It is quite well-known that Singapore and Brunei possess strong relations. The fixed currency exchange peg and yearly military joint exercise program are just two of the many testaments of this friendship. But how did this friendship originate? How has both benefit in the process? And how can its younger generation maintain it? These are the questions that have been ignored by our local historians and intellectuals. This is extremely unfortunate given the tricky waters of the 21st century and the Spartly islands dispute looming nearby. With the recent Vietnam-China incident, we might as well learn what happened in the not so distant past so as to avoid such potential problems. And with Brunei and Singapore having a large stake in each others’ prosperity, security. and stability, the need for partnership is all the more present. But a partnership, as any partnership out there, requires reciprocity and it is the younger generation that needs to facilitate this to create a strong diplomatic relation in the decades to come. But first, here’s how Brunei and Singapore became friends.
How it all began
In 1962, Brunei had to deal with an internal revolt that was hellbent in destroying the then Tungku Rahman’s plan in absorbing Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah into Malaysia. Led by A.M. Azahari, the rebels not only want to unite the People against the plan but to establish a state that was to be called North Kalimantan Utara. No sooner after the revolt, the British dispatched their Gurkha troops garrisoned in Singapore to deal with the problem. Renowned for their military prowess and fearless reputation, the Gurkhas quickly wiped out the “orang derhakas”. Those who remained were imprisoned and those who escaped seek refuge in the neighboring country. Brunei was safe again. SOAS who initially planned to make Brunei join Malaysia took note of the rebellion and finally refused to join the federation. The rebellion failed but it preserved Brunei’s sovereignty. Sarawak and Sabah, in the absence of effective political framework joined in. Deep inside, SOAS felt how pressured he was to improve the state but but having the Oil, he knew that it was time to make full use of it.
Singapore, on the other hand, had a similar story. Taking on Tungku Rahman’s invitation, Singapore joined Malaysia. They thought they can peacefully co-exist with their existing political superstructures. How wrong were they when disagreements in social, political, economical policies frequently broke out between the two. It was so dire that soon the People had had enough. In the afternoon of 1963, the Racial Riots broke out. And as history tells that that was the result of too much dissident and disagreement within the system. It was ugly. In total, the violence killed 36 people and injured another 556. About 3,000 people were arrested. The incident almost tore down the very foundation of what made Singapore, Singapore. The Tungku, panicking over the situation called in for a referendum to expel Singapore from Federation to avoid further chaos. The vote stood at a crushing 126-0. The Singaporean delegates was not even present during the voting session. Soon after the incident, Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew in a televised interview gave this reaction. Deep in his heart, LKY knew Singapore was about to face a hell of a situation. It was do or die. In 1965, Singapore declared independence.
With both states attaining political independence, the main goals for both leaders were to achieve national stability and growth in a region dipped in chaos. Seeing their respective situation, they knew they were in the same page. And they knew they have to work with together. SOAS saw how much he needed to train his People to extract and make use of the Oil, and a military logistical base center to call in troops if any revolts ever happen again. Lee Kwan Yew needed currency stability to attain economic recovery. Thus seven years after the Brunei Revolt and two years after the Racial Riot, both nation signed an agreement to do implement a currency fixed exchange and military joint exercise, these among many. This gave Singapore the much needed economic strength and insurance to bounce back from its lowest point, Brunei the Skilled labour required to build and commercialize the Oil, and a standing army ready to be dispatched immediately. This partnership was not based so much on friendship but much rather on necessity.
Where do we go from here?
The ever present problem the world we live in today has been marked with evils manifest, that if not contained upon can destroy a national sovereignty and open the country up to external threats. Consider Ukraine’s internal political trashing, thanks to EU and USA, that eventually paved the way for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We are seeing opportunism and global realpolitik dominating the present landscape. It happened in the past, and it’s happening now. These are serious matters to understand that if both Bruneians and Singaporeans close their minds and let blind their eyes shall set forth upon threats that could make both countries vulnerable to the modern version of Roman imperialism that destroyed, subvert and annexed nearby civilizations; notably Rome’s annihilation of Carthage. Such a vast empire that once commanded the Mediterranean was completely wiped out thanks to the Romans. It happened to them, it can happen to us. Consider the two case below:
1) Brunei has its Oil to ensure its survival and security. With the power of finance and strategic geographical location, Brunei can call upon the US, UK and the 5,000 Gurkhas (stationed in the Oil Town at Seria) to defend it. But with a country so dependent on Black Gold and its allies, is the security really that sustainable? Is the local army equipped to deal with external threats or will history repeat itself again? 2) Singapore on the other hand has a robust, stable and powerful economy and its national service program (which Brunei is considering lately) ensures that Singapore can produce a standing army overnight. However given its environment, Singapore is highly exposed to Ariel attacks, Naval blockade, chemical attacks, and telecommunications sabotage that could make the whole military operation deaf, blind, and mute. Does it have the infrastructure and allies to assist in its time of need?
What we are facing today may not likely happen in the nearby future. But to think that any nation is free from any potential attack is to live in a dreamworld. The Singaporen and Bruneian leaders are well aware of this fortunately. And to enhance this understanding, the need to cooperate and complement each others’ strengths through policies such as the currency exchange pegs and joint military exercise program. All of this could be traced back to the incidents, Brunei Revolt and Racial Riots, that proved to be monumental and lasting in shaping a partnership between both nations. This is how Singapore and Brunei became friends. But then other questions arise: Will this cooperation last forever? Can Singapore provide Brunei what it needs and vice verse in order to make an effective partnership in the long-run? Now that is something its younger generations have to consider.