Bolstering Brunei’s economic growth serves as a key element in state policy. As Brunei propels forward, it is best for the government to review the current legislation pertaining the public entertainment law outlined in Chapter 181, and to fast-track the process of private sectors to secure an event permit from the government. There are now strong desire for change in this area coming from young people due to the legislation and permit process being seen as a major stumbling block to the growth of the creative (concert, parades, debates, comedy show, etc.) and event (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) industries in the country.
First, we must understand that the creative and the event industries are high growth industries that can contribute immensely to the growth of a nation’s economy. In the UK, creative industries generated £84.1bn or around £10m an hour to the UK economy and supported 2.8 million jobs in 2014 (UK Gov Report, 2016). In the US, the meetings (a part of events industry) industry directly supports 1.7 million jobs and contributes $106 billion to GDP, according to the study, The Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy (PwC US, 2011). To put it in a local context, a recent concert this writer organized saw Brunei gain $18,000 – $25,000 in general economic value. The potential to unlock economic growth is self-evident, thus the necessity that Brunei should update the public entertainment law and fastback its permit process immediately.
The main problem for the current legislation and permit system is that it has caused a lot of ventures (including concerts, conferences, trade fairs, and meetings) to fail or be canceled at the last minute. Many youths, including one of our youth legislative council members, have raised their concern regarding this issue. One youth I heard vented his frustration about the permit as a sole cause for his team’s performance being canceled. All the hard work he and his team put in went down the drain. Little wonder why he is bitter at the permit system. Unfortunately, despite their open calls for change, nothing has been done so far, which is disappointing, not mainly because a lot of young people felt like they are being ignored, but that the consequences of this outdated permit system continue to cause incalculable harm to these two high growth industries in our economy.
The details of applying a permit are as follows: First, the entrepreneur has to fill in a form to apply for the permit at least three weeks before the event. These events include musical concerts, performances, conferences, charity events, and more that involves selling tickets or general participation from the general public. Secondly, they have to pay between $100-$350 to apply for the permit. Next, a special censorship board must be present to “observe” a show or concert behind closed doors. Once a decision has been made by these board, then the entrepreneurs will be given the answer as to whether their events will be approved or not.
There are multiple reasons why this system is ineffective. First, the time period of applying a minimum of three weeks before the event becomes an unnecessary inconvenience for entrepreneurs to organise an event. It just takes too long and the uncertainty of whether the event is approved or not is always ever-present, making long-term plans generally ineffective. This affects especially first-time event entrepreneurs or artists that want to showcase their business and talents respectively in Brunei. By the time they learned of the permit system, it would have probably been too late and they may as well as cancel them. This is an avoidable tragedy.
Next, the cost of applying the permit is just too high for start-ups or Micro businesses to absorb. In addition, hotels and other meeting venues exploit the difficulty of securing the permit process by raising the prices of renting a venue, which adds to the general cost and complications of operating an event business. Moreover, the need for the government officials to be present to oversee the event beforehand is unnecessary, as it misdirects their time and energy, which they could have instead focused on creating economic policies that actually work.
What are the changes to be done? These include the need to reduce permit application process from three weeks to a day. The process should be made online instead of filling a paper form. Next, the permit should be free or cost less than $10 so as to save general costs for businesses planning to host an event/concert/meeting. To ensure that organisers do not cause problems, the government has to outline openly and transparency the can do and can’t do’s or the general rules in organising events in Brunei. Finally, the government could simply dispatch one or two security uniformed or trained personnel to be present during the entire period of the actual event to ensure that the guidelines outlined by the government are strictly adhered too, lest the organiser’s event canceled on-the-spot given the officer’s prerogative and responsibility to do so.
If the changes are made, then there will be a growing dynamism among our young people to organise many exciting and fun-filled events and activities across the city. This will empower young people to make a success of themselves in these two areas. With their help, Brunei can elevate its economic position towards the right trajectory with this simple change of this state policy. We must also understand that entrepreneurs are the sources of prosperity to a nation, one that can produce jobs and intensify economic growth to the economy.
Their growing ability to commercialise their ideas in organising concerts, events, performances, etc. would grow strength by strength and this would go a long way to “recirculate” the money that the Bruniean consumer could have otherwise spent abroad. In 2015 alone, for instance, Bruneians spend over $1.3 billion (RM3.7 billion) in our neighbouring country (Lyna M, 2017), partly due to the limited product and service offerings in this country. Giving our entrepreneurs the ability to capitalise the creative and event industries would help to re-channel that market spending within the economy. Even a 10% “capture” of that expenditure power would mean that our economy would potentially stand to gain around $130m in domestic sales annually. That is purchasing power that can seriously build Brunei’s economy up.
If the present legislation and permit process remain unchanged, however, then the country will continue to face mounting problems in the economy. Unemployment and crime rates will continue to climb up, while our economic growth will go down. If the law and process are changed, then it can help to reverse these damaging trend our country is facing today. Revising Chapter 181 of the Public Entertainment legislation and the process is, therefore, something that has to be dealt with immediately.
