A Short History of Southeast Asia: Brunei


1987: Brunei joins ASEAN

1984: Brunei becomes a sovereign state

1962: State of Emergency declared after first and only elections held

1959: Self government

1920: Oil and natural gas discoved

1888: Britain declares Brunei a protectorate

1839: James Brooke arrives and becomes the Governor and "White Rajah" of Sarawk (then part of Brunei)

18th century: Brunei's area of economic and political influence gradually declines

16th and 17th centuries: Brunei becomes a major regional Kingdom extending to southern Philippines, Sabah and Sarawak

1521: Magellan visits a flourishing trading community linked to Southeast Asia and China

14th century: Brunei claimed as part of the Majapahit Empire

6th - 9th centuries: Kingdom of Puni on northwest coast of Kalimantan paying tribute to China


Brunei Darussalam (Brunei) is a small state of just 5,765 square kilometers located on the north-west coast of the island of Kalimantan, or ‘Borneo’ (a western term derived from ‘Brunei’). It is an Islamic State where the Sultan, Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, the twenty-ninth in the dynasty, rules by decree. Its population is about 280,000, of whom nearly 60 per cent live in urban areas. Malays make up about 64 per cent of the population, Chinese about 20 per cent and indigenous tribes about 8 per cent. It would be an unremarkable territory were it not that underneath its soil and under its territorial waters lie huge oil and gas reserves which have enabled the country to have the highest per capita income in Southeast Asia. This underground wealth has also enabled one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies to survive to the end of the 20th century. The Sultanate has considerable financial reserves invested throughout the world.

Early History

Little is known of the early history of Brunei. There appears to have been trade between the north-west coast of Kalimantan and China as early as the 6th century and Brunei was influenced by the spread of Hinduism/Buddhism from India in the first millenium. Chinese records make mention of a kingdom of Puni, located on the north-west coast of Kalimantan, which paid tribute to Chinese emperors between the 6th and the 9th centuries. Brunei was claimed by the great Javanese empire of Majapahit in the 14th century, though it was most likely little more than a trading/tributary relationship. Brunei became a more significant state in the 15th century with a greater degree of independence from its larger neighbours. When the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho visited Brunei in the early 15th century, as part of his exploration of Southeast Asia, he discovered a significant trading port with resident Chinese traders engaged in profitable trade with the homeland.

Brunei was a small cog in the early Southeast trading networks but well enough known to figure in the records of the major states. The Brunei ruler seems to have converted to Islam in the middle of the 15th century when he married a daughter of the ruler of Melaka (now Malacca in Peninsular Malaysia). The Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511 closed it to Muslim traders, forcing them to look elsewhere.

There was an outflow of wealthy Islamic traders who settled in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago taking with them not only their business acumen but also their religious beliefs. The Islamisation of the region was given a great impetus. Brunei prospered from the Portuguese conquest of Melaka as Islamic traders were now attracted to its port in greater numbers. When Magellan’s expedition visited Brunei