Brunei Darussalam: Safeguarding National Unity and Promoting Long-Term Vision (First Quarter 2004)


Dr AVM Horton

One of the features of recent months in Negara Brunei Darussalam (NBD) has been the tacit rehabilitation of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who resigned as Minister of Finance in February 1997 and was not seen at public events from the second half of 1998 onwards. On 1 November 2003, however, His Royal Highness made an appearance at a ceremony held in the main palace in Bandar Seri Begawan and shortly afterwards his photograph was re-admitted to Pelita Brunei, the official government newspaper. Since that time attendances by the Pengiran Di-Gadong (to give Prince Jefri his vizier title) at major happenings have been regular. Although there is no suggestion yet of a return to government for the prince, the indications are that royal divisions are now being healed. It is worth noting that, whatever disputes there may have been in the past, HRH Prince Jefri was never deprived of any of his titles or honours.

If one source of tension is being reduced, different threats to national unity emerged during the first quarter of 2004. Some background information is needed here. Traditional Brunei society had a fundamental fault-line between ‘nobles’ (pengiran) and ‘non-nobles’. The highest-ranking commoners were, and are, known as pehin. These tend to be meritocrats who carry out the real business of government and administration. Ritual installation as a pehin implies, among other things, a special bond of loyalty to the monarch; any betrayal, therefore, is particularly abominable. Pehin titles generally comprise five words, often beginning with ‘Pehin Orang Kaya’ (POK), preceded by the honorific ‘Yang Dimuliakan’ or, in the case of cabinet ministers, ‘Yang Berhormat ‘ (YB), the latter being similar to the British ‘Right Honourable’. In April twenty-six persons, comprising mainly ministers, civil servants, and leading members of the ethnic Chinese community, had either been either promoted to pehin status or upgraded within the ranks of existing pehin. Hence, for example, the Minister of Health was elevated from ‘YB POK Putera Maharaja ‘ to ‘YB POK Seri Kerma ‘, which represents a considerable advancement.

Conversely, in early March three persons (comprising an entrepreneur, a former military officer, and a retired policeman) were detained under the Internal Security Act for various alleged offences, including the sale of government secrets to foreign nations and the dissemination of ‘subversive propaganda’. One of the accused was a pehin, who has now been stripped of his title (BBO Th.4.3.2004:h1.htm). So far as I am aware no public trial has yet taken place; likewise in the case of sixteen persons (mostly local people, including a son of a pehin) arrested in February for ‘attempting to sabotage the economic stability of the country’ through their alleged involvement since 2001 in counterfeiting NBD currency (BBO F.27.2.2004:h1.htm). Fake notes were still turning up at the end of March.

Subversive activity notwithstanding, a degree of economic optimism was abroad. For example, in 2003 the Brunei Shell Petroleum Company’s output averaged 202,000 barrels per day, reportedly the highest level for more than twenty years; similarly, Brunei Liquefied Natural Gas Ltd delivered a record number (214) of cargoes (BBO F.2.4.2004:h2.htm). The year 2004 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the commencement of oil production in the sultanate. The offshore territorial dispute between NBD and Malaysia appeared to be in abeyance during the run-up to the Malaysian general election on 21 March. There were unconfirmed reports, however, that the two countries were considering a joint development authority to share oil and gas in the disputed area (BBO Sa.13.3.2004:h1.htm).

In a National Day titah (speech) in February, HM the Sultan announced that a task force would be established ‘to update the national vision’; a long-term (2006-35) development planning body is to be instituted under ministerial control (BBO M.23.2.2004:h1.htm).

Meanwhile, plans are afoot to develop an international port complex at Muara Besar, an island not far from Bandar Seri Begawan. An industrial site is also to be developed at Sungai Liang in the more distant Belait District: interest has already been expressed in the construction of an aluminium refinery and a tyre-recycling plant, and three other major proposals are also under consideration (BBO M.23.2.2004:h20.htm). It is said that 1,500 companies have registered with the Brunei International Financial Centre since the project was launched in July 2000 as an offshore haven especially for Islamic finance. Still urgently required, however, is a local capital market, particularly given the reluctance of local banks to release venture funds (BBSO Su.14.3.2004:h4.htm). Public consultations are in progress for the reconstruction of two wards in Kampong Ayer (the ‘river village’ section of the capital), which were destroyed by fire in August 2002.

The Ministry of Finance has announced that the government financial year will start henceforth on 1 April (GBOW ON Th.1.4.2004). A budget of NBD$5,000 million has been approved for 2004-05, of which capital expenditure should account for nearly one-third and recurrent expenditure for slightly more than two-thirds (BBO Th.1.4.2004:h2.htm). It was hoped that national GDP would increase by 3-4 per cent. The Ministry of Education is to receive nearly $604m, the Ministry of Development $355m, Health $233m, Culture, Youth and Sports $73m, and Communications $59m (GBOW ON Th.1.4.2004).

Of NBD$7,300 million set aside under the eighth National Development Plan (2001-05), $900 million was earmarked for the financial year 2004-05. (These funds seem to be in addition to the ordinary government budget, just outlined). Eighty-eight million dollars are to be used for agricultural and industrial development, $73m for education and human resources, $97m for transportation, and $195m for construction. Defence will be given $93m whilst ‘public utilities and health’ share $208m (GBOW ON Th.1.4.2004).

According to the World Health Organisation, the NBD health service ranks second in the ASEAN region and fortieth in the world (GBOW ON M.15.3.2004). Diabetes is one worrying area: it is conservatively estimated that 10-11 per cent of Bruneians suffered from the condition, compared with only 6-7 per cent of Singaporeans (BBO M.8.3.2004:h4.htm).

The Singapore president was one of several world leaders who found their way to Bandar Seri Begawan in January-March 2004. During the colonial era Brunei’s foreign relations (from 1888 to 1983) were conducted by the United Kingdom, and the sultanate remained comparatively isolated in the international arena. Since independence this has changed. NBD’s growing importance on the diplomatic circuit was emphasised during the first quarter of 2004 when the Istana Nurul Iman played host to the Kings of Jordan and Sweden, the Presidents of Singapore and Ukraine, and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. This affirms the assertion that HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is ‘a leader of international stature, who can stand alongside the world’s leaders with his head held high’ (GBOW ON M.22.3.2004). Of the foreign dignitaries mentioned, President Kuchma ‘introduced His Majesty to the potential of Ukrainian companies in the field of oil and gas equipment manufacturing, telecommunications and machine building’. The two countries also expressed interest in developing military and defence cooperation and in establishing air links. Cultural and tourist exchanges would be promoted. His Majesty has been invited to come to Kiev (BBO W.10.3.2004:h1.htm). It will be interesting to see whether Prince Jefri Bolkiah is included in the NBD royal entourage if and when the return State Visit duly takes place.

Key BBO: Borneo Bulletin online. BBSO: Borneo Bulletin Sunday online. GBOW: Government of Brunei Darussalam Official Website: Online News.

WATCHPOINT: Developments in HRH Prince Jefri Bolkiah’s career; in long-term planning (2006-35); and in relation to the projected Muara Besar port complex will bear further scrutiny.


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