As I have prescribed in my past letter in Borneo Bulletin entitled “Revive Gadong Night Market to Boost Vendors, Jobs” (AM Omar, 2016), that the suggestion to relocate the entrepreneurs back to the Gadong night market would set up an economic boom and create jobs, which it did thanks to His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam’s caring and benevolent leadership and direct intervention; so too that if we change this policy that I am confident that Brunei will have an economic and creative boom which all of our society will stand to gain in areas of economic growth and job creation for our nation once implemented. Thus the need to immediately review Chapter 181, and to fastback the process of applying for an event permit now.
Abdul Malik Omar
It has been a few decades since we have achieved independence and our city, Bandar Seri Begawan, has failed to grow itself into a successful regional city. Yes, you may have the typical museum, historic buildings, and iconic monuments or landmarks, but decades of ineffective governance all has led to the city being overrun in terms of economic competitiveness by its other lesser rich neighboring cities, Miri, Kota Kinabalu, and, to a certain extent, Limbang.
If we were to go to the aforementioned cities, we are exposed to a different city development model that is able, time and again, to augment the lack of financial budget to shape their respective cities forward. This city model can be traced by its pro-democratic governance that enables the people to elect whoever is the mayor of the city. The person elected to office are more accountable towards the people’s demands and less willing to act on the whims of how he or she feels, one can argue.
The twin pillars that motivates mayors, among many, are the need to improve the general conditions of the people by intensifying growth and to reduce the unemployment rate of the country. Doing at the city level is perfect for this as it has been argued by the World Bank that cities generate 80% of economic growth. It is at cities too where the greatest number of jobs are generated and concentrated, among many other factors.
The economic dynamism can be fulfilled if there was a serious person who can work, without fear or favor, for the needs and interests of the people. The mayors of Limbang, Miri, and Kota Kinabalu have made it their mandate, backed by the people of their constituencies, to fulfilling the mission to bolster economic growth and job prospects for society. As a result, the laws of the country are always adjusted to meet the challenges of the 21st century, making the conditions that enhance the competitiveness of SMEs a reality.
I interviewed a business person in Limbang and asked her why she would not set up in Brunei. She replied how expensive operating in the country is. Therefore, it would be best for her to just stay put in operating in Limbang. It is understandable because that is the reality of the situation our country is facing. Our strong currency backed by the high real estate prices do dampen our competitiveness.
While it may be easier for the government to use these reasons to uphold existing laws, they serve no purpose but to solidify the government’s complacency of not making the city progress ahead. First, the real reason the real estate prices are high is that we have an outdated land legislation that should have been updated decades ago.
It is embarrassing for our country if foreign investors realize the byzantine process of applying, purchasing, and transferring ownership of lands take ages compared to other countries. This process has made our city somewhat less active, both in its economic and social dynamism, no matter how many lights or decorations you put around the city.
The result is that the few people who got into real estate early on in the 60s, long before the land laws were passed, are able to solidify their control over real estate in the city. Not only do these businesspeople profit at the cost of society, with soaring inflation making rents too high, but some of their grandchildren who subsequently inherit these properties mismanage the apartments and buildings leading to deformed and eye-soring buildings within the city.
The land laws that were meant to protect the poor end up protecting the rich, because the rich are able to protect themselves from upcoming competition under the guise of the law. More competition leads to economic dynamism that is at the heart of successful economic development. At the behest of the people’s interest, the mayors of Limbang, Miri, and Kota Kinabalu made sure that real estate laws were relaxed in order that SMEs and the people’s livelihood can be enhanced over any special interest that want to profit from bygone land laws.
The magical part is that the land laws that Brunei has can easily be updated. We have the human capital and knowledge access for it. With a single directive, we can transform and improve our city position in no time. Yet, after decades of complacency and ignorance, our city has failed time and again to take this step. It may prove to be fatal to the people’s livelihoods if the laws are not updated.
Some changes that should be introduced include reducing the land transfer and land type process to 1 day instead of six unnecessary months. Abolish the “council” that is supposedly responsible to approve these land changes and place trust in the market mechanism to make the right decisions in the aspect of real estate. To do so will enable Brunei to reduce its extensive bureaucracy that has for so long destroyed Brunei’s chances to succeed in economic development and create the jobs needed for our young people.
Bureaucracy has to be eliminated in key aspects of the government that has an impact on the market. Limbang, Miri, Kota Kinabalu have only a fraction of the labor force working for the government, as compared to the bloated civil service of Brunei, yet they are progressing mightily ahead. For one civil service in these cities, they can possibly do the work of “100 Bruneian” civil servants.
It also makes young educated and unemployed people in the country mad knowing the fact that changes are not forthcoming because of the failure to enhance labor productivity and effectiveness in government, despite the large salaries these government servants are being paid for. This can change by introducing the “psychometric tests” on every level of government. The failure to pass it would mean that these civil servants have to be thrown out of work or demoted, while those who pass it shall progress ahead.
