“Modus vivendi” #1, 2002


“Asiaweek”, an influential magazine published in Hong-Kong, has for many years published ratings for the mightiest people of Asia. One can find the names of politicians, industrialists, media tycoons and financiers. The name of Hassanal Bolkiah, sultan of Brunei, has been placed among the top ten with an enviable constancy. Brunei is twice the size of Luxembourg (5765 sq. kilometres) and is situated in the northern part of the Kalimantan island (Borneo), which has just over 300,000 inhabitants. Still, its ruler seems to be considered as important as the leaders of the most populated and vast states of the modern world. Until recently he was reputed the richest person on Earth. Was it this consideration that defined his high position in the ratings?

The sultan of Brunei is a favourite of the Western press. He corresponds to the general idea of an Oriental king: a generous and charming man of fortune – something between Harun ar-Rashid and an Indian nabob. Just like a character from an Arab fairy tale. In Russian folklore a good and beneficent sovereign is also a common figure.

          Nonetheless, one cannot use the same techniques that served folkloric personages to draw a portrait of the sultan of Brunei. Undoubtedly, this personality is more interesting than an image created by the diligence of the yellow press. As an heir to the most ancient of the ruling dynasties of the world he is respected by patriarchs of world policy, who can hardly be suspected to be complaisantly amazed by the riches of a sultan. A man that has skilfully governed his state for more than thirty years would be seen as an outstanding person anywhere.

Brunei occupies two enclaves in the northern coast of the Kalimantan island. A country that is situated in a geopolitical centre that has been disturbed almost without intermission by wars, revolutions, economic tremors of a global scale, but maintains a remarkable stability and demonstrates a steady growth in the quality of life. It is situated at the very borderline of drawn out conflicts of interests between super powers. The wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Spratly islands conflict, distempers in Indonesia and the Philippines, an unprecedented strong economic crisis in 1997-1999 – the people of Brunei and their leader have had reason enough to be anxious.

The full title and name of the ruler of Brunei would take up some lines. One can read in it both the history of the country and the respectful age of the dynasty to which the 29th sultan Muda Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Vaddaulah belongs. He was born on the 15th of July of 1946, just a year after the country was liberated from Japanese occupation. Hassanal’s father was heir to the throne of Brunei at the time and ascended the throne under the name of Omar Ali Saifutdin III in 1950. The era of his ruling was dynamic in every sense. The country went straight to independence, succeeded in achieving equal rights in distributing oil incomes, obtained a constitution and a parliament and the basic institutions of a modern state such as an army, a finance system and mass media. Following his father’s example the future sultan Hassanal learnt the art of governing the state from his childhood. He received an excellent education: first he studied with private teachers, then he finished the elite college of Victoria (Kuala-Lumpur), and in 1966 he entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Great Britain. After two years in the school of the world military elite, Hassanal received his officer’s diploma and captain’s stripes.

No sooner had the prince returned to his Motherland, was he faced with the daunting task of taking over the throne. In October of 1967 Omar Ali Saifutdin III declared his will to pass the throne to his son. The sultan was still rather young and in good health, so his abdication aroused many questions. One explanation was that he was pressured by Great Britain, which was afraid to lose power over its rich protectorate. Nevertheless, Hassanal continued his father’s policy and constantly strengthened the sovereignty of the state of Brunei in all fields, which eventually led to the declaration of independence on the 1st of January of 1984.

It was not only the resistance of the British authorities that complicated the process of getting independence. In 1962, when the crown-prince Hassanal was 16, Brunei was shaken by a mutiny, organised by the left-nationalist People’s Party. The rebels’ main objective was to immediately end British dominance and proclaim complete independence. The Indonesian authorities of the time supported the People’s Party both morally and financially, with a view to establishing full control over Kalimantan in time. If the extremist forces had come to power then, events in North Kalimantan would have taken quite a different turn, which materialised in some neighbouring countries. But the deep traditions of nationhood and the sultan’s cautious policies have become major factors of stability in the society of Brunei.

Not only is the phenomenal stability of such a small country amazing, it also has the ability be consistent in maintaining its political course and vindicating its original way of development. Surrounded from all sides by  “Asian Tigers”, Brunei is strikingly different, both as a model of state organisation, and in its cultural and moral atmosphere. The sultan has declared many times that the monarchies of the Persian gulf are his pattern, the ones that come closest of all to the ideal of an Islamic state. But that does not mean that Brunei is copying the political systems of the marvellous six oil kingdoms and emirates – in Brunei they are interested in preserving the ancient traditions of Malay nationhood and national consciousness. What the sultanate and the Arab countries of the Gulf have in common is the role of the Islam in society.

Bandar Seri Begawan is the most eastern of the Muslim capitals. Its features symbolize the idea of a victorious Islam. Above opulent tropical green the cupolas of the mosque named after Omar Ali Saifutdin blister with gold. It is one of the biggest edifices of its kind in the world. In contrast to the neighbouring countries of Malay Muslim culture that use the Latin alphabet, Brunei uses Arab letters. The sale of spirits is prohibited, they have stricter rules on Islamic morals than their neighbours and Sharia law operates. Still, the population has all the benefits of modern civilisation, with superb infrastructure, medical services and educational system. Everything is free of charge. Moreover, the sultan’s subjects don’t pay any income tax. Nowadays, the national gross product totals almost 15 thousand USD per capita. This level is seen in the most flourishing European countries.

