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ASEAN, Brunei Darussalam

Preserving sustainable co-operation between Brunei and Hong Kong by Abdul Malik Omar


This is the second part of a two series-article focusing on Brunei and Hong Kong relations. See the first part here. Do share!

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Interview questions by Jacky Li Chun Leung, President of Southward Research Centre (Hong Kong) and answers by Abdul Malik Omar

How can we promote the Bruneian-Hong Kong bilateral relation in the economic field? 

We have to look at the similarities of Brunei and Hong Kong first and foremost in their strategic paths to pursue development. Both are micro-states surrounded by mammoth markets within Asia. To punch above their weight in the changing global order, both are strategically positioning themselves as “gateways” to its neighbouring economies.

While Hong Kong serves as the gateway to China, Brunei is striving to be the gateway to Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, where Brunei and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia are located. The island has some over eighteen-million in population and has some of the richest primary resources in the ASEAN region; oil, gas, coffee, timber, rubber, coal, copper, tin, you name it, Borneo has it.

Brunei’s interest lies in securing a strategic economic foothold in Island. There are three key areas to help us attain such objective, namely by building up our financial, logistical, and manufacturing industrial base. Doing so we would then be able to capitalise on the profitable BIMP-EAGA bloc, an economic bloc made up of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Brunei which holds tremendous potential for growth and which so happens to be geographically dependent to Borneo.

Having this in mind, Brunei has yet to attain its goal of building a foothold in Borneo given its lack of experience, resources, and human capital in matters of regional diplomacy and economic development; while Hong Kong is, safe to say, well-equipped to position itself to capitalise on the rising tide of Chinese growth and development.

To promote bilateral relations in the economic field, Hong Kong, with its superiority and advancement in the financial, logistical and manufacturing industries, is well-poised to capitalise the opportunity to assist in developing Brunei’s capacities – financial, logistical, and manufacturing – as to ultimately enable Brunei to serve as the gateway to Borneo and subsequently win greater influence in the BIMP-EAGA Bloc.

What Hong Kong could do is to centre its ASEAN companies in geo-strategic Brunei. How can Hong Kong gain from this? First, by centring its Borneo-based companies in Brunei, it would enable Hong Kong and Chinese companies to secure a foothold in the eighteen-million population (or market) in the island.

Secondly, it would enable Hong Kong to have greater access to the island’s market primary resources that I have just mentioned. To access those resources, it may require a point of contact which Brunei can become and work on through the BIMP-EAGA bloc, effectively and literately opening up doors for HK and Chinese companies to operate in and access resources of the island.

Third, it would build up Hong Kong’s clout in the ASEAN region – its second largest trading partner – by playing an effective role in building up Brunei and having greater access to Borneo, the BIMP-EAGA bloc, and effectively the ASEAN market. It would ultimately assist in positioning Hong Kong in its second largest key market that it needs to continue to drive up economic growth and maintain its eminent economic global clout.

I think achieving these strategic goals together is how both Hong Kong and Brunei – both micro-states – can drive up bilateral relations with each other in the economic field.

Is it possible for the Bruneian government to develop a sustainable economic development with reference to the related examples in Hong Kong for the shortage production of oil in the future?

Hong Kong’s financial industry makes up 16% of its GDP; manufacturing 15%; logistical 23% (2013/2014 figures). Add them up, that is over half of HKs economic output. In the path to developing a sustainable economic model away from Oil and Gas, I believe Brunei should emulate the ‘HK model’ as well, namely by building up its financial, manufacturing, and logistics industries.

In terms of finance, Brunei already has a successful domestic financial bank, BIBD, which has consistently won many international awards. In manufacturing, Brunei is still in its infancy but is seeing a surge in FDIs  US$6.9 billion alone in last year (Borneo Bulletin, 2016) serves to remind us that Brunei is in a stage of growth. In regards to logistics, trade is ever-growing because of Brunei’s position in the geographical map – its centrality of ASEAN – and its location at the third largest island in Borneo, home to Brunei and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. The island also has some of the richest primary resources in the region.

In adding up to the logistical side, Brunei was once utilised by regional traders in the 14th century as a trading hub that helped ushered Brunei into its golden age. So powerful was that period Brunei emanated glory, wealth and influence in the region.

So based on the “Hong Kong model”, as well as Brunei’s recent and historical example, there are manifold opportunities of growth and development for Brunei in finance, manufacturing and logistics, as a path to developing a sustainable economic model in light of the shortage of oil and gas.

What are the opportunities? To capitalise on the next era of development Brunei requires help to develop these industries. Hong Kong has that, and while I may not speak on behalf of the government, I see from my analysis the need for Brunei to develop these areas. 90% of our GDP is dependent on Oil and we should take steps to build on a healthier economic position, and businessmen from Hong Kong can capitalise on these key developments.

On another note, I invite HK readers or businessmen to look deep into the opportunities presented by my nation to capitalise on our markets. I am sure Brunei is the right choice to invest in. I am open for consultation. Interested parties can contact me through a.b.haji-omar@lse.ac.uk.

Historically, Hong Kong is one of the immigration choice for the Chinese people Brunei on or before the independence of Brunei, do you think Bruneian government can regain the support of these people?