If the government is demanding the young people of Brunei to take these psychometric tests today in order to secure a civil servant job, then it would only be fair if those in charge of government today take it too. Make their results public so as to satisfy the demands of young people on the need for transparency on those who govern the country. Are the policy-makers are as effective and smart as they are meant to be to take hold of important positions in government?
If these policy-makers fail, then sack them and give the post to young people. Pay them lesser if the government is in need of saving money, for the young people will not hesitate to accept the post and pay given that they are the hungriest and dynamic of people to contribute in city-development of nation-building. To do so can enhance our labor productivity by miles and it will be safe to say that within five years Brunei will progress mightily ahead too.
On the subject of these cities would invariably pique interest among the young people of Brunei on how they can demand accountability from their government. The failure of the development of the city can be attributed to people hiding behind paperworks and the bureaucratic procedures, thus another main reason why bureaucracy is in need of being eliminated as soon as possible. But what also brings to mind is the need to introduce democracy at the local level in city development.
But what also brings to mind is the need to introduce democracy at the local level in city development. Democracy entails having the people vote whoever wants the position of mayor, or the person who is responsible for governing the city. As of now, we have one called the municipal chairman, but many people express dissatisfaction of the office as being unresponsive to people and SME’s needs, as well as being too bureaucratic and ineffective for a changing global order.
Which is why there needs to be an advocacy of the idea of elections taking place by the people of the city to elect a mayor, whom the people can demand accountability and transparency. The office must, according to the principle of inclusion, be open to all Bruneian citizens or PR regardless of their race, gender, religion, background, or economic position.
He or she must primarily be responsible and accountable for the people who elect the mayor. Having the freedom to elect someone to the position of power in shaping a city have positive consequences. First, the people will be more engaged in city-building, knowing that they have the power to influence in policy-making. Second, the government will be actually doing real jobs, instead of being busy hiding behind paperworks. Finally, a meritorious individual coming from the rank and profile of the Bruneian society will finally emerge to lead the city forward, potentially.
So long as the person is competent, whether he is Chinese or Malay, PR or a citizen, male or female, a Sikh or a Muslim, rich or poor are secondary. Let merit be the principal criteria to which a person should be judged henceforth. Many racists, xenophobic or misogynists may oppose this ideal, but the arch of the universe shall and must bend towards justice and equality.
One prime lesson I learned from my experience studying in London is that I was never discriminated against my religion, race, gender or whatever social dimensions that come into play. What mattered to the Londoners and my classmates were the results I produced.Such ideal must be inculcated into our society as a core principle if we are ever going to rise in a changing global order. The elections of the mayors are one way to promote this principle.
The decades have passed since our independence and BSB still failing to accomplish the goal of being a dynamic hub peeves me. All of the failures have led the Bruneian people down, whether they realise it or not, and this has resulted in us being left behind in terms of economic competitiveness by our neighbouring counterparts, such as KK, Miri, and Limbang. Although city development is not an easy subject to tackle, the need to enhance the importance of city building as a key source of economic growth and job creation must be prioritized.
Solutions to fix the problems at hand include the need to reform the land laws of the country, to eliminate the vast swathes of government bureaucracy, the overhaul and re-formation of the entire civil force through the process of exams given to them, the installation of younger, more competent and hungry individuals in top positions of government, the introduction of elections for mayorship at the city level, and finally the inculcation of meritocracy at the core of government approach in city development are keys to achieving our goals into placing BSB into the top position in the global competitiveness rank in cities.
There is no escape from hard work, and, certainly, there is no escape from the truths that need to be told. Only if we are ever honest and, subsequently, correct ourselves with the stark reality we are facing now can we rapidly rise and survive in a changing global order. This can only be done if we reconfigure a different governance that would enable us to adapt our beloved city, BSB, successfully and mightily in the 21st century.
(Pic credits to http://worldmilitaryintel.blogspot.com/2013/05/blog-post_3993.html)
The neighbourhood watch is an initiative supported and introduced by the police authorities in 2008 with the purpose of empowering local villagers and communities to secure their areas through joint-operations and intel-sharing. Most of the village MPKs (Majlis Perundingan Kampong) have a neighbourhood watch team to carry out the said duties and responsibilities. The chair tends to the village leader or Ketua Kampong. With the increased crime rates plaguing the nation, it is best for the government, relevant authorities, and village leaders to intensify the initiative forward as a way to secure safety for the nation at the local level. There are three important components that have to be considered on why this is so.
The first component of the neighbourhood watch that merits attention is how it can enhance intelligence sharing and active partnering of local communities with the relevant security agencies. The local MPKs must be continually engaged with the police and its respective branch forces to share information which could help identify potential criminals or suspects in their respective areas. At the same time, the security agencies must also share information pertaining targeted hardened criminals (who have probably served their terms) residing in the village groups in order that they can serve as a watchful eye and ears of these persons for the police.
