Development Party (NDP), was registered on 31 August (BBO 13.9.2005; BBO 14.9.2005; BBO 16.9.2005). The NDP is headed pro tempore by Awang Muhammad Yasin Affendy bin Abdul Rahman, 83, a former stalwart of the defunct Partai Rakyat Brunei. A constitution and a manifesto would be published in due course, and the first congress is planned for April 2006. The NDP made all the 'right' noises: upholding MIB, pledging undivided loyalty towards His Majesty, and thanking Sir Hassanal for allowing the party to exist at all. The NDP's projected role would be as 'a strategic partner in national development'. Anybody interested was invited to join the party on 15 September at Gadong; more than one hundred people attended the gathering. Awang Mahmud Morshidi bin Awang Othman (NDP deputy president) stated that, in an era of globalisation, members needed to work towards national development so that the sultanate could become more competitive and an active trading partner with friendly nations - yet another echo of His Majesty's July titah.

WATCHPOINT: We should monitor the progress of the National Development Party; and observe whether the formation of any other political parties will be stimulated by the promised (partial) Legislative Council elections, as was the case during Brunei's pre-independence days in 1960-1.


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