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ASEAN, Brunei Darussalam, Economy

A Case to Reform the Legislative Council System for the Next Parliamentary Cycle



Picture credits to Roslan Rahman @GettyImages

There were errors made in this article regarding the workings of parliament, which I have now corrected and clarified in the best way possible. The wrong points have been pointed out using a strikethrough and the corrections and clarifications are written in blue. The errors made were regrettable. 

“Brunei shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent Malay, Muslim Monarchy…” was the pronouncement made by His Majesty in the eve of Brunei’s independence in 1984, a historical day marked with full promise and hope for the Rakyat and the country itself for re-assuming total control over its affairs after a long period of British colonial rule. Prior to national independence, the country’s foreign policy, defence, and internal affairs save those relating to the religious and royal aspect were controlled by the UK government under the long list of High Commissioners based in Brunei, who acted as the de facto “Prime Ministers” of the country, as per the agreement signed in 1906 that made Brunei a British protectorate. Since then the High Commissioners from Britain played a crucial part in bringing about modernity to Brunei, building its industries, schools, police and armed forces, airports, roads, telecommunication lines, electricity, urban centres, civil force, and most importantly the foundation upon which democracy is founded upon: the parliament (located at Lapau). The parliament is the platform where representative government is developed, taking in the form of elected persons whose duties are to debate, pass, and revoke national legislation to name a few. These people are called the legislative council members.

It would take a long historical discourse to trace back the development of the parliament and its effect on national politics. What can be said, arguably and according to research, is how effective the parliament was in securing support, accountability and transparency from the government in all of its affairs with the presence of these legislative council members (equivalent to Member of parliament), especially if they are elected by the people to the post. In 2016, HM made a bold and strategic move by appointing from the citizen body a few youth members as legislative council members. These individuals are by right meritorious and have proven over the years their loyalty and competence to the nation and the people whom they affect. Never has there been in this region, at least to this writer’s knowledge, such a situation whereby young individuals given the seats on the table, possessing equal powers as those of their seniors in national politics. Yes, other countries may have its “Youth Parliament” but in Brunei’s case, our young people are in the national parliament. This is indicative of HMs promise to Lord Chalfont in the biography “By God’s Will” that when the right moment comes then democracy will once again be implemented, so long as the political posts are held by those sincere and competent enough to steer the general community and society at large forward.

Where should Brunei go next? It is the opinion of this writer that in the next legislative cycle that a few reform has to be undertaken. These reforms include the introduction of selective elections to the legislative council post. This is not a revolutionary idea, but rather a simple and straightforward one. Here the government can introduce a quota for two posts that are up for grabs for those who want to fill in the post. To win it they have to context in a nation-wide election. Whoever gets the most vote, gets to be the next legislative council member. As such, in order for them to secure victory, they have to compete in an open national contest governed by multiple variables that include having the right mandates to back their words up. So if HS wants to be the next legislative council member he has to make promises to the people who would vote for him. Some of the promises may include 1) securing citizenship for the stateless, 2) introducing a minimum wage, 3) to strengthen the laws to protect worker’s rights in the country. If he can elicit enough vote in relative to his other opponents, then he should get the post. Once he is there, he should do all his best to fulfil his promise otherwise trust in his ability and competence will erode like the tears in the rain. With a highly educated citizen body in Brunei, we can find enough competent people who can fill in the post for the next cycle in no time. If the person fails to deliver or act in a way that is unbecoming of a legislative council member, HM can simply sack him.

There are two other changes that may be required of the parliament. First, is the need to allow people to speak using the English language. Malays should not be deterred over the use. Further, using English will boost the ability of the legislative council members to communicate his or her ideas effectively to the general society, not just Malays. This is a certainty because almost 30% of the country’s population are non-Malays. It would also be better off for us to use a neutral language so that we do not unnecessarily alienate the non-Malay minority. Sometimes taking the high road is important because marginalising others based on multiple factors such as race, language, ethnicity, religion and all the like may end up marginalising ourselves in the end, especially as we are operating at a changing global order.

While the English language may not be utilised as a working model anytime soon, the Legislative Council members are allowed to speak a mixture of English and Bahasa Malay (mostly BM, of course). And since Brunei is a predominantly Malay country, there is still that social aspect that would make it necessary to speak in the country’s official language. An important note that has to be considered too that people in attendance are given audio headsets during the parliamentary sessions, where they would get an immediate translation of what the YBs have said in other languages, including English and Mandarin. There are also mass media which can help disseminate information in other languages effectively for the public to read.

The next change demands legislative council members to speak out without any need of pre-screen scripts. It somewhat undermines the institution of parliament to the eyes of the general public knowing that the legislative council members are seen as to be “censored” or have their speeches controlled by others. The complaint that the parliamentary proceedings are just like a “wayang” or movie theatre is real and should not be glossed over. Having that level of impromptu communications would also enable the legislative council members to demand accountability to an otherwise standoffish public official and vice versa. That would give much-needed impetus for the public sector to be constantly prepared for questioning and to answer them when the legislative council demands them so.