Secondly, the regular joint-police patrols around the neighbourhoods with the local committee members can deter potential crimes provided that the measures are updated and enhanced. The development of a systematic and orderly patrol unit composed of highly committed villagers and police patrols ensure that results can be worthwhile. An added suggestion would be for the patrols to be held in morning and afternoon, not just in the evening or late midnights. The members must keep a watchful eye for any suspicious activities done around the areas surroundings especially. This must range from what is happening next door to being in a restaurant, at the community sports hall to the roadside.
Finally, the committee has to actively promote information and details on how their communities can protect and secure their homes. People take it for granted the measures they need to keep their homes safe. It is up to the local community themselves to remain each other on the best way to secure their homes. An example could be Ali reminding his neighbour not to post his holiday details on social media. Or Zara can, for instance, give contacts to make gates to her local neighbourhood. All in all, we need to create a unified community bent at upholding security and safety for the village through information sharing.
Overall, the neighbourhood watch is a great initiative that has to be intensified to combat criminality in our country. The MPKs and the police force have to work hand-in-hand to ensure that security, order, peace, and safety are promoted in every step of the way. While the neighbourhood watch may be a good solution, we must also understand that the rising crime cannot be stopped by this initiative alone. It is a complex issue that can not be explained and solved in a straightforward manner. Nonetheless, we have to be active in our efforts to combat crime and iIntensifying the neighbourhood watch is one of such solutions.
(Pic credits to The Daily Brunei Resources)
The famous period that marked the golden era of Brunei in the 15th century is renowned to every individual in society. The golden age was seen at a time when Brunei reached its height in both power and wealth in the region. It’s influence and holdings encompass the entire Borneo island, the Palawan and Sulu island, and as far as Selurong (Manila). At the same time, Brunei was seen as an axel of trade in the region bringing in traders from as far as Taif (modern day Saudi Arabia), China, Siam, Nam (Vietnam), Java, and more. Its capital at that time was Kota Batu and it oversaw a Venetian-like water canal namely Kampong Ayer where traders from all over the region and beyond flock together and traded commodities such as silver, spices, porcelain vases, camphor, and much more.
The first Western power that arrived on the shores of the capital was Ferdinand Magellan. In his famous account, he wrote of a powerful sultan who hosted him and his expeditionary crew in his journey to the East. He also wrote the presence of a tightly knit force of soldiers and elephants surrounding the city, as well as large brasses of canons outfitted along the fortress walls of Kota Batu (which could be translated as “Stone Fortress”). According to oral history, the Sultan and the noblemen would reside on the high hills of the fortress whereas the commoners and traders lived by the water villages. Little is certain, however, of how the society operates. But the Malaccan empire, prior to its fall by the Portuguese, can give us a hint at how the power structures are established.
The paramount ruler was obviously the Sultan. He above all is the most powerful and respected of the society. Acting on his behalf is the Begawan, a person who functions as the modern day Prime Minister. He is also in charge of the imperial military force. In addition, there is the Vizer (or advisor), a person who serves the important function of consulting and advising the Sultan and his council. Next is the Laksamana, someone who is entrusted by the Sultan to manage and collect taxes from the harbour. Finally, there is the Singa, who is responsible for managing the internal affairs of state. In this council, they serve as the executive, legislative, and jurisdiction body of the state. Reporting to this council are the combination of the representatives of the commoners and noblemen, who would put forth their ideas, complaints, and suggestions to the council with the Sultan himself presiding the meeting.
The main commodity that brought riches to the Sultanate includes the Champor. It is a white powder material that can be sold at high prices to the regional market. However, this does not explain how Brunei became so immensely rich. Speculation has it that after the fall of the Malaccan empire, the nobleman and followers of that empire mass migrated to Brunei brought their riches with them. They gradually resettled in the area and assimilated to the Bruneian society, therefore adding to the wealth of the Brunei society. They may have also bought skilled craftsmen who were exceptional in their abilities in building and expanding the copper, silver, and gold foundries in Brunei. If we study the modern map of Kampong Ayer, we can see different villages named after different processes.
This suggests that Brunei had an assembly line where it could have potentially churned mass production of goods that is then marketed and sold at the market centre. Not only that, perhaps, with the skilled craftsmen they probably have taught the Bruneian society how to produce canons and firearm. There is a legend that when James Brooke, the British adventurer who later became the Rajah of Sarawak in the 19th century, was fighting against the Brunei forces he and his men were terrified when a loud and earth-shaking blast was heard from miles away. When the fight ended, they realise that it was a canon. The Bruneians called it “Alam Gentar”, which in English could be translated into “Earth Shatterer/Shaker” because if it was fired it literally shook the earth.
