One of the reasons that Brunei Darussalam stands out in Southeast Asian politics is its status as an absolute sultanate: it stakes out the authoritarian end of the region’s wide spectrum of regime types.
Two decades later, though, the Sultan reopened the Legislative Council, then valorised its proceedings by building a grand new edifice. He gave the council a bit of substance too, tolerating its mild imposition of budgetary oversight. And in 2011, five years after first mooting the idea, the Sultan ruled that elections to the council should be restored, at least in small measure.
The Sultan has begun cautiously, only allowing the Legislative Council to be partly and indirectly elected. Specifically, among the body’s several categories of members, a single cohort would be filled by the penghulu of mukim (that is, the heads of sub-districts) and ketua kampong (the heads of villages and longhouses). Within their respective districts, of which there are four in the sultanate, the penghulu and ketua kampong would nominate candidates from among themselves. They would then cast their ballots, electing one member to the council in each district.
Amid much ceremony and police observation, the penghulu and ketua kampong gathered in a morning session to make a total of 53 nominations. The nominees were untainted by any party affiliations or programmatic agendas, for at this early stage in the political development of the 500-year-old sultanate, government servants are barred from joining political parties. Thus, party vehicles, typically short lived, remain principally the redoubts of small-time, usually disgruntled, businessmen. The pengulu and ketua kampong then returned in the afternoon for the polling. In the largest district of Brunei-Muara, the voting centre was depicted by The Brunei Times as ‘abuzz with excitement’, with some 95 heads of mukim, villages and longhouses lining up before two voting booths. After casting their ballots, officials were scrupulously instructed to depart through a separate exit, preventing them from influencing the choices made by those still waiting their turn.
The voting was thus conducted rigorously, but with remarkable efficiency, and was finished across all four districts in less than half an hour. Ballot boxes were transported by security personnel to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, for counting by Home Ministry officers. Results were subsequently presented to the three-man selection committee, chaired by the Minister of Home Affairs, Dato Paduka Seri Setia Badaruddin Pangarah. And after reviewing the results, the selection committee conveyed them to the Sultan’s representatives, who duly announced the winners.
The Sultan ‘consented to the appointment’ of the Legislative Council’s full membership three days later. In addition to a speaker and clerk, the body included the Sultan himself, who was wearing his tri-cornered hat as prime minister, minister of defence and minister of finance. It also included 13 other ministers and ‘second’ ministers ex officio. Three ‘titled persons’ and seven persons ‘who have achieved distinction’ were also appointed. But the final cohort, the district representatives, did finally embrace nine heads of mukim, villages and longhouses, four of whom had been freshly elected by their peers.
Despite this revived contestation, it seems unlikely that recent events will do much to raise the sultanate’s standing in the eyes of Freedom House. In its Freedom in the World 2011 report for the previous year, the organisation awarded Brunei the lowly scores of six for ‘political rights’ and five for ‘civil liberties’, cumulating bleakly in a status of ‘not free’. And the report’s lament that no direct elections have been held in Brunei since 1962 imply that partial and indirect elections would do little to mollify it. Freedom House also observes that reform initiatives vary inversely with the oil and gas discoveries that fund placatory public sector employment, with the most recent find by a French energy firm in 2008 encouraging ‘little additional political change in 2009’.
At the same time, local newspapers in the sultanate appear free to operate only because the weak ray of light that they emit is felt to attract foreign investors. Yet editors remain so cowed by the fragility of their licences that they stringently self-censor. Accordingly, those interested in Southeast Asian politics need not fret over any diminution in the region’s array of regime types, for Brunei has stirred only slightly from its deeply implanted authoritarian pole.
Professor William Case is Acting Head at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.