Brunei Darussalam: The Fourth Cabinet as of 24 May 2005 - Plus CA Change


AVM Horton

A major cabinet reshuffle, the first for more than sixteen years, was announced by HM Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on 24 May 2005 'in order to ensure the continuation of peace and prosperity and to give some new individuals a chance' (Borneo Bulletin online, 25.5.05). The shake-up apparently came as a 'surprise' to the public (BBO 26.5.05), but the changes were so wide-ranging that they must have been some time in the planning. Some things have not changed, however. His Majesty the Sultan remains as Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Minister of Defence, whilst HRH the Perdana Wazir (Prince Mohamed Bolkiah) carries on at the Foreign Office.

The first cabinet ran from merdeka (national independence) on 1 January 1984 until the death of the Seri Begawan Sultan in September 1986. The second cabinet was appointed after the end of forty days of mourning and lasted until the end of 1988. The third cabinet, which has just ended, commenced on 1 January 1989. There have been some personnel changes in the interim: HRH Prince Jefri Bolkiah (Minister of Finance, 1986-97), for example, is loudly at odds with HM the Sultan; a former Minister of Development (Pengiran Indera Wijaya Ismail Damit) is currently on trial on corruption charges (which he denies); and changes at the head of the Ministry of Health took place in 1998 and 2002.

The expanded fourth cabinet comprises sixteen posts held by fourteen different persons, embracing one prime minister, one senior minister, twelve ministers (grade one) and two ministers (grade two). There are also ten deputy ministers outside the cabinet (polychrome poster accompanying Pelita Brunei 25.5.05).

In addition to the foregoing, two other office-holders, namely the State Mufti and the Attorney-General, have been raised to ministerial status (Pelita Brunei 25.5.05:1). Given that HRH Princess Masna's role as 'Ambassador-at-Large' has long been 'suatu jawatan bertaraf menteri' (PB, Aneka section, 25.8.1999:1), 'an office of ministerial rank', there is now a total of twenty-seven ministers (twenty-nine offices). This compares with only twenty (twenty-two posts) at the end of the third cabinet.

Innovations this time include the 'senior minister' post in the Prime Minister's Office; the two ministers 'grade two'; and an entirely new department, namely the Ministry of Energy. The last-named, which comes under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office, will be headed by Pehin Yahya Bakar (b. 1954), a former permanent secretary.

The new team was formally sworn in on 30 May and is shown actually meeting as a cabinet (PB 1.6.05:1), something which the present writer does not recall having seen previously. Whether this heralds an era of more consultative government remains to be seen.

Some other features of the fourth cabinet are as follows:

1. None of the ministers is elected, none has democratic legitimacy. All of them will have been chosen for their proven loyalty to the existing system. One key point, which has been overlooked by commentators, is that the cabinet has been appointed for five years (PB 25.5.05:1, 2). This fact renders even more nugatory the promised Legislative Council elections, a date for which has still not been announced.

2. Men, Muslims, and Malays are overwhelmingly privileged; the line-up includes only one woman (HRH Princess Masna) and only one non-Muslim (Pehin Lim Jock Seng, who comes in as Minister of Foreign Affairs, grade two, having been Permanent Secretary at the same ministry since 1986).

3. Therefore, the Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB) or Malay Islamic Monarchy policy continues. Some analysts anticipate, however, a slight toning-down of Islamic restrictions, which have reportedly aroused some opposition; indeed, the State Mufti recently bewailed the fact that fewer local Muslims were learning the Quran nowadays, preferring pop shows instead (BBO 21.5.05).

4. The new cabinet marks a further milestone in the seemingly inexorable rise of Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, 31, who is appointed to the new position of Senior Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. His Royal Highness now ranks second in the government to HM the Sultan and is plainly being groomed to take over in due course as prime minister as well as monarch.

5. No political party is represented in the cabinet. One prominent politician noted (with apparent approval) that NBD 'has never practised a government administered by members of political parties but [is] a nation ruled by an absolute monarchy who [sic] determines the direction of management and looks after the welfare of the people' (BBO 8.6.05). This begs the question why he should have become a party leader in the first place and, indeed, why political parties should be set up in the sultanate at all. It is certainly true that NBD lacks the distinction, usual in Western countries, between politicians elected by popular vote to run the government and career civil servants appointed to administer the bureaucracy. The NBD cabinet is in effect the top echelon of the civil service. Permanent secretaries can advance to ministerial ranks as, indeed, has happened on this occasion. Hence there are likely to be knock-on effects throughout the public service as vacancies become available in the posts immediately above.

6. Promotion to a ministerial post is to some extent by merit, but owes more to patronage. 'Fresh blood' has certainly been introduced to ministerial ranks this time from the 'private sector' and the armed forces; but even these people would have owed their original careers to appointment approved by HM the Sultan. In other words, contrary to some commentary, there has not really been a liberalisation or modernisation of the government.

7. Four cabinet ministers and three deputy ministers, giants of Negara Brunei Darussalam's history, now leave the stage for well-merited retirement. Some of these individuals have rendered forty years (or even more) of service to their country. Pehin Isa Ibrahim (b. 1935), the sultanate's first university graduate, stands down as Home Secretary; his additional post of 'Special Adviser to HM the Sultan' appears to lapse. Pehin Abdul Aziz Umar (b. 1936) ceases to be Minister of Health (a pious Muslim, he has a recent history of heart trouble); Pehin Hussain Mohd Yusof (b. 1933), who was at Grade I of the Brunei Administrative Service as long ago as 1963 (Brunei Government Gazette 27.5.1963:114), departs as Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, a post held since 1986; whilst the somewhat younger Pehin Zakaria Sulaiman takes a well-earned rest after having been Minister of Communications since 1989. Age and length of service cannot be the sole reasons for departure, however, because one or two continuing ministers are older or longer-serving (or both) than at least one of those who is leaving.

As a result of the latest changes there is only one non-royal survivor from the original 1984 line-up (Pehin Abdul Rahman Taib, who now moves from the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources to that of Education) and only two from the 1986 reshuffle (Pehin Abdul Rahman plus Pehin Mohd Zain Serudin, the latter having been Minister of Religious Affairs these nineteen years).

8. Among the ranks of deputy ministers, there are three notable casualties: Mejar-Jeneral Ibnu Ba'asith Apong, who joined the Brunei Malay Regiment (now the Royal Brunei Armed Forces) at its inception in 1961, ceases to be Deputy Minister of Defence; Pehin Yahya Ibrahim (b 1939) departs from Religious Affairs; whilst Pehin Mohd Ali Daud stands down from the Foreign Office. But if one prominent poet (Pehin Yahya Ibrahim) is lost to ministerial ranks, a new one is gained through his successor, Pehin Badaruddin Othman (b. 1942); so there will be no diminution in the cultural backbone of the government. No deputy minister survives as such from the 1986 line-up, although Pehin Ahmad Jumat subsequently advanced to the cabinet as Minister for Development (2001-5) and now becomes Minister of Industry and Primary Resources.

Overall, there is no sign of HM the Sultan relinquishing his firm grip on power nor of any relaxation of the MIB doctrine. Plus ça change.

WATCHPOINT: Expect more of the same.


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