That is how advanced the weaponry system of the empire in the day and could have contributed to the strings of strategic battles won during the first five Sultans of Brunei that have expanded the mini tributary state of Majapahit into an independent sovereign imperial power stretching beyond the Borneo island. But was it just the Malaccan empire that has contributed towards the technological leap of Brunei? That would be simplistic to say.
In canon production, one can speculate that external and big powers played a role too. These powers include China and Turkey (yes). Given that China invented gunpowder and was known to have utilised it in their navy, added with the strong Brunei-China relationship (trade between the two nations go back over a thousand years) meant that China imparted the technological knowhows to the people of Brunei too. In fact, it was thanks to the Chinese expertise that enabled Kota Batu to be built during the time of Sultan Saiful Rijal (third sultan of Brunei). It could have been argued that China saw Brunei at that time as an especially strategic point in the region to conduct trade (and it did) so safeguarding their golden nest was a paramount importance to them. Building the fortresses and the military prowess in the form of the transference of canon technology enabled Brunei to fortify itself from any powers that may rival itself in the region.
Brunei-China history will not be complete without the mentioned of two great Chinese admirals who visited Brunei. The first one is the famed Zheng He, who literally brought with him the largest navy on earth at that time. He may not have landed his entire navy ashore (due to the shallow waters of Kampong Ayer) but he may as well parked his navy by the deepwater Brunei Bay. From there he took a smaller but elegant boat with dragon carvings and designs (arguably one which may have looked like the floating boat within the vicinity of SOAS mosque) where he was accompanied by his companions and followers to meet the then Sultan.
There and then negotiations may have occurred on how to improve and promote maritime trade, security, and development between the two powers. It could have probably been suggested that Zheng He or his predecessors of the past made an active decision to turn Brunei into a regional hub where Chinese sailors and traders can conduct and do business in the region. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands of boats might have flowed in and out of the waters of Kampong Ayer. It would have been an amazing spectacle that is truly comparable to the Venice of its day, which in its time saw traders from all over the world to haggle, negotiate, and do businesses with one another. Zheng He’s arrival might not have initiated the plan to turn Brunei into a conduit, but may as well intensify it along the way.
The next Chinese admiral is none other than Ong Sum Ping. Known as a powerful navy commander, he founded the modern day Kinabatangan at Kota Kinabalu. Much like Kota Batu, Kota Kinabalu (see the key word Kota) was made as the central capital of the admiral. A well-known folklore has it that when Brunei was attacked by a dragon, Ong Sum Ping came to the rescue of what was then a very small Kingdom. The dragon proved impossible to defeat in a frontal confrontation so he hatched a plan. In one of the islands of Brunei, Ong Sum Ping shipped a sizeable flock of goats and cattles to bait the dragon. When the dragon came, Ong Sum Ping ordered his men to heat a canon ball to its highest degree. He then shot the canon ball at the dragon where it then ate it. With the hot canon ball in the stomach of the dragon, it lost its nerve and flew far away, never to come back again.
The story may have been an allegory of the Majapahit empire (being the Dragon) which have for so long wanted to completely subdue the Brunei kingdom. Brunei, being a weak power and perhaps on the verge of defeat at that time, probably enlisted Ong Sum Ping’s help to drive the invaders out. Ong Sum Ping, who probably saw this as a strategic decision to gain a foothold in Brunei and Borneo, answered.
With the combined army of Brunei and Ong Sum Ping, the Majapahits was finally drive out for good. With that victory, Brunei claimed its “independence” from Majapahit. Although now Brunei paid a tribute to Ong Sum Ping, the Sultan then knew that it was better to him than the Javanese empire. For the Sultan realises that trade, security, and development will be forthcoming. The Sultan took the step further by fortifying the relationship between the two Kingdoms (Kinabatangan and Brunei) by marrying his daughter to Ong Sum Ping. Little is known of what happened after. Sources said that Ong Sum Ping mobilised his troops and rushed back to serve his emperor in China.
What is the implication of Ong Sum Ping’s leaving Kota Kinabalu (Kinabatangan empire)? That power was transferred to the Bruneian Kingdom, and so too perhaps along with the Chinese naval might and technology that may have served as a stepping stone to expand Brunei’s power in the island. So when Sultan Bolkiah the 5th, known as the “Singing Captain”, mobilised his entire navy to conquer the entirety of his conquest, there is a high likelihood that the navy that he commanded are Ong Sum Ping’s navy. In fact, the period range between the two figures are not that far away from each other, so there is indeed the possibility that Brunei utilised Ong Sum Ping’s navy to champion conquest in the region.
When one imagines of conquering such a vast territory like Borneo, one may have considered that all it takes are tiny boats or mini galleys with small sails installed. If that is the case then how did the Bruneian empire could have possibly mobilised thousands of armies and probably dozens if not hundreds of canons across the naval routes of Borneo? The ship could have then be the size of a modern day military frigate docked in Muara navy base. Or the main naval ships could have been as large as the size of Brunei’s Times Square commercial complex, with mini naval ships following it from behind. No power would have been frightening to the people back in the day than the sight of hundreds if not thousands of naval ships heading your beachfront. This is probably why many choose to conduct diplomacy instead of all out war with the ever growing and ever powerful Brunei Kingdom.
