Brunei Darussalam: His Majesty's New Year Addresses (2007M/1428H)


AVM Horton

His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di Pertuan (Supreme Ruler) of Brunei delivered two new year titah recently, the first marking Masihi 2007, the second Hijrah 1428. On 31 December 2006 Dr Haji Sir Hassanal Bolkiah touched on various matters, including development strategy, the economy, the public services, foreign relations, and domestic political stability; but the key passage of his broadcast was adjudged to be the announcement that a second university was to be founded in the country. The new establishment will be known as the 'Sultan Sharif Ali Islamic University' (Borneo Bulletin online, hereafter BBO, 1.1.07). The existing university dates from soon after merdeka. On 23 April 1985 His Majesty decreed that the purposes of national development required tertiary education. No sooner said than done. The first intake of 176 students commenced lectures at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) on 28 October 1985 (UBD, Laporan 1989-1990:8). At the First Convocation, held on 21 September 1989, Sir Hassanal (who has been Chancellor of UBD throughout its existence) was appointed honorary Doctor of Letters and 166 graduates received their degrees (Pelita Brunei 27.9.89). On 15 September 1995 His Majesty performed the official opening ceremony of the permanent campus at Tungku (PB 17.1.96:8-9), having himself laid the foundation stone there on 8 October 1992. On 28 September 1996 the Mushaf Al-Quran tulisan tangan (handwritten Quran) replaced the mace (cokmar) as the university's symbol (PB 9.10.96:8-9).

The UBD rapidly established a place of importance in national life. Student numbers exceeded three thousand by 2000 (PBA 9.8.00:6) and since the first convocation some 3,962 degrees, diplomas, and certificates had been awarded (PB 4.10.00:8-9). The graduates include several members of the royal family, notably His Majesty's daughters, HRH Princess Rashidah (1994) and HRH Princess Majeedah (2000), and his sister, HRH Princess Masna (1992); the current intake includes the spouse of HRH the Crown Prince (PB, online, 7.2.07). The first Doctor of Philosophy was produced in 2004; this was Dr Pongchawee Vaiyavutjamai, a Thai expert in the field of 'Mathematics Education' (BBSO 19.9.04). On 27 May 1999 Dato Dr Haji Mahmud Saedon Othman, Vice-Chancellor of UBD, became the first local scholar to be appointed a professor there (PB 2.6.99:16). The university hosts international seminars, workshops, Quran-reading competitions, short courses for outsiders (such as government officials), public lectures, and open days. It has published a plethora of books, journals, and CD-ROMs. By 2002 its library had built up a collection of no fewer than three hundred thousand books (PB 5.6.02:10), although this still falls short of, say, the ISEAS in Singapore, which has more than half-a-million (Saw and Wong 2007:5, 23). Academic exchange agreements had been signed with more than twenty universities world-wide as early as 1997 (PB 9.7.97:3). One such MOU was reached with the Northern Territory University (Australia) on 17 September 1998 (PB 30.9.98:15); there are also close links with the University of Queensland (GBOW ON 11.7.02; BBO 2.8.02). The jewel in UBD's own crown is the Department of Petroleum Geoscience (founded in 1993 as a joint venture with the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company Sdn Bhd), which is regarded as world-class (GBOW ON 3.6.04). For courses not available at UBD, the government awarded scholarships to enable people to pursue their studies overseas (GBOW 27.9.00).

At the eighteenth convocation, held on 4 September 2006, HRH the Crown Prince (Pro-Chancellor since 16 September 1998) was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters (PB 6.9.06:1) to add to his already-lengthy list of honours both at home and abroad. Students are now graduating at the rate of more than one thousand annually, including undergraduates, postgraduates, and persons awarded diplomas and certificates (PB 13.9.06:13; PB 13.9.06:17). There are forty-eight student clubs and societies (PB 6.9.06:8).

Plans for a second university have been in the air for some time. His Majesty hinted at the idea, for example, at the sixteenth UBD convocation in 2004 (BBSO 19.9.04). In his New Year titah for 2007 His Majesty emphasised the importance of education for human development. It was hoped that the second university would become a symbol of Islamic glory and play a role in producing the Muslim intellectuals required by the nation.

It emerges that, at least in its early phase, the second university is not to be a completely new institution, but rather a hiving-off of an existing part of UBD. On 17 April 1999 (1 Muharram 1420), by command of His Majesty, the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the UBD and the Islamic Studies Institute under the Ministry of Religious Affairs were to be amalgamated and would be known henceforth as the IPI SHOAS or the 'Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Islamic Studies Institute, UBD' (PB 21.4.99:3). It is this institute which will form the basis of the proposed Sultan Sharif Ali Islamic University, the transfer of lecturers and students being planned for August 2007. The three existing departments at IPI SHOAS are to be upgraded into three faculties namely 'Usuluddin', 'Syariah and Civil Law', and 'Arabic and Civilisation'. The current students would continue to get their 'scrolls' [degrees, presumably] from UBD. The entry requirements will remain the same as for current entry into the IPI SHOAS. A permanent campus is to be located in the Brunei Muara District, where two potential sites have been identified. The overall aim of the new university is to become a centre for the spread of Islam in the region (BBO 11.1.07).

