Thursday, February 26, 2009

The lasting legacy of Brunei's late ruler

Feb 26, 2009

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew delivered the first Sultan Sir Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Memorial Lecture in Bandar Seri Begawan yesterday. Here is an excerpt of the lecture.

I AM honoured that, with the consent of His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam, the Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Foundation has invited me to deliver the first of these memorial lectures.

It is fitting and proper that the Seri Begawan should be commemorated. At a turning point in its history, the Brunei sultanate would have ceased to exist as an independent state without him.

It was a time of great peril when Sultan Sir Omar Ali decided not to join the proposed Federation of Malaysia in September 1963. Singapore went ahead and joined the Federation. The Sultan was under great pressure from the British, who had hinted that they would be leaving the region soon. But he stood firm. He put his position as Sultan and the fate of his people on the line. His judgment was that the British would be responsible enough to give him some time to get his country in better shape before they left.

I first met the Sultan in September 1960 when he had invited the Yang Di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore, Yusof bin Ishak, me as the new Prime Minister and our wives to Bandar Brunei for his 46th birthday celebrations. He had gathered some Malay literary figures from the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka in Kuala Lumpur. He spent time the next few days discussing Malay literary works.

He was a modest man. He was soft-spoken, with a frequent smile when speaking to his friends. He lived a simple and frugal life. For his birthday, he had built an annexe to the old Istana. It was not air-conditioned. He did not like air-conditioning. The room that my wife and I stayed in within this newly built annexe was very hot, like an oven even at night. The sun would shine on the building in the afternoon and there was not enough ventilation.

So I quietly moved out to stay at the rest house in a room with a window-model air-conditioner. It was during this visit that we struck up a friendship that was to grow and endure the rest of Sultan Omar Ali's life.

On May 27, 1961, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Malayan Prime Minister, mooted the formation of Malaysia, to include Brunei, Sarawak, North Borneo (now Sabah), Singapore and Malaya. Sultan Omar Ali described the Malaysia proposal as very attractive. He accepted the Malaysia proposal in principle, but that did not necessarily mean it was final. If agreement could not be reached on important conditions affecting benefits to the people and the state, Brunei would not participate in the Malaysia plan.

In August 1962, the Partai Rakyat Brunei (PRB) won landslide victories in four District Councils which in turn would choose 16 members for the Legislative Council (Legco). The PRB won 54 seats and had all the 16 members required for the Legco. But they could not form the government. The 17 government nominees outnumbered the PRB in the 33-member Council.

The PRB leader, Sheikh Azahari, rejected the proposal that Brunei join Malaysia. He put forward three motions in the Legco: first, to reject the proposal of a Malaysian Federation; second, to request the restoration of Brunei's sovereignty over Sarawak and North Borneo and the installation of the Sultan as constitutional monarch of the North Borneo Federation; and, third, a request to the British to grant independence to Brunei not later than 1963.

The Speaker of the Legco disallowed the motions because the issues fell within the purview of the British government under the 1959 British-Brunei Agreement. Sheikh Azahari decided to resort to a military solution and staged a rebellion led by its military wing, Tentera Nasional Kalimantan Utara. The revolt began on Dec 8. It was put down in short order by British forces from Singapore.

Negotiations on Malaysia were resumed in earnest following the end of the rebellion. The Sultan did not accept the terms that Malaya offered him. When the Malaysia Agreement was signed on July 9, 1963 in London, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak signed on. Brunei did not.

I had been in frequent touch with the Sultan in London, then staying at Grosvenor House. He was very firm in his decision not to join.

As a result, after Malaysia was formed on Sept 16, 1963, Tunku Abdul Rahman recalled hundreds of Malaysian teachers and government officers who had been seconded to serve in the Brunei administration. Their departure caused a temporary dislocation in Brunei.

Several accounts were given to explain the reasons for Brunei's decision not to join Malaysia. One account cited disagreement over oil revenues as the primary cause. Kuala Lumpur wanted Brunei to hand over control of its oil to the federal government after 10 years. Kuala Lumpur also wanted to immediately tax any new oil and mineral finds discovered after Brunei joined Malaysia and to make the Sultan's contribution of $40 million to federal revenues compulsory rather than voluntary. The Sultan was said to have found these terms unacceptable.

Another account from Kuala Lumpur alluded to the Sultan's unhappiness over the issue of royal precedence. However, I believe Sir Omar was neither willing to compromise Brunei's control over its oil revenues nor ready to have his privileges as the ruler of Brunei curtailed.

