This keynote address was covered on 7th Nov 2013 by both Borneo Bulletin and The Brunei Times, the only two English newspapers in Brunei. Bruneian residents, including those of mixed-race descent, reacted with anger to the angle appropriated by Borneo Bulletin. The original articles can be found here: Borneo Bulletin (backup copy), Brunei Times (backup copy). We found that the transcript of the keynote text actually addresses the complex topic of ‘identity’ in a more thought-provoking way. We decided to post it as an additional source to read and reflect on.
Every generation faces the issue of identity. In the past, racial lines, enforced by facial features and language, largely defined the question of identity. As such nations were often named by their racial character: the Chinese in China and the Mongols in Mongolia, the Scots in Scotland, the English in England and closer to home the Bugis, Thais and of course, Brunei. During the pre-British period Brunei was the name of a people who originated from the mouth of the Brunei River; today in the vicinity of Kampong Ayer. However, the Bruneis areas of power encompassed regions that were traditionally inhabited by peoples of different races – if we were to define race on linguistic lines. So we find among within the Bruneis’ areas of power the Belaits, the Tutongs, the Kedayans, the Dusuns, the Muruts and several others. What is important to note is that these peoples together with the Bruneis have lived side by side for many centuries. Each only identified by their linguistic differences and geographical origins.
When the British delineated Brunei’s geographical borders, these different ethnic groups were suddenly bound a single political entity: the State of Brunei. It was a modern conception of nationhood imposed upon a people who previously only understood the concept of borders as defined by tradition, and not by mutual political recognition from other nation-states. By defining political borders for Brunei, the British created the ‘State of Brunei’. By virtue of the 1959 Constitution, the State of Brunei’s multiple ethnic groups were introduced to another new concept of identity, one that was defined by law. Thus seven ethnic groups, the Belait, Bisaya, Brunei, Dusun, Kedayan, Murut, and the Tutongs were given recognition by the Constitution as being indigenously Malay, and hence introducing another new socio-political concept, that of being ‘Bruneian Malay’. This new definition- formalised as a legal concept in the form of ‘citizenship’ – and it provided legal legitimacy for the Brunei Government to distinguish between ‘indigenous’ Bruneians and ‘non-indigenous’ Bruneians. It is of no coincidence then that the introduction of the concept of ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ Bruneians was a reflection of the nationalist ideology prevalent in that particular phase of world history. More importantly, looking back at the political history of Brunei during that period, it was propelled by powerful youth movements: such the Brunei Malay Teachers’ Association and the Barisan Pemuda. It was a period where there was a dynamic political environment, allowing the expression of a socio-political narrative that shaped the Bruneian identity. Each generation faces the issue of identity. And that identity shaped by the youth of that generation was of a Malay Bruneian Islamic Monarchy.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What we have seen so far is that in a relatively short period of time- from around 1904 till 1959 – in about 55 years the people of Brunei experienced many upheavals in their conception of identity: from an ethno-racial identity to nation-state, to indigenous citizenship and non-indigenous citizenship. Underpinning all these upheavals was the spread of Islam. Prior to the British period, Islam was mainly confined to the ethnic Bruneis and Kedayans. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that a concerted effort by the Brunei Government, with much encouragement from the British, to underpin the so-called Brunei character with a single religious identity. Islam was thus encouraged, or rather, propagated to the other ethnic groups till we find today that Islam is also the pre-dominant religion among the Tutongs and Belaits, which together with the Bruneis and Kedayans constitute in total over 90% of the indigenous Brunei population. So around 30 years ago, it was still quite common to find various Bruneians- as citizens of the State- identifying themselves according to their ethnic background: Bruneis, Kedayans, Tutongs, Dusuns and others. But today, with increased population dispersion blurring traditional land inhabitation, and above all through frequent inter-ethnic marriages, it is quite difficult for almost anybody from among the youth to identify themselves exclusively to any particular ethnic group. The result therefore is a new social character of a non-ethnic Bruneían identity increasingly bound only by religious affiliation.