Vol. 8, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Iyas SALIM

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Contents>> Vol. 8, No. 1

Brunei—History, Islam, Society and Contemporary Issues
Ooi Keat Gin, ed.
Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016.

At the mention of Southeast Asia, big countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines often come to mind. The Sultanate of Brunei is certainly a recognized name on the world stage; however, its status as a “small country” compels us to find out more about this unique nation located at the heart of Southeast Asia. Other small states, such as Qatar in the Middle East or Slovenia in Europe, provide interesting perspectives on their place and role in this day and age of globalization. Brunei, too, represents a vital perspective as it navigates its position regionally and globally.

Brunei—History, Islam, Society and Contemporary Issues tackles various and crucial aspects of Brunei, ranging from history, politics, society, and Islam, to identity. As the book is about a small country, it is important to further our understanding of this subject in an increasingly changing world. How do Brunei and other “small” nations define their role and determine their policies with bigger countries on the regional and global stage? This volume highlights rather succinctly the pragmatic role of Brunei born out of its long-held experience of polity and commerce that is uniquely Southeast Asian. Nine authors contributed in writing the eight chapters of the book, while the Editor wrote the Introduction. The chapter’s authors are members of the Academy of Brunei Studies at the University Brunei Darussalam, or are faculty of the same university. Though there was potential for more scope on important topics on Brunei, this book has taken a multidisciplinary approach spanning social science and infrastructure.

The volume comprises four main parts. The first, “Genesis, Historical Ties and Cotemporary Relations,” illustrates the “birth” of Brunei, specifically from the tenth century to the mid-fourteenth century, in addition to its historical relations with neighboring polities, kingdoms such as Aceh and also examines China and Brunei’s international relations in the contemporary era. The second part of the book deals with crucial subject of identity, especially on being “Malay” in modern-day Brunei. This section provides an in-depth description of the social aspect of Brunei society, particularly at the beginning of the twentieth century. It discusses in detail the meaning and essence of what it meant to “live on water,” and examines many facets of daily life on Kampong Ayer—considered the heart and soul of Brunei society with its unique sense of tradition and identity. The third part—containing only one chapter and written by a female scholar from Brunei—focuses on Islam, and explores the rights of women in Brunei according to the Islamic Family Law. This chapter is not only a scholarly work, but also a “voice” that offers an intimate insight into women’s circumstances and challenges in society. The fourth and last section of the book deals with an economic aspect of Brunei and the challenges that come with modernizing the local economy, mainly through oil and gas, and the subsequent dependency on foreign labor and imports. Without a doubt, this section could have easily been expanded to include discourse on other issues relevant to the cotemporary economic reality of Brunei.

Tracing the roots of the history of Brunei, Chapter One attempts to understand the “early polities” that existed and developed in the north-west coast of Borneo Island between the tenth and mid-fourteenth centuries. The methodology of study here is derived mainly from archaeological and linguistic data, written sources by indigenous people, oral tradition, and Chinese records. The author claims that the collected evidence shows a number of coastal and semi-coastal complex societies existed around the beginning of the twelfth century. Names such as Libang, Santubong, and Gedong areas of Sarawak were the most known social entities of the time. The location was considered vital to the international trading network, which helped the development of the several coast polities. The author argues that the case of Brunei was founded and developed since the tenth century by indigenous Borneo Malay speakers, at the heart of international trading network.

Chapter Two moves on to describe the relationship between the fledging polity of Brunei in particular, and other polities within the neighboring vicinity and beyond. The author and historian of this study investigates the most well-known historical document on the history of Brunei, Silsilah Raja-Raja Brunei (Genealogical History of the Sultans of Brunei). There are three manuscripts of the Silsilah: two in London located in the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS) and the Royal Asiatic Society of London Library, and a third at Brunei Historical Museum. This historical document is highly significant in its popularity and value to the development of literature and culture of Brunei, and its relevance to other literature and historiography of the Malayan World. Contrary to the Malay histography literature of placing past figures, like kings, in a mythical way, the Silsilah begins with the first Sultan of Brunei, Awang Alak Betatar. Quoting from the actual passage on the first king of Brunei, the document says, “the first to become the king in the state of Brunei is Awang Khalak Betarar, carrying the title of Sultan Muhammad, who first brought Islam in accordance with the Shari’at of our prophet Muhammad.” The Silsilah was written by Datuk Imam Yakub in the year 1735 CE. After the conversion of the Awan Khalak Betarar to Islam, he forged strong relations with Aceh. It was here that scholars and clerics from Aceh introduced literature and religious books influencing the Sultan and the culture of Brunei. The Silsilah Raja-Raja Brunei documented the lineage of the kings of Brunei as well as royal customs and relations in the region. In other words, this historical document explains several crucial historical landmarks, including war, Islamization of marriage, diplomacy, and trade, which made the kingdom of Brunei a powerful state and contributed to usher in what is understood as the golden age of Brunei.

