Brunei Darussalam: Human Rights and the Defence of Malay Culture


AVM Horton

The latest survey by the US Department of State, available at , notes that there were 'problems' in Negara Brunei Darussalam's (NBD) human rights record. It refers particularly to the 'inability of citizens to change their government; arbitrary detention; no freedom of speech, press, assembly, or association; restrictions on religious freedom; discrimination against women; restricted labour rights; and exploitation of foreign workers'. Apart from that, everything was fine; so the Borneo Bulletin (online, 11 March) was able to run the headline 'No human trafficking cases in Brunei'.

In the light of this survey and given that NBD has been a member of the Commonwealth for more than twenty-two years, it is curious that the sultanate has not run into trouble on the basis of the Commonwealth organisation's rules. In the past, South Africa, Pakistan, and Fiji have all been expelled at one time or another for anti-democratic practices. No similar pressure appears to have ever been brought to bear on the Istana Nurul Iman. On the contrary, in a message to the people of NBD on 13 March 2006 marking Commonwealth Day, the grouping's Secretary-General, Mr Don McKinnon, stated that NBD had 'played a positive role in the Commonwealth's development'. 'Our goal', he added, 'is to help encourage respect for human rights' (BBO 13.3.06). Perhaps Mr McKinnon might be invited to read the US State Department's report.

As noted in the State Department report, the national ideology, Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or 'Muslim Malay Monarchy', grants special privileges to Malays and Muslims. This is actively promoted and defended by the sultanate's government, as reflected in recent annual budget allocations. The NBD Legislative Council, which is nominated rather than elected, held a six-day session in mid-March to 'approve' the national budget for 2006-7, which it did nem con (that is, unanimously and without dissent) (GBOW ON, 22.3.06). NBD$4,500 million has been allocated for this financial year, a slight increase on the $4,434 million in 2005-6. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has been allocated $164 million, whilst the State Mufti Department (which falls under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office) is to receive $4,212,797 (BBO 20.3.06).

The US State Department observes that the NBD government 'routinely restricted the practice of non-Muslim religions'. It notes that the Ministry of Education, which is apportioned nearly NBD$530 million for 2006-7, 'requires courses on Islam and the national ideology and prohibits the teaching of other religions'. Even Christian schools are 'not allowed to give Christian instruction', but are obliged to provide lessons on Islam. On the other hand, the regime 'did not prohibit or restrict parents from giving [non-Muslim] religious instruction to children at home'.

One of the latest developments to attract the ire of local imams is women's football, which is reported as being played by more than ten clubs in the country. The sport has been deemed unacceptable by imams, because it is a 'grievous sin' for women to behave like men on the playing field: 'They should not resemble males in terms of their garb, conversation or in action' (BBO 18.3.06).

An important state institution involved in the defence of Malay culture, the Language and Literature Bureau has been allocated NBD$10.7 million for 2006-7. On 12-18 March 2006, the sultanate hosted the eleventh Southeast Asia Literature Council (MASTERA) and the forty-fifth Conference of the Language Council of Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia (MABBIM). Singapore delegates attended as observers. The theme of the gathering was 'The Uniqueness of Malay Language and Literature as a Force in the New World Order' (BBO 15.3.06).

MABBIM, which was originally known as the Majlis Bahasa Indonesia-Malaysia (MBIM), or Indonesia-Malaysia Language Council, was formed on 29 December 1972. NBD became a full member on 4 November 1985 and the acronym was duly changed to MABBIM. The association brings together the best Malay scholars and sets standards with regard to spelling, terminology, and grammar (Pelita Brunei 29.7.98). MASTERA (Majlis Sastera Asia Tenggara) was established in 1995 to 'promote, coordinate and develop Malay literature in South-East Asia'. Continual upgrading along these lines is necessary to ensure that Malay is able to compete internationally as a language of literature, science and technology, in short as a 'language of knowledge'.

In one of the addresses at the conference, Pehin Badaruddin, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs (NBD), stated that 'it is important for us to protect our language and literature to prevent the disappearance of our language and race' (BBO 15.3.06). However, Malay now has the fourth-largest number of speakers in the world, after Chinese, English, and Spanish; so it would not seem to be in danger of extinction. Far more at risk are the indigenous languages of NBD, such as Dusun/Bisaya, spoken by not more than fifteen thousand persons in the Tutong and Belait Districts (EM Kershaw, Dusun Folktales, Honolulu, 1994:xi). Inter-generational transmission of the language is ceasing. Furthermore, these people do not appear to organise regular international conferences in defence of their tongue, the most urgent need notwithstanding.

Local Malay-language music is also 'experiencing a boom' in NBD. The latest manifestation is one 'Shukriez', otherwise Haji Mohd Shukry bin Haji Mohd Yusoff, who has already had two hit singles locally and has just released a debut album of ten popular love-songs - all in Malay apart from one track in English (BBO 14.3.06).

Malay bomoh also refuse to be swamped by alien cultural forces. A professor at the University of Malaya stated that it remains common practice for people in the Malay region, including NBD, to refer to traditional healers as well as to modern doctors for all kinds of illness. 'Whether we like it or not we can't run away from the fact that it's part of our Malay heritage', he said (BBO 13.3.06).

Not to be left out, Haji Mohd Razali Johari, President of Brunei Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called on his executive committee to be more proactive in their efforts to improve the status of Malay businesses as well as in partnering the government in socio economic development (BBO 13.3.06).

District development is not being neglected. Hitherto something of a backwater, Tutong Town has developed since the early 1990s into a fast-growing urban area, with 'cyber cafés, restaurants, workshops and other businesses' opening up. One notable landmark is the ten-storey Halim Plaza (BBSO 5.3.06).

Tourism provides another indicator. The Royal Regalia Building, opened in Bandar Seri Begawan on 30 September 1992 by HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, showcases the MIB philosophy. A total of 65,493 visitors was recorded in 2004 compared with only 45,000 in 2000 (BBO 13.3.06). No doubt the usongan (royal chariot) makes a splendid attraction.

Nonetheless, if weight be given to the US State Department report, clearly there are challenges that remain on the political and human rights fronts.

This article was compiled from reports in the Borneo Bulletin Online (BBO), the Government of Brunei Darussalam Official Website, Online News (GROW ON); Pelita Brunei; and, the Brunei: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, Department of State, USA, 8 March 2006.

WATCHPOINT: NBD's level of support for minorities, for example of indigenous minority languages, may also be a further indicator of general performance on the human rights front.


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