And who was this Sultan Sharif Ali? Known posthumously as 'Sultan Berkat', it is generally agreed that he was the third Muslim ruler of Brunei. Named after him already in the sultanate are a major mosque in Sengkurong and a secondary school in Kampong Salambigar. It is also common ground that he was an Arab from Taif, a descendant of the Islamic Prophet (PBUH). He married a daughter of Sultan Ahmad, the second Muslim monarch. It is also likely that he was responsible for the construction of the first mosque in the sultanate, a five-storied structure burned to the ground by order of Dr Francisco de Sande on Monday 23 June 1578 (Nicholl), when Brunei was occupied briefly by Spaniards operating from the Philippines. Sharif Ali rigorously enforced the laws of Islam and oversaw the building of 'a causeway at the mouth of the Brunei River, designed to force shipping into one easily-defended channel' (Low; Saunders).

On the other hand his regnal dates are fiercely contested, although all sides seem to concur in believing that his tenure was comparatively short. The official view, that he reigned between 1426 and 1432, cannot be verified objectively. A less unlikely dating would place him a century later, perhaps some time in the 1520s. According to the late Robert Nicholl, there can be "little doubt that he was identical with Sultan Sharif of Sulu. Both came from Taif in Arabia, and the Sulu Sharif had previously been in Brunei. For long Sulu had been an appanage of Brunei, and the Adipati, or viceroy, had been a member of the Brunei Royal family. Nothing would have been more natural, therefore, than for Sultan Berkat, having once fully established Islam in Brunei, to proceed to do the same in this important dependency". Following the Spanish capture of Jolo in 1628 the magnificent tomb of Sultan Sharif Ali was destroyed (Nicholl 1991:33). His supposed burial place in Bandar Seri Begawan is a mis-attribution; the sarcophagus actually belongs to 'one Asueri, neither a Sharif nor a Sultan' (Nicholl). All agree however that Sharif Ali's son and successor was Sultan Sulaiman, the fourth Islamic ruler of Brunei. A report in the Borneo Bulletin stated that "Sultan Sharif Ali was the first sultan to embrace Islam" in the 'Abode of Peace' (BBO 11.1.07). Although he was the third sultan, there is a sense in which the Bulletin's assertion might not be false. The speculation runs, for example, that it might have been through Sharif Ali's influence that the first two sultans, who were probably brothers, converted from paganism to Islam. It is not impossible that Sharif Ali might have been an 'elder statesman'; the probable brevity of his reign suggests that he was not in the first flush of youth when he succeeded to the throne. But this is mere guesswork.

Turning now to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah's second recent titah, on 19 January 2007 marking Islamic New Year 1428, His Majesty further announced that the 'Seri Begawan Training College for Teachers of Islamic Religion' would be upgraded to become the Seri Begawan University College for Teachers of Islamic Religion (Kolej Universiti Perguruan Ugama Seri Begawan) with effect from August 2007. His Majesty was confident that the new institution would not only fulfil the needs of Brunei itself, but would be prepared to open its doors to applicants from overseas (Beta yakin, ia bukan saja akan memenuhi keperluan Brunei sendiri, malahan juga bersedia untuk membuka pintunya kepada pemohon pemohon daripada luar negara). The idea was to produce locally-trained religious teachers so that the sultanate would not have to remain dependent on foreign personnel. Standards needed to be raised; the college's new title would reflect these new aspirations (PB, online, 24.1.07).

The Seri Begawan College (Maktab Perguruan Ugama Seri Begawan Sultan) was founded in 1971 and courses commenced in 1972 (Brunei Annual Report 1971:248, 250). The building had been approved by Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III (later the 'Seri Begawan' sultan) in 1964; it was completed in 1970 and handed over to the Religious Affairs Department in early 1971. Tuan (later Dato Paduka) Haji Othman bin Bidin was appointed Principal in June of that year. A group of thirty students was selected as the initial intake for early 1972 (BAR 1971:252). The first graduates emerged in 1975. By 1999 2,606 students had graduated as trained teachers, comprising 861 men and 1,745 women (PB 4.10.00:14).

Sources Government of Brunei Darussalam Official Website (GBOW); GBOW Online News (GBOW ON); the Borneo Bulletin online (BBO); Borneo Bulletin Sunday online (BBSO); Pelita Brunei (PB); Pelita Brunei, Aneka section (PBA); Brunei Annual Report [BAR] 1971; BAR 1975; writings by Hugh Low, Robert Nicholl, and Graham Saunders; and an edited volume by Saw Swee Hock and John Wong.

WATCHPOINT: The future of educational institutions in the sultanate gaining university status.


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