Brunei’s foreign relations in the contemporary era are discussed in Chapter Three. The theoretical discussion on small states, or micro-states, is an interesting sub-theme of the book. Chapter Three define Brunei as being classified into “micro-states”—“sovereign states with a very small population of a small land area, which largely means a population of less than one million or 10,000 kilometer square of land area” (p. 63). The author of Chapter Three argues that small states pursue closer ties with great power in the region for the purpose of external balancing with neighbors in the region. In this case, Brunei has fostered and maintained good and dynamic relationships with Japan, China, and the United States. Additionally, one interesting aspect of Brunei foreign relations is “Islamic Diplomacy.” For example, the Organizations of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) offers a global platform for Brunei to play a multilateral role in coordination with other members of OIC. It works to promote the promotion of Islamic interests and values and thus for the benefit of Islamic Umma, as Brunei policy indicates. Brunei is considered an active contributor to OIC’s Islamic Solidarity Fund, in addition to funds directed at Afghanistan, Somalia, and some countries in Sub-Sahara and West Africa. ASEAN is a vital international organization to Brunei since the country obtained independence in 1984. Brunei’s outlook towards ASEAN is indicative of how small states maneuver available resources, in terms of diplomacy, economy, politics to prove its position and importance as regional member by undertaking the role of peacemaker, among others. We can see other highly relevant international examples, such as how Qatar and Slovenia seek active diplomacy to secure their regional place and position.

Chapters Four and Five examine the Malay identity in Brunei and existing ethnicities. Chapter Four argues that the term “Malay” is culture-based. However, being Malay as an identity is going to be met with challenges in modern times. The Sultanate of Brunei as a nation evokes homogeneity yet society reflects diverse ethnic heritage that goes well back in history.

In Chapter Five, “To Live on Water,” readers are given a detailed background of the Malay identity in Brunei. This study offers a day-to-day description of life in Kampong Ayer, the traditional village constructed on water in Brunei during the British Residency in the first half of twentieth century. For example, community education appeared to have flourished within Kampong Ayer. Scholars offered their homes as places of learning and studying the religious texts. To meet the demand of the increasing number of students, balai education was introduced, where a structure would be built on water in order to conduct lessons for and host ulamaa, scholars, and students. The balai, as a religious educational institution, is said to have been the driving force behind the “greatness of Islam in Brunei.” Here it is illustrative and at the same time significant to compare the balai with pesantren in Java and pondok in Malaya. Indeed, these “civil society” institutions carry vital social underpinning of Islamic civilization in terms of independent social entities, belonging to society and not the state. Historically speaking, till the formation of modern nation-state, Islamic society was largely independent of political authority. Governance was known and characterized as horizontal in nature. Education institutions, professional and trade guilds, ulamaa, scholars, and charity-based social services were all funded and sustained independently from the state through Islamic funding of waqf, endowment, zakat, almsgiving, and charity. Thus, it would be of an added value to explain how the balai maintained and sustained its function in Brunei society. To highlight this enduring aspect of Islamic civilization in relation to the Brunei case would be very meaningful. In all, this chapter is an informative and enjoyable read.

Chapter Six examines women’s rights in Brunei under Islamic Family Law. It argues that the legislation of “Emergency Order (Islamic Family Law) 1999” aims at empowering women with protection and justice, particularly during marriage and after divorce. The chapter is the only one in Part Three of the book. The other sections each consist of two or three chapters. As Brunei is a Muslim country, the discussion would have been enriched if this section was supplemented with other topics relating to Islam and Brunei. Nevertheless, highlighting the challenges and issues facing women in contemporary Brunei society is highly important and should be encouraged, in order to empower the rights of every woman and include women fully into the development and progress of Brunei.

On the issue of foreign labor in Brunei, the discussion in Chapter Six goes back to the colonial era. Colonialism brought about transformation to Brunei’s local economy, transforming it from a subsistence to capitalist economy. In the twentieth century, Brunei became highly dependent on foreign labor, which brought a number of economic, social, cultural, and political issues to the forefront. Presently, Brunei needs foreign labor to maintain its modern economy and the strategy of economic diversification to decrease dependence on oil and gas. The final chapter is about fishing, a traditional, centuries-old economic activity of Brunei. However, the country has become overly dependent on importing fish for local consumption.

In all, this book takes a multidisciplinary approach—comprising the humanities, social sciences, and infrastructure—in its discussion of Burma. Such an approach is to be encouraged in research and inquiry of social and development aspects of any given society. Certainly, there are additional vital topics that still can be researched and discussed on Brunei. But on the whole, this volume offers valuable information and timely additional knowledge on a country that is poised to expand its role diplomatically and economically within the region as well as on the world stage.

Iyas Salim
Organization for Advanced Research and Education, Doshisha University

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