On the subject of Golden Age, no one is as influential in that period of Brunei history than Sultan Bolkiah the 5th – in fact, he is considered as the most influential man in Brunei history, arguably after the current Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. According to oral history, he was an enlightened Sultan who constantly advised his people to study outside his Kingdom in order for them to bring back ideas and implement development for the Brunei people. He was probably a modernist and realist too. Akin to Russia’s Peter the Great, he brought about much needed cultural and technological changes to transform the society of his day. There is a reason why Javanese musical instruments still exist to this day, not because he was a traditionalist per se but rather he wants to keep up to date Brunei’s standing among one of the most powerful empires of his day, namely the Majapahit or whatever remained of it. Had he been alive today, he would have shifted Brunei’s cultural gravity towards the West. He was pragmatic.
He can also be referred to as the combination of Alexander the Great and Cyrus. Sultan Bolkiah the 5th, through long campaigns to enlighten the people of the island and beyond. took himself the herculean effort to conduct elaborate campaigns to subdue pirates and enemies that threaten to destroy innocent communities. Why can he be compared to Alexander the Great? Because his ambition knows no boundaries. He was not content in conquering the neighbouring territories of Brunei, he conquered the entire Borneo island. And once the island was conquered, he set his sights to Palawan. Once that, Selurong (modern day Manila). When one stands at Manila boulevard, one can see a vast expanse of sea that stretches as far as the eyes can see.
Now imagine hundreds if not thousands of ships suddenly appeared out of nowhere heading our way. If Brunei came with a hundred ships only, the results would have been laughable to the Selurong community. But as history would have it, Brunei conquered and subdued the territory. probably using the full might of the Bruneian naval empire. Previously the Selurong territory was contested by three different powers, but now they were unified and consolidated under one polity thanks to Sultan Bolkiah the 5th. Sultan Bolkiah the 5th then appointed X to rule under Brunei proxy. Although the territories were lost in less than a hundred years to the Spaniards, forever changing the history of the people of the Philippines, we can just imagine the imprint and influence we had on the people there, as did Alexander did to the territories he conquered from Greece to as far as Eastern India.
Comparing him to Persia’s Cyrus – a magnificent and illustrious ruler known to the Persians as the father of the Persia – is not off the mark either. Had he not been smart, the entirety of his kingdom would have fallen apart by revolts, intrigues, etc. There are possibly hundreds of thousands of people under his rule after all. To do so requires intricate and careful diplomacy starting with his appointed governors, and then to the vast tribes, kingdoms, sultanates, and other powers in the region. We must also consider that a level of diplomacy was needed to combine the entire polity into one unified force. The forces that included the Bruneian armies were the Dayaks, Chinese, Ibans, Muruts, Melanau, Javanese, Sulus, Bisayas, and more. At the core centre of his army were the Bruneians themselves, who was then known to be enlightened and pragmatic people.
It is arguable that Brunei society during the Golden Age was a multicultural and multiracial, as opposed to what some scholars may argue. To succeed, Sultan Saiful Rijal and Sultan Bolkiah the 5th might have followed the formulae of the caliphate of Baghdad and Grenada, where regardless of one’s religion, culture, and other hosts of differences, one is treated as equals under the rule of law. One cannot possibly say that there were no racism or discrimination back in the days, but we must consider that Brunei did not become an axel of trade by becoming a withdrawn and closed-off society. It was an open society that cherished open adventure, and this must invariably demand people to be more open to other religion, culture, language, differences, etc. The policy was set in place so whereas Brunei succeeded in becoming a Southeast Asian model of Grenada or Baghdad.
That is why people from all over the island came and conducted trade in Brunei. The Dayaks, Chinese, Ibans, Muruts, Melanau, Javanese, Sulus, Bisayas, and more were treated respectfully under his rule. Such harmony inevitably added to the strength of Brunei in the region. How is this familiar to Cyrus’ rule? He was a Persian King who successfully consolidated hundreds of tribes and small kingdoms under Persian rule. According to Xenophon’s account, he can equally inspire fear and respect to the people he ruled. Between fear and respect, we know now that posterity respects him even to this day. Not because he was just a brilliant ruler but because he introduced the world to Human Rights where the main tenant is that everyone, regardless of religion, language, cultures, and other differences are treated under the rule of law and that no one (especially the majority) will use his Kingdom to discriminate against the minority.
