The Age of Decline: Brunei in the late 19th Century (MIB Series)

Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin with top ranking Japanese military officials during the Japanese occupation of Brunei in World War II.

The situation of Bruneian people when the allied forces landed in Muara. – PHOTOS: MIB SUPREME COUNCIL

The age of decline
November 21, 2016
| Dr Muhammad Hadi bin Muhammad Melayong,
Senior Special Duties Officer, Secretariat Office, MIB Supreme Council |

BEFORE the 17th century, Brunei was a vast empire, and arguably the most influential in the centre of the South China Sea, with regions stretching as far as the present-day Philippines and parts of Indonesia. Prior to the rise of the Srivijaya and Majapahit empires, and after the fall of Malacca to the Dutch in the early 16th century, Brunei was the premier destination for traders between China and the West.

However, as colonialism gained full force in the 18th and 19th centuries, Brunei fell under Western colonialism and had its territories slowly but surely wrested away from its control until our sovereign state was left with only a miniscule area of 2,226 square miles.

Our country managed to retain its Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) identity, thanks to the tireless efforts of our forefathers. To better understand the signifi-cance of MIB in this day and age, we must first learn about the events which transpired throughout our history, for we cannot move into the future when our past is still steeped in mystery.

In the 16th to 17th centuries, Brunei was primarily a naval power, with vast fleets to protect and govern its coastal vassal states. Being an empire comprised of smaller states, it was inevitable that internal turmoil should exist among the governors of certain regions, and this was where the British adventurer, James Brooke, saw his opportunity.

In the 1840s, James Brooke, with the aid of superior weaponry and warships, crushed a local uprising that occurred in opposition to Pengiran Muda Makota, the governor of Sarawak at the time. As a result, James Brooke was installed as the Rajah of Sarawak, under the pretence of reorganising Sarawak and uniting the many Dayak and Malay tribes.

This was the beginning of the Brooke Dynasty, where Brooke and his successor, Charles Brooke, began seizing control of lands under Brunei rule in the name of British colonialism, slowly expanding their sphere of influence on the island of Borneo and to a certain extent, their influence on the Southeast Asian trade routes.

When Pengiran Muda Hashim and his family were murdered, James Brooke and Thomas Cochrane, the Rear Admiral of the British fleet in Singapore, attacked Brunei Town and forced the Sultan of Brunei to flee to Ulu Sungai Damuan, where he eventually was forced to surrender full control of Sarawak to Brooke’s regime in order to end the British occupation of Brunei Town.

This savagery could have spelt the end of Brunei as a sovereign state, but the Sultan made the decision to cede control of several large states, in order to preserve our national heritage and culture – a difficult decision for any country at any point in history.

The dispute over sovereign rights did not cease with the annexation of Sarawak. In 1888, in order to avoid a complete takeover, Brunei agreed to become a protectorate of Britain, in which the British would give counsel to the Sultan on all state and foreign affairs. This agreement did not stop the loss of territories however, with Charles Brooke’s seizure of Limbang in 1890 standing out as a primary example.

Worried about the obliteration of Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) and the loss of our national heritage, Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin (1885-1906) had to relinquish his rule over Brunei in favour of a Residential System, where the British government would employ a Resident to have executive powers to counsel the Sultan on all matters except those that dealt with Islam.

We owe a debt to Malcom McArthur, who made a proposal to the British Government for the introduction of Residential System, in order to preserve the survival of Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) in Brunei. The Residential System brought many changes and develop-ments to Brunei, including the introduction of formal education which eventually led to the growth of nationalism among the citizens of Brunei, but the real push for independence only came after one of the darkest periods in our history.

The World War II in the 1930s brought the Japanese to our shores in search of oil.

Their ‘Nipponisation’ process brought a lot of suffering to the people of Brunei, in addition to being yet another colonial power attempting to stamp their governance and culture upon the people. As members of the older generations will readily attest, the Japanese Occupation was nothing but destruction and suffering for many, if not all, Bruneians who were lucky enough to survive it.

Had it not been for the valiant efforts of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin, together with his brother, Pengiran Muda Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien (Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Safuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Muhammad Jamalul ‘Alam) and Ibrahim bin Mohd Jaafar, who fought to keep up the morale of the Bruneian people, many more would have succumbed to the cruelty of the Japanese Kempetai Army, who treated anyone who was not Japanese with utter contempt.

The hardships of the Japanese Occupation ignited the fires of nationalism among Bruneian scholars, reinvigorating efforts to restore the ideals of Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) to its rightful place at the heart of our sovereign state. Years of living under the rule of foreign powers had worn thin for the educated and the ordinary people, leading to the establishment of several movements to restore control to the monarchy, most notably Barisan Pemuda Melayu (BARIP) which was at the forefront in the fight for independence at the time.

Students who received formal education in Malaya – particularly at the Sultan Idris Training College in Perak – and in other countries were inspired by the nationalist movements taking place there.

Brunei had been under the control of foreign powers for decades, but in the period of peace which came after the near-decade of terror and turmoil which was World War II, the people suddenly had a window of opportunity to return their country to its Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) roots.

With Britain still reeling from the effects of war, its colonies began to demand independence in an attempt to shake off their colonial past, even while those countries were struggling in the economic and political sense.

Brunei intellectuals took note, and it was a long and arduous task, but by adhering to the ideology that was inherited our forefathers, Bruneians were slowly able to leverage themselves towards independence, beginning with the writing and signing of the Brunei Constitution in 1959, and culminating in the British-Brunei agreement signing of 1979, which allowed Brunei to regain control over its international affairs.

The efforts of our beloved ruler, Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, for the re-emergence of Brunei as a Malay Islamic Sultanate reached an agreement with the British Government, in 1957. Finally, on January 1, 1984, after a century of foreign interference, Bruneians rejoiced as their home country proudly claimed itself as an independent sovereign state.

This brings us to present-day Brunei Darussalam: a land that we call home, and of the people who dedicated their lives to protecting it. We need to appreciate the struggles of past generations, who never faltered in the face of challenges and adversity. We must always be grateful to Allah the Almighty, Who gave us a ray of hope when the future seemed bleak. And of course, we must pay our respects to the rulers of the present and past, who worked ceaselessly to protect the people of Brunei Darussalam, as much as they would their own families.

Malay Islam Monarchy (MIB) is a way of life in Brunei and a source of well-being, prosperity and security in this blessed world; and this ideal was expressed perfectly in the titah of our beloved His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam:

“Kita semua wajiblah bersyukur kerana dapat menikmati keadaan aman dan makmur yang berterusan di negara ini, lebih-lebih lagi dalam suasana dunia yang sentiasa mengalami pelbagai cabaran dan pergolakan ini.”

(“We must all be forever grateful that we are able to enjoy continuing peace and prosperity in this country, especially given the turbulent and unstable nature of the world that we live in.”)


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