The state ideology of Brunei is Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB). Its historical analogy is the Russian three-in-one formula “orthodoxy, autocracy, people’s spirit”, which reflected the aspiration of Russian tsars to build state life on the basis of religion, authority of hereditary power and nationalism. Here is an official concise formula that sums up this ideology: “It has become the nation's formal guiding light and as a way of life for Brunei Darussalam. It is a blend of Malay language, culture and Malay customs, the teaching of Islamic laws and values and the monarchy system which must be esteemed and practised by all. Islam is tolerant of all religions so the MIB philosophy cannot be viewed as a force that stifles the practice of other religions. Rather it is a vehicle by which other religions can carry on their religious practices and rites as usual with the respect and peace they deserve”.

Monarchy as ideology has deep roots in the country. The Bolkiah dynasty has ruled here for over 600 years. During this time Brunei has known periods of power, years of decay and the revivals that followed. When the flotillas of European countries appeared in the seas of south-eastern Asia, the sultans of Brunei controlled all of Kalimantan (the 750,000 square km island is one of the biggest in the world) and a part of the Philippines archipelago. One can say that by the 16th century Brunei had become a regional hegemon. The colonial expansion of the Portuguese, Spanish, British, Dutch and French led to the enslavement of almost all the countries of South East Asia. Brunei kept its independence longer than any other country and from time to time did considerable damage to the European armies. But over several centuries of opposition the sultanate lost most of its territory, and by 1888 when the British protectorate over Brunei was established, less than 10,000 square kilometres were left of the once extensive state. But even then its neighbours (until 1905) continued with territorial take-overs. But, as if to compensate for the losses, the sultanate turned out to own the richest oil deposits.

Prior to the recent financial crisis that affected Southeast Asia, the future of Brunei looked calm. Because of its shortage in manpower resources, the government of the sultanate had invested huge sums in the economies of neighbouring countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia. The economic typhoon hit right at them. Thailand, Korea, Japan, Brunei’s most important economic partners, also suffered. At the same time the price of oil plummeted. The subjects of the sultan may not have felt an immediate effect from the crisis, but the country’s foreign assets notably reduced.  The results could have been catastrophic, but for the provident policy of Hassanal Bolkiah, who had started long before to place considerable means in different foreign banks, and to invest in real estate, industry and high technology.

The sultanate has long ago waved good-bye to the era, when power and a country’s importance depended on its population and size. Buying companies in different countries, Brunei considerably augments its budget and manages to solve problems that would be difficult to quickly resolve with only its home resources. Thus, by buying some big ranches in Australia, the government has immediately assured massive supplies of meat on the market of Brunei and has got rid of the necessity to spend money importing food that is not produced to sufficient quantity in the sultanate. Investments in hotels, holiday resorts and the entertainment industry in different regions of the world enables the country to avoid direct dependence on the state of the economy in the proper region. Globalisation promises countries such as Brunei even greater possibilities. But the monarch sees both the pluses and minuses of this process. At the beginning of September, an English-language newspaper “Borneo Bulletin” reported that: “His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam warned that although globalisation could lead to an improved quality of life and higher standards of living, it can also bring about the marginalisation of the developing and the less developed countries”.

The recent events in Indonesia show that neither rich nature resources, nor a powerful army or police guarantee internal stability – an external crisis can instantly aggravate the problems have been accumulating in a country for years. The sultan of Brunei tries to stay in touch with his subjects and almost every week he meets with people in an informal atmosphere. He visits mosques and public events, sees oil field workers and dayak tribes, who live in the jungle in the south of Brunei.

Notwithstanding its size, the country is very diversified in every sense. The languages, religions and traditions of all the peoples and races that have contributed in the building of the modern state, maintain their vital force, and national or religious conflicts are out of question. The same can be said about social relations. Though it was not always like that – in the times of the British protectorate there were manifestations over price hikes and extraordinary measures were introduced.

The results of the 33-year rule of Sultan Bolkiah arouses a deep respect in Asia, where the sultan of Brunei has for a long time been a central cultural figure turning the clock of history. Throughout the world the success of such a small country through modernization has stimulated much interest in Brunei and its leader. In Russia where monarchic support is becoming stronger and where new parties and organizations keep appearing that are attempting to restore Russia's historical heritage, the dynamic development of the sultanate is viewed as convincing evidence of the great potential of monarchic rule. In our country where the monarchy existed for 1,155 years, and the communist dictatorship 73 years, examples of successfully developing dynastic regimes are by many seen as a model for the future.

On the threshold of the new millennium a representative forum will take place in the capital of Brunei. An Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum will be held on the 15th and 16th of November in Bandar Seri Begawan. President Vladimir Putin leads the Russian delegation. Seven thousand guests will arrive in Brunei to take part in different APEC commissions and to cover the event in the world mass media. The Pacific Ocean region is forecast to become a global centre in the nearest future, where new ideas will be conceived and modern models of development will be exercised. In this region with a very variegated racial, cultural and national composition a major part of mankind now lives. But even though it is surrounded by the most powerful of states, small Brunei is seen as an important link in all international organisations. And this is due to the great personal merit of its dynamic leader, sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.