Sultan Bolkiah the 5th can arguably be considered as the Cyrus of Brunei too because under his rule, he emulated the caliphs of Baghdad and Grenada (who may have been inspired by Cyrus themselves) to introduce such measures that would enable everyone to be treated equally under the law regardless of differences, as well as to ensure that no one will use his Kingdom to prosecute or discriminate minorities. This most probably adds to the reason why his Kingdom and his subjects of such a vast expanse of empire remain united and loyal under his rule. One of the tribes that were fiercely loyal to the Bruneian empire was none other than the Javanese or known today as the Kedayans.
The history of the Kedayans is scattered across many pages of Brunei history. In total, they make up a majority percentage of those living in Kampong Ayer today. As a tribe, the Kedayans are known to be greedy, wealthy, honest, and rough. Indeed they are both the prominent traders and farmers of the Brunei empire then. According to the sociological history of Brunei, the Kedayans came from the island of Java – which is then the heart of the Majapahit empire. Sources have it that Sultan Bolkiah the 5th invited and shipped two thousand Javanese into the heart of the Bruneian empire so they can put their agricultural skills to use in order to produce rice.
Other sources said that the Kedayans came to Brunei under the command Javanese noblemen who had the title of “Raden/Radin”. The title is equivalent to Brunei’s nobility title, “Pengiran”. It could have probably been speculated that the Raden/Radins were generals or commanders of the Majapahit Empire whose duties were to supervise, control, and collect tributes from the Brunei kingdom. Regardless of these speculations, they were there in Brunei territory along with their followers. Throughout the centuries of being in Brunei, their generations intermarry and assimilated into the Brunei polity. Centuries upon centuries of progressive assimilation might have made them Bruneian Malays, however, the Kedayans (Javanese) remains distinctive by the language, intonation, pronunciation (they can’t spell ‘R’ properly), and even behaviours (greedy, wealthy, honest, and rough) that they possess.
Their stay and assimilation to the Bruneian society would have also contributed to the transference of Javanese and Buddhist culture to the Bruniean polity. These include the traditional musical instruments that Brunei has, the traditional dances with the set costumes they use, the installation of candles during wedding ceremonies and much, much more. On the subject of “Raden/Radins”, being possibly the nobleman or leaders of the Javanese community, perhaps after realising the fall of the Majapahit, they quickly adjusted to the changing power dynamics and aligned themselves to the Sultanate.
These people could be fierce warriors who were formerly commoners of the Majapahit empire who then rose up the ranks through years or decades long conquest under the famed leadership of Gajah Mada. At the peak of the Majapahit empire, after all, the empire saw its greatest expansion in its history far beyond today’s Indonesian border. Its expansion can be traced back to one of the Indonesian epics, which arguably included Brunei as a tributary state. It just also happens that their reach did not extend beyond present-day Sabah.
Could it be their march to power was broken by none other than the Kinabatangan Kingdom? Could it also be that the reason why Brunei was successful of securing its power from the Majapahit grip be traced back to the help of the Kedayans? Could the imperial fall of the Majapahit Empire created a power vacuum in the region which the Bruneians were successful at securing, potentially with the help of the Kedayans (among many other tribes) Perhaps these things are true, perhaps they are not. But one has to consider that the Kedayans of today are synonymous to Bruneian Malays and, yet, somehow they are “different” especially in origins notwithstanding the language, pronunciation, culture, etc.
We must also consider the irony of the people who promotes closed-door policy, especially in regards to border control and immigration flow, because there is a higher chance that their ancestors were themselves immigrants (Javanese who migrated to Brunei), who had they stayed in their original place would not have led the people here today. If true, then, we may have to accept the reality that Bruneian Kedayans (who happens to run the political and economic system of Brunei today) were potentially from Java, whose former ancestors served under Javanese noblemen. As the saying goes, we are all immigrations or Pendatangs.
Nonetheless, it is good history to review as we understand out society better because these Kedayans end up doing a lot of good to Brunei history than otherwise imagined. They were instrumental (arguably) in expanding the political, economic, military, and social powers of the Sultanate due to their experience under the Majapahit court. When they ultimately severed their ties to Jave, they went full loyalist to the Sultanate even to this day. It was also these people who end up serving as the court council that directed the state machinery in the Sultanates of the past that have enabled Brunei to survive as a polity today. However, there is a lot to study and debate that has to get into this subject, especially as we dive into what had happened during the Golden Age of Brunei history.
Knitting such a vast and complicated web of factors that add up to reinterpreting the Golden Age of Brunei in the 15th century in contemporary view has been the preeminent goal of this story. There are admittedly weaknesses in the theoretical development of this thesis, but what can be studied on what has occurred are as follows: Brunei did not just “attain” the Golden Age in a vacuum. Brunei, much like any upstart empires, was a small community that existed under the threats of big powers around it.
Geopolitical key decisions were made that involved securing military and diplomatic support (Ong Sum Ping) from big powers (Majapahit) that ultimately enabled Brunei to become an independent power. Zheng He or his predecessors, on the other hand, could be seen as a crucial element that paved the way for Brunei to become a trading centre in the region.
