- Brunei Darussalam:Cautious on Political Reform, Comfortable in ASEAN, Pushing for Economic Diversification
By the end of 2008, the political scene in Brunei was dominated by preparations for the commemoration of Brunei's Silver Jubilee celebrating twenty-five years of independence from colonial rule. On the eve of the National Day in early 2009, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah delivered a titah (a speech or decree) where he declared his intention to increase the growth of industries, to continue to reduce poverty, to increase rice production, and to ensure the continued development of an efficient and outstanding public service. The Sultan contended that both 'regeneration' and 'change' in Brunei will need to be engineered through the 'Brunei Vision' which itself will need to take 'into account not only the nation's status but also global trends'. Implicit in the Sultan's address to the nation was the recognition of the difficult global economic climate which had already affected Brunei.1
Since independence on 1 January 1984, Negara Brunei Darussalam has remained a monarchy where the Sultan's powers include the prerogative of mercy in the judiciary, the regulation of Islam and the ability to rule by decree. While the Sultan stated that the Malay Islamic Monarchy will 'ceaselessly remain a sovereign nation, independent and democratic', his pre-National Day titah was also notable for the fact that it did not discuss any of the political reforms he had [End Page 61] previously outlined for the nation. One of the most significant of these reforms concerned the Legislative Council (LegCo or Majilisi Masyuarat Negeri) that was reconstituted by royal decree in 2004 as a wholly appointed chamber following a twenty-year respite.2 A new LegCo was reconvened on 24 September 2005 with an enlarged membership totalling thirty delegates including five indirectly elected members representing the Village Councils. During the meeting, the members voted to further increase the number of representatives to a total of forty-five with the new members being selected via popular vote. However, and through to the conclusion of 2008, there had been no announcement as to when such an election (the first since 1968) would take place.
Since the reopening of LegCo, the Assembly's role has been primarily limited to the deliberation of the national budget in March each year. Nevertheless, and in the context of the 2008 national budget, the Minister for Finance II was questioned about whether there was any financial provision for increased personnel in the fight against drug abuse and corruption. On the issue of narcotics, the Minister replied that in 2008 the size of the anti-narcotics bureau had been increased from 146 to 152 personnel, but added that over thirty new positions had been added during the course of the last few years. The Minister also outlined that the Br$7,100,530 budget for the Anti-Corruption Bureau included provision for 'officers, prevention, enforcement and other issues that may arise'.3 A further issue that was deliberated during the March 2008 sitting was the longstanding problem of a national brain drain. The government announced that it would establish 'a special scheme for technical experts' and a review of salary for the civil servants —the largest category of employment in the sultanate.4
Importantly, the Sultan delivered a titah shortly before the sitting of LegCo to incite a discussion of some of his grander visions for the country. These included a 'zero poverty rate' by 2035, as alluded to during his titah in the lead-up to the 25th National Day celebrations.5 In response to a number of questions asked during the deliberations, the Speaker of LegCo sought to refine the role of the Assembly, arguing that some of the issues being brought before it were too small and were therefore undermining the importance of the Assembly.6 The 2008 session was also notable for taking place in the newly constructed legislative building which the Sultan officially opened on 4 March 2008.7 Importantly, members of the public were invited to attend the deliberations of parliament during its five days of sitting and to inspect the new building...