The Chinese community in Brunei represents 11% of the total population today. I do not have access to the figures of migration, but there is indeed a prevailing public opinion that they are migrating out of the country. But without facts and figures to support this statement, then such declaration is unwise. Let us wait until the figures are available and then we judge.

But let me say first that the local Chinese community has been and always be a part of Brunei. This can be observed through our long shared history that can be traced back to Zheng He’s visit in the 15th century. In his records, he wrote of a substantial presence of Chinese community in Brunei.

There was also a Chinese admiral by the name of Ong Sum Ping, the Chinese admiral who founded Kota Kinabalu. He went on to marry a Bruneian princess and passed on his fleets and armada to the Bruneian kingdom. I believe the same fleets and armada is what is used by the Great Sultan Bolkiah the 5th to expand the Bruneian empire in the region back in the 15th century.

The Chinese community has also been instrumental in setting up fortresses in Kota Batu and Pulau Chermin, both key fortress in the 15th century that enabled Brunei to defend itself from enemies of the past. One is located on top of a hill adjacent to Kampong Ayer, another at the mouth of the Brunei river. These fortresses were also outfitted with cannons probably passed on by the Chinese. Without these fortresses, Brunei would have been easily invaded by foreign enemies a long time ago and our history could have been different without them.

Next, there is a tomb of Sultan Abdul Majid who in his visit to China passed away and was buried in Nanking. He remains one of the only two foreign rulers buried in China.

Also in the 20th century, when China faced struggles such as the civil war, world war, famine and disasters caused by the cultural revolution and the great leap forward, one has to consider that when they escaped the mainland, many of them passed through HK and some eventually landed to Brunei, one of the countries that embraced them.

Our late Sultan SOAS, for instance, was instrumental as a national figurehead of helping to turn the tide of public opinion from the Malay community to accept the Chinese refugees in those trying periods. Another way how he supported them – apart from allowing them to enter and live in Brunei – was the creation and preservation of the Chinese temple, which still stands at the heart of the city. It represents a mark of respect to the Chinese culture, religion, and way of life in Brunei. As a result, he is known to be a great benefactor of the Chinese community and from which he was greatly admired and respected.

Today, the subsequent generations of the Chinese community who passed through the 20th century are living peacefully in the nation under protection of the current ruler, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah. Today the community (such as the Hokkian, Hakka, Cantonese) have a stellar reputation for being entrepreneurial and possessing many business holdings, factors which are vital for our nation’s economic development and growth.

Why am I saying these things? First, both Bruneian and Chinese community have to acknowledge the deep, long shared history and contribution to each other, both in the past and present.

The Bruneian Malays are well aware of the assistance the Chinese community has contributed to our country’s history. We are striving to help them. And, yes, there are indeed many areas where Brunei can improve on. One area is the issue of Chinese stateless. Brunei is not perfect, but then again we are striving to change things.

But then again the Chinese community, especially, this new generation have to also to acknowledge the assistance that our nation has given to the first or second generation Chinese in Brunei in those trying periods of the 20th century. SOAS  could have made the easy decision to capitulate to nationalist sentiment by blocking their access. Rather he stuck to his guns to allow them to stay here nonetheless.

It is like what we are seeing in Germany with the refugee crisis. It would have been politically easier for Angela Merkel to block the Syrians and other refugees from coming to Germany instead of striving to integrate them into society. That was the challenge of SOAS in the past. How can he reconcile politically charged domestic nationalistic opposition to the refugee problem? After all the Communist fear was ever present not just in the Brunei but all over the region. But as we can see, history has shown us that SOAS made the right decision to allow those who migrated to Brunei to live and stay here. Today they belong to the Brunei society. They belong to the country. Everyone has to remember this.

In fact, some of the Chinese businessmen in the capital whom I interviewed said how their ancestors came from the mainland and because of the turmoil faced had to escape to Brunei. One of my friends, whose grandfather was a former captain who led a hundred men against the WW2 Japanese forces in mainland China, is now studying at Oxford University under the Brunei government scholarship!

So in “regaining the support” of the Chinese community, I say that they do support us and will continue to do so.  Brunei is not perfect but we are striving to help them by being more inclusive and open. Because the people know that the principles of inclusion is most vital in assisting the nation to strive ahead in the changing global order. This is how Brunei can intensify the support of the Chinese community. It applied such inclusive policies in the past, it will intensify it once again.

Any closing thoughts on building up HK-Brunei relations?

To conclude, I believe that so long as we have the right intentions, clear objectives, and a look back of our history from the very start in building up HK-Brunei relations then I believe that there is a path forward. I will lead the people I know to work towards building that relations and perhaps one day galvanise the machinery of state to intensify the process. But we cannot do this alone.

The Hong Kong people must also be pro-active in ensuring that the relations between our countries can be developed through effective policies, such as the ones I mentioned. We much like any other countries out there need assistance in terms of expertise, support, and development to pursue our developmental strategic goals. Two of them has been mentioned: By helping Brunei secure a foothold in Borneo and by developing the national industrial base in finance, manufacturing, & logistics. HK can help us attain these goals.

Then and finally then I believe we from Brunei and HK will have that chance of moving forward in building a bright future in the pages of history in the 21st century. Together we build, together we succeed, together we move forward.

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