A Resilient Monarchy

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  • Topic: Brunei, Southeast Asia, Hassanal Bolkiah
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New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 4, 2 (December, 2002): 134-147.


As the only ruling monarchy in Southeast Asia, the Sultanate of Brunei is often seen as a political anachronism in a region in which democratic institutions of government prevail. Independence, gained from Britain in 1984, did not result in the institution of representative government, but in effect led to the consolidation of the monarchical system of government (Singh 1988: 67). Its present head of state, Sultan Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, is the 29th ruler of a dynasty which has reigned in Brunei since the fourteenth century. The early Brunei Empire reached its zenith from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, when it exercised suzerainty over much of Borneo and the southern tip of the Philippine archipelago. Under the fifth Sultan, Bolkiah (1473-1521), Brunei was especially powerful and even managed to briefly capture Manila.2 Its territorial domain and influence was gradually whittled down through the centuries, and it has been suggested that if not for British colonial intervention, the Sultanate would be lost to oblivion (Horton 1984). In 1839, the English adventurer, James Brooke, arrived in Borneo and gained control over territory in northwest Borneo as a reward for putting down a rebellion in Sarawak. Brooke, who styled himself “Rajah” of Sarawak, soon expanded his territorial control. Soon after, in 1878, on the northeast coast of Borneo, the British North Borneo Company established a foothold and was similarly encroaching on territory tenuously held by the Brunei Sultanate. The arrival of western powers in the region affected the traditional trading patterns and decimated the economic base of the Sultanate. Brunei became a British Protectorate state in 1888, and had the British not established a residency in 1906, it is very likely that Brunei would have been absorbed by Sarawak. 1 Naimah Talib is Adjunct Fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She teaches Southeast Asian politics and her current research interest focuses on Islam and legitimacy. 2 Horton, however, argues that the splendour and power of the Brunei Sultanate may have been exaggerated in the account of Antonio Pigafetta, who visited Brunei in 1521 (1984: 34).

A Resilient Monarchy


From 1906 to 1959, except for the short period under Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Brunei was administered by the British under a Residency system. The Sultanate did not lose complete sovereignty especially on matters relating to religion and local custom, but executive authority was held by a succession of British Residents (Horton 1984). Internal self-government was acquired in 1959, and as a result, executive power was extended to the Sultan. A new constitution was promulgated in 1959 and Brunei assumed full internal sovereignty in 1971 (Saunders 1994: 163). An attempt to introduce a partially elected legislative body as set down under the constitution was abandoned after the opposition political party, Partai Rakyat Brunei, launched an unsuccessful revolt in 1962. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brunei strongly resisted British pressure to amalgamate with its neighbours, first in a British Borneo Federation and later, in the new state of Malaysia. In 1979, Brunei and Britain signed a new treaty, transferring powers over defence and foreign affairs to Brunei and this paved the way for full independence in 1984. The Sultanate comprises two territorial enclaves of some 5,769 square kilometres in total, accessible from one another only by water and surrounded on the landward side by the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Its population is estimated at around 344,500 (July 2001), of whom 67 per cent are Malays, who dominate the political and bureaucratic life of the Sultanate (The...
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