The Legislative Council members, contrary to popular perception and as wrongly asserted in this article, DO NOT read pre-screened scripts. They also make their own speeches along the way. According to the YBs, they have the autonomy to speak and raise questions on different issues in the parliament. That said, there are two types of questions. The first is a fact-finding question which they can submit to the ministers or public officials beforehand, so as to give them ample time to prepare the right information to be given. The second type of question is the open-ended question, which can cover a wide variety of issues. Here the YBs (MP equivalent) have the autonomy to ask all sorts of questions. At times, they prepare these questions on the spot – which is good!

Another change to the system is the need to open up the legislative council quota to every citizen, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, race, age, religion, creed, ethnicity, and background. The spirit of inclusiveness must be introduced at the top-level of government so it sends a positive message that Brunei has always been an open, tolerant, inclusive society for all. The idea to exclude an individual based along the lines of the aforementioned social dimensions from public office is becoming an outdated model in current times. This has to change because Brunei is inherently a multi-racial nation, whether we ignore this fact or not. As a society, we have lived and survived in this region for over six hundred years and so such racial mix is inevitable. Therefore, inclusiveness has to be introduced. However, such inclusiveness is not a silver bullet in delivering result for a nation, for it must always be subordinated by the principle of meritocracy in order that “identity politics” or “tokenism” does not take root. The philosophy that can probably translate this approach is the need to create equal opportunities for citizens, not give them equal results.

The appointment of Legco council members was never made exclusive to just one social group. Rather it is indeed inclusive and can be open to “every citizen, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, race, age (so long as he or she is above 21 years old), religion, creed, ethnicity, and background” The important thing now is that we should all work towards encouraging more people from different backgrounds to be appointed as Legco council members, provided they are competent for the job and are citizens of Brunei. This will provide effective representation for other minorities (or other social groups) in the country and give more colour to the ideas that will be presented in parliament. 

To create a sustainable and robust ecosystem conducive to the development of the legislative council or necessitates that the government introduce programmes to develop the competencies of young people. As oxymoron as it may sound, young people is crucial in the development of the state. However, there has been lukewarm effort undertaken by the government in actually training young people for the post of leadership. What are some of the programmes that could be introduced and implemented effectively at the educational system? There are many but one notable aspect on leadership and competency-building is in debates. Debates are crucial for young people to get a hang-on, not because one wants to secure victory for the sake of victory through the un-relentless barrage of noise and unreason, which this writer is admittedly once guilty of, but rather to give them the proper training on the art of deliberation. To deliberate matters with fellow peers is such an important skill that must continue to be polished. If Brunei is serious, the MOE should make it mandatory for every school to have a debate society. If the students, by the very least, get the hang of debating, arguing, speaking publicly and discussing based on methodical research, and to deliver it with the proper emotions, and basing all his or her points upon reasoning then it would be sufficient in a way to prepare them for a legislative council post someday. Otherwise, they may just end up being a quiet, frustrated, and passive citizen who could have otherwise secured the strength to take his or her ideas openly to influence public opinion, be it through the newspaper or in televised debates. These people must also be willing to admit mistakes and be corrected along the way when they give out wrong information and wrong judgement. The important thing is that we keep the conversation going to help correct ourselves from any mistakes so we can keep on improving our society forward.

Moulding a society towards a better path demands change both at the bottom-up and top-down level. As one minister would say it that in order to transform a society, it takes a whole-of-nation approach. Nothing gives hope for the people other than the ability for the country to continually set pace the reform that is required for its parliamentary system. If Brunei is serious in its efforts to introduce democracy to fulfil the wishes and promise that HM made on the eve of independence, then we have to work hard indeed. I am confident that if the changes are done then we will move towards that positive direction, namely by opening up a quota for people to contest in elections to secure the legislative council post, to be able to use English – a neutral language – to communicate within the workings if parliament, the freedom of speech without the need to have pre-written or -censored scripts, the level of inclusiveness so that the best, meritorious, and brightest can fill in the important post of the legislative council, and the proper training that demands the MOE to introduce debates to every school, college, and university in Brunei so as to prepare the next generation of young people for the post of leadership. Touching on the aspect of inclusive development, let us take heed of HRH Prince Mateen’s advise that Brunei should work towards becoming an inclusive society. This probably results in my last although unrelated but poignant point that HRH Prince Mateen should be a legislative council member and appointed as defence minister (Mohammad bin Salman was 29 when was appointed as defines minister for Saudi Arabia) in the next parliamentary cycle, which would make him around the same age as MBS then. There is hope for change indeed.

Credits to YB Khairunissa Ash’ari and YB Iswandy Ahmad for their valuable feedback to improve this piece!

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