Brunei is the last absolute monarchy in Southeast Asia – a country ruled by the philosophy of Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay Islamic Monarchy) and headed by Sultan and Yang di-Pertuan (“he who has been made lord”) Hassanal Bolkiah.
In addition to head of state, the Sultan is Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Chief of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces, and Chancellor of both Universiti Brunei Darussalam and Brunei Technological University.
As his title implies, the Sultan’s panoptic power is religiously institutionalised, and leaves little room for civic involvement in the country. Recently, however, there have been some signs that the monarchy is listening to what the people want – in ways unseen for decades.
On 14 December 2015, The Brunei Times reported that vendors at the decades-old Tamu Kianggeh market in the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan had been instructed to relocate by the Municipal Department. Many vendors had passed their stalls and crafts down across generations and were deeply attached to the area. Dissent sparked almost immediately. Many vendors expressed concern for their livelihoods and loss of heritage, as a hashtag #saveTamuKianggeh shot to overnight popularity on social media. Vendors told The Brunei Times they would not move, even if the police were called.
This level of public outcry cannot be undervalued. When all government officers and institutions are directly tied to His Majesty, a beloved and revered figure, criticism is usually whispered behind closed doors, if it even comes at all. When asked what motivated the move, the Minister of Home Affairs said that the location needed to be cleaned as part of a beautification project in the city centre, and that rubbish from the market was infringing on the nearby cemetery. Some were sceptical of these justifications as the cemetery and market had co-existed without complaint for decades.
Rumours began to circulate that the Ministry of Home Affairs was looking for tenants to fill the $2.6 million market place in the commercial district of Gadong they had built in 2012, but that had failed to attract interest from vendors. If the Tamu Kianggeh stallholders were forced to relocate to Gadong and pay rent, their investment would be seen as less of a failure.
The theory took hold and many vendors were quick to point out that they used water taxis to move their products and the tides in Gadong would not allow them sufficient access. In contrast, Tamu Kianggeh market was accessible by water taxi, servicing residents of the historic Kampong Ayer water village. Elderly vendors who lived more traditionally in the water village or those who were unable to drive lamented that they would be unable to access this new location and would be forced out of business.
Worry and confusion increased throughout January and into February. On 7 February Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah made an impromptu and unpublicised visit to the market. The Sultan is often considered a defender of the people and regularly visits small and rural communities to inspect development projects and expedite projects deemed to be taking too long and impacting on welfare. His presence signalled high-level interest in the dispute and that perhaps the tide was turning towards the people’s wishes. While he did not comment explicitly on the issue, his visit gave hope to the vendors that they may not be forced to move.
After months of speculation a new Tamu Kianggeh marketplace was opened in Bandar Seri Begawan – five minutes from the original location. New facilities were constructed, reportedly aimed at ensuring higher standards of cleanliness and convenience. The tightly controlled national media reported the move as a ‘victory’ for vendors who had for months fought the move away from the original market. It appears a compromise had been reached: the Municipal Department and Ministry of Home Affairs followed through on its decision to ’move’ the market place, but it is obvious the government also listened to the people. This level of protest and social media activism is rare in the Sultanate and the fact that it actually worked is an important development. The Sultan was able to retain his image as a defender of the people and is seen as an integral player in protecting the market site.
According to media reports, both the public and vendors are generally pleased with the new marketplace. There have been some complaints about parking and lack of ‘colour’ and ‘heritage’, yet the overall mood appears positive.
This months-long saga comes on the back of a similar case in May 2015. Then, an overnight notice from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) that banned businesses operating after midnight caught Bruneians by surprise. Very few details were released with the memo detailing the restriction; noticeably absent was any reason for the ban.
It was noted that this new ban seemed counterintuitive to the government’s calls for more entrepreneurism and development of the private sector in the Kingdom. Others argued that this ban was not fully fleshed out and harmed businesses that provide buffets during Ramadan and Nasi Katok vendors – both strong cultural practices.
Public demand for a justification swelled and five days after the initial memo MOHA released a statement to the media stating that a reason would be provided in coming days.
Later that month the ministry officially retracted the restriction. There was jubilation in Internet forums, with many noting that the decision showed the government did listen to and respond to the people’s concerns.
These cases, while relating to relatively minor issues, show a trend of increasing civic participation and criticism in Brunei, and positive government reactions. This is a positive sign for those who hope for more democracy and less restrictions in the Kingdom. It also shows that pragmatic needs such as income are valued within a government and society that is becoming increasingly theocratic and religiously motivated.
Alana Tolman is a graduate of the Australian National University, and the 2015 New Colombo Plan Fellow Scholar to Brunei.