More to the point, the vibes that he felt during the negotiations were that he would become subordinate to Kuala Lumpur's leaders and he would rank behind Malaya's nine Sultans in seniority, besides giving up a chunk of Brunei's oil wealth to KL.

When we met soon after Singapore was asked to leave Malaysia in August 1965, he smiled and nodded with satisfaction that his decision not to join was wiser than Singapore's acceptance of Malaysia.

On Oct 4, 1967, Sultan Omar Ali, then aged only 53, abdicated in favour of his 21-year-old eldest son, Hassanal Bolkiah, born on July 15, 1946. It was a strategic move Sultan Omar Ali made to buy time before a British withdrawal. I was invited to the coronation of his son in 1968.

Protracted negotiations with the British on Brunei's future continued following the abdication. The Sultan, now the Seri Begawan, dragged out the discussions. He wanted his son to get familiar with the administration. He deflected pressure to adopt the British adversarial parliamentary system.

He argued with the British that he needed a few years for the young Sultan to learn the ropes and strengthen the domestic situation ahead of any constitutional changes. He bought time from 1963 to 1983, over 20 years, when the British finally withdrew, and Brunei became an independent state.

Sultan Omar Ali saved the dynasty, delayed majority rule before Brunei was ready, and secured Brunei's continued defence by an agreement to pay for one British Gurkha battalion that would stay in Brunei under British control. A discreet British presence remained.

The Seri Begawan had preserved Brunei's oil wealth. He left the bulk of his country's reserves with the Crown Agents to manage. He was fortunate that Britain acted with responsibility. Most of all, the Seri Begawan played his hand with considerable skill. He pleaded for time to educate enough local Bruneians who could manage the administration of the country.

Way back in the 1960s, he and I had become close friends. He trusted me because I never took advantage of his friendship to ask for favours. On one occasion, he asked his sons to sit in when I met him and he told them that I was a friend who could be relied upon. He wanted the friendship between us to continue with his sons. It has. The close ties continue between the Sultan and his brothers with the present Prime Minister and other leaders of Singapore.

Less than three years after independence, on Sept 7, 1986, Sultan Omar Ali passed away. He was deeply mourned by the people of Brunei. They knew that he had saved their independence. They are able to live as they wish, keeping their oil wealth, because of Sir Omar's statecraft. He built the infrastructure of state. By the 1980s, he had given the sultanate's 200,000 people a high per capita income of US$20,000 (S$30,428 at the current exchange rate), among the world's most privileged. He strengthened Brunei's Islamic institutions.

Sultan Omar Ali took calculated risks with courage. He had a keen sense of what was politically possible. He built a strong foundation before passing the mantle to his eldest son. His Majesty Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has guided Brunei since independence in 1984, a 25-year period, during which Brunei has progressed in material and social terms. The old Sultan would have been happy to know that an independent sultanate in Brunei has progressed in the quarter-century after independence. His son, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has preserved his heritage.

It was good for Brunei that at the time it became independent, the leader of Asean was President Suharto of Indonesia. He knew that I was a good friend of the Seri Begawan. So he asked me to invite Brunei to join Asean. Brunei did join and become a member of the family of Asean states. This consolidated Brunei's sovereign status, especially when it was recognised by its neighbours. Joining Asean also reduced the dangers of conflict between Brunei and its neighbours.

Brunei and Singapore have a special relationship. They are the two smallest countries in Asean. One natural area of cooperation is defence, where our two countries have a longstanding, deep and extensive relationship that goes back to 1976.

All of Singapore's prime ministers and ministers have scrupulously followed my policy of never taking advantage of our close friendships with the Brunei royal family, their ministers and officials.

The history of Brunei has been a most unlikely story of a sultanate that has survived into the 21st century as an independent, oil-rich state in a turbulent part of the world.

I remember during one of the Seri Begawan's visits to Singapore after our independence, he had smiled broadly and, with his eyes twinkling and his moustache twitching, said: 'You are now like Brunei. It is better for you.'

As small states surrounded by bigger neighbours, we share similar aspirations and concerns. We can complement our respective strengths to enhance our development and growth. Both bilaterally and multilaterally in Asean, we can help Asean become an integrated, stable and thriving regional association at peace with one another and with our larger neighbours, including China and India.

The full text of the Minister Mentor's lecture is available at

[I am moved by this tribute to the Old Sultan. Anyone who is respected by Lee Kuan Yew deserves respect. ]

No comments: