The History of the Brunei Legislative Council

Today is the opening of the 2009 Legislative Council. The number of members have decreased with the death of three members over the last few years. Some of my officers are looking forward to see new members being sworn in. Anyway, I wrote about the history of the Legislative Council published more than a year ago on 8th March 2008 on my usual column in BT. It may serve as a background read to today's Legislative Council:-

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IN THE 18th and 19th centuries, Brunei's political and administrative system underwent a number of changes. The changes had been slow at first with the coming of Rajah Brooke in Sarawak but significantly moved faster and became much more visible at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1847, Brunei signed the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with the United Kingdom. Even though Brunei's own internal government was not affected, its ability to conduct foreign relations was somewhat regulated by Britain as the agreement controlled Brunei's ability to freely lease or sell its territories to other countries.

!In order to preserve the existence of Brunei, Sultan Hashim signed the 1888 Protectorate Agreement that surrendered jurisdiction over foreign relations to Britain but managed to keep a fully independent state internally with the traditional State Council running the administration.

In 1906, a further agreement was signed which placed Brunei under the Residential System similar to that of the Federated Malay States in Malaya. Even though the agreement stipulated that the Resident merely advised the Sultan, in practice the Resident actually administered the state.

Using the experience of the British in Malaya, the British Resident found that a State Council worked best as a listening post to local needs and grievances. But the British did not create the State Council.

From ancient times, Brunei had practised a form of consultative council or royal assembly that consisted of some core nobility as well as state dignitaries. Even though they were not as formal during the pre-Residential era, such assemblies served to bring matters of utmost importance to the Sultan for final approval.

The informal gathering consisted in a daily assembly of noble and non-noble officials at the Sultan's audience hall (Lapau). When the British Resident first administered Brunei, he reformed the old advisory body, in effect formalising the duties and responsibilities of a Brunei State Council.

The first council had ten members including the Sultan and the British Resident. The council's sanction was required for all important legislation.

In 1906, Sultan Hashim died. The British Resident had difficulty in summoning the Council to determine its members' composition. It was the unwritten "Constitution" of old Brunei that became useful in naming the members of the Council. The first Council met in accordance with the existing constitutional practice which was the Sultan, the two Wazirs, two Chetetrias, and three Menteris.

The first Council meeting took place on the 29th June 1907.

In that first meeting of the Brunei State Council, the new British administration got down to serious business. The most important agenda was to sort out land rights in the State and to simplify ownership of private property. Although the first meeting went on smoothly, the matter could not be resolved in the State Council until 1909.

During the early stages of the Councils and until the Second World War, both Sultans — Sultan Muhammad Jamalul Alam and Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin were minors. Hence the State Council more or less was amenable to the decisions made by the British Resident.

In 1953, Sultan Omar Ali declared that he desired a Constitution to be drawn up for Brunei. During those six years, a local advisory committee of seven people, known as the Tujuh Serangkai, were mandated to travel to the country's four districts, interview the general public, tour the Malayan states of Johore, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah and Kelantan and then return home to draft their findings and report back and advise the Sultan accordingly.

This was what Sultan Omar Ali had set out to accomplish and the committee's recommendations included a proposed constitution catering to the popular demands for extensive education, employment and welfare facilities from the government. For the first time, Bruneians became empowered by a nationalistic zeal that resonated to the theme of Brunei for Bruneians.

In March 1959, the Sultan proceeded to London for talks with the British Government and the constitutional proposals were accepted by the British and hence a new 1959 Brunei Agreement was signed to replace the 1906 Treaty. The British granted internal self government to Brunei.

The Sultan promulgated the new Constitution on 29 September 1959 with the supreme executive authority invested in the Sultan. The old State Council was revoked and replaced by an Executive Committee and a Legislative Council. Thus the current State Legislative Council was born.

The first Legislative Council was made up of eight ex officio members, six nominated members, three nominated non-official members and sixteen elected members chosen from the District Councils. The Council was to exercise financial control and pass laws. No taxes might be levied or public money spent without the Council's approval.

After the unsuccessful rebellion in 1962, the Legislative Council was revised in 1963. The Council was to consist of 21 members, 10 of whom shall be directly elected. The rest would six ex-officio members and five unofficial members appointed by the Sultan.

The Legislative Council continued to meet until 1983 when it was suspended.

The Legislative Council met again on 25 September 2004 for the first time in 20 years with 21 members appointed by His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaullah and that council passed a number of constitutional amendments. That council was dissolved on September 1, 2005 before a new council was appointed with 29 members as of September 2, 2005. The new council met in March 2006, in March 2007 and again this year in March 2008.

The new Legislative Council building officially opened during the March 2008 session is the second permanent building to be built for the Legislative Council. The previous one was the Lapau in the city centre which was completed in 1968. That was used by the Legislative Council until 1983.

The International Convention Centre was used for the Council meetings from 2005 to 2007. The Civic Centre — now Taib Headquarters — was used in the 1960s. Prior to that just after WWII, the Council met in the Wooden Kajang Building. Despite the hardship, the Council had been instrumental in passing legislations especially supply bills that are needed for the country.

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