Later, a host of factors such as resources, technological, weapons development was crucial in preparing Brunei for conquest. This can be seen with the arrival of Mallacan that came to settle after the fall of the Malaccan empire.
Next, it took a bright leader as Sultan Bolkiah the 5th did to truly expand the powers of the empire. From a combination of Alexanderian strength and Cyrucian diplomacy, the empire remained loyal and in tact during his rule. At the core of his army were the Bruneians, who most probably were not ethnic Bruneians at all but rather a combination of other ethnic groups with the Javanese potentially making a prominent mark in the rise of Brunei.
Ultimately, what can be learned are these: Brunei has gone a long way to secure its place in modern history to be an independent sovereign kingdom. We have to appreciate the fact that the long lines of those who came before us have fought to get where we are today. What we must do is to try and to reinterpret philosophically the Golden Age beyond what is just presented in our textbooks or oral history simply because they are just not enough.
This essay does not serve as a historical piece but rather a philosophical piece to understand what and how Brunei attained its Golden Age in the first place. We have a unique history that stretches back to over a thousand years (our ‘official’ history started in the 13th century). We did not arrive here because of an accident, indeed it is because of the decisions that were taken by them that made us who we are today. We may also consider that we are living in a period of Golden Age thanks to the abundance of Oil and Gas (our contemporary Champoor).
But these resources are not going to last forever. What can and will last forever is the destiny that we independent Bruneians can carve for ourselves as we shape the story of the Bruneian future. Are we going to let ourselves be left behind or are we going to strive forwards to attain a victory in the 21st Century. One which will brighten the posterity of tomorrow and the future as it brightened us today by those in the 14th century. And much like our ancestors have attained prosperity in that illustrious period, so too shall we gain prosperity, if not even greater.
(Pic credits to youthareawesome.com)
Debate serves as a catalyst to share knowledge in society. Without it, a society will atrophy and fail. The contest of ideas will continue as long as civilised society exist, and whenever debate is shut down, physical violence and threats will abound sooner or later. So let us take a moment and realise that debate is vital to create and maintain stability for a society.
There is indeed a line between constructive debate and destructive slander, with the latter at times rightfully shut down so that nothing can fester in the state body. Slander occurs whenever an individual said the horrendous things that are completely untrue and off base.
By shutting down slander, there is, however, the threat that constructive debate will stop. Whenever this confusion occurs, people will be less willing to share ideas and constructive feedback. When that moment occurs, then a society’s growth will decline over time by the lack of new ideas.
An active open debate, however, enables individuals to clash ideas in a constructive way with one another with the main objective in searching for the “truth”. No one holds a monopoly on wisdom (Lee Hsien Loong) or truth, not even the sage of society no matter how admired they may seem. Everyone is imperfect. Nonetheless, debate helps to open up the forces of change, as is to erode the factors that may cause a society to fall.
What may these be, you may say? They are corruption, hatred, racism, envy, discrimination, exploitation, religious prosecution, and violence. And whenever a society shuts down debate, it is as if one shuts down the sunlight. What grows and fester in the gardens of society will be the algae of these base qualities. But whenever debate is present, it is as if the garden is exposed to the total rays of the sunlight.
There can be no escape for people to debate ideas on how society should be run. To put down other people especially when he or she is presenting hard facts and suggestions may win people cookie-points in the short-term. However, the society without its honest intellectuals presenting the truths or at least having the opportunity to clash ideas against prevailing truths may, in turn, transform itself into something negative and self-destructive.
In the book One Thousand One Nights, there is also a saying, “If a society becomes less honest, more people will resort to cunning”.
When cunning dominates society instead of plain honest talk, then there is no surprise why society sinks into corruption. Those who practise them win at the expense of the general development of society. And whatever fruits they consume are at the cost of posterity. When posterity comes of age, then there is no surprise why there is little rezeki.
Truth has to be held up high as a banner to look up with pride. For a nation that grasps truth shall move towards enlightenment. How can the truth be secured? Through debate. Firstly among ourselves, among our family, among our villagers, among our mukims, among our districts, and finally among our national leaders. Truths must be presented as is, not what it may seem to be.
Others may hide behind the truth-tellers of society. These people hide not because they are good at the “political game”, but rather they are fearful of what would happen to themselves. Thus, no one is more selfless and honourable than the man or woman who presents his or her ideas openly for the world to judge.
A dangerous person that exist in every society is the person who would do his or her best to shut down debate. Much like the motives of those who hide behind the shadows, these people are fearful that honest people will cast the light onto the darkness. And it is in this darkness they exploit their position at the expense of society and posterity.
My message is this. To any young person who wants to shape society, never be afraid to embrace debate. Open up the conversation. It has been ages since Bruneians truly talked and open themselves to another on the issues we are facing today. I hope that by the time we are self-confident and mature enough to organise constructive debates, instead of childish slander, it would not be too late. So let us embrace and cherish debate with the means of finding the truth so we can be assured that society will move towards a better path for all.