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bruneis’ youth of today face a different set of challenges in defining their own identity. And it is a challenge that only they can define. No matter how difficult it may seem, we must acknowledge the fact that their current identity, as a Malay Muslim Bruneian is an inherited one. As in all inherited identities, there is always occasion for questions in the minds of the youth as to “why?” they are identified as such. And until the youth come to their own conclusions as to whom they see themselves as, there will always be issues, and by extension, questions of their commitment to our national identity as a Malay Islamic Monarchy. Because ‘identity’ is such a personal quality that it is not possible to impose an external notion to an intimate characteristic. Of course there are certain personal traits that cannot be denied such racial identity and religious affiliations, but these personal characteristics may, or may not, transcend the personal stage onto the social and national rostrum. Indeed, as we have seen in the not too distant past how Brunei society transcended a multiple ethnic make-up to one that today is closely identifiable to a single national identity of Bruneian. lt is not inconceivable therefore in light of the rampant globalising forces – the internet, social media, mass long-distance transportation- the Brunei of the future may assume a more transnational identity generated by inter-ethnic and inter-nation marriages. In those circumstances, the new generation of Bruneians may find it difficult to locate for themselves a specific ethnic, racial identity, or even national identity. Indeed, we are already witnessing glimpses of the future where children of English and Malay Bruneian parentage, for instance, readily identify themselves as both English and Malay. And we have numerous other examples of Malay Bruneians marrying Koreans, Arabs, French, Thais, Filipinos and others. When the day comes when the children of these mixed marriages marry each other, what will their ethnicity be then? Malay/Korean/French/Filipino Bruneian?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What becomes clear is that as time goes by it will become increasingly difficult for anyone to grant themselves any ethnic exclusivity. The situation will become more pronounced because of Brunei’s small population of 400,000 people. Just 10,000 children of mixed parentage are sufficient to create a whole new identity problem. In such circumstances then, what will be the position of MIB? The ‘Malay’ component of MIB will become increasingly redundant. Of course these changes will not happen overnight but it is already an obvious possibility. Being ‘Malay’ may turn out to become only a cultural identity rather than an ethnic one. Culture is still a powerful social force, absorbing all members of society regardless of ethnic or racial identity into its orbit. Although there are many Bruneians of different ethnic backgrounds already living within our society: Malays, Chinese, Indians, Caucasians, Arabs and others, most if not all, are tied together by Malay as a common identifying language. Even if English was spoken by all levels of Bruneian society, local and foreign, Malay remains the principal distinguishing feature of the Brunei national identity. Thus a Malay-speaking ethnic Chinese, for instance, is more readily perceived as being Bruneian than one who does not speak Malay. This is more so if the person is also able to speak Brunei Malay.
Other than linguistic ties, the Brunei identity is also largely underpinned by a common religious affiliation, that of Islam. These issue of Islam, or for that matter, any religion as national identity is potentially a sensitive question. In the case of Brunei, although a large majority of its people are Muslim, the rights of non-Muslim Bruneians cannot be ignored. However, at the same time, responding to the rights of non-Muslims should not be at the expense of ignoring the rights of Muslim Bruneians either. So where does the middle path lie? As far as Brunei is concerned a secular direction cannot be the solution. To extract Islam from the Bruneian identity in any of its dimensions: social, cultural, political and even the personal would be a disaster. One common mistake that many so-called socio-political analysts make is assuming that the evolution of human civilisation must eventually lead to a god-less society. The Western model is seen to be the gold-standard of human social development. Yet, the European societies that bear the ominous distinction of being the first to abandon religion for secularism, and eventually falling into atheism, find itself today at the crossroads of a moral and ethical crisis. In response to this moral and ethical decay, both in the United States and in Europe, Islam is the fastest growing religion. If indeed such is the socio-political evolutionary direction of the Western civilisation, then Bruneians must demonstrate great wisdom and foresight by learning from the Western civilisational experience: and the lesson from it all is that at the end of the evolutionary cycle all things shall return to Islam.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Every generation faces the issue of identity. We cannot impose upon our youth what to think of themselves, but we can guide them, advise them, educate them and to pray for them. We can show them the lessons past from our own history and the history of other nations. It was once said that history repeats itself. It is true, but only if we fail to learn from the lessons of the past. The implementation of the Shari’ah Criminal Code is one step towards creating an Islamic civilisation: one that the lessons of history have taught us as one of the most advanced ever witnessed. It was a society that valued knowledge and learning, where science and religion stood side-by-side, and where men, women and children respected one another, and the value of human life was cherished. With knowledge, respect and value for all human life, Islamic values stood as the civilisational arena for people of all faiths to live in peace and harmony. The Islamic civilisation of past was a glorious one, and one which we seek to underpin the Bruneian identity of the future. So maybe in the future the typical Bruneian will be ethnically transnational, we don’t know. But if Islam remains as the lynchpin of our identity, then all social, cultural and political elements can thrive within a universal civilisational content that has already been proven 1000 years ago of its versatility and flexibility in catering for all. But the final word must come from our youth; for them to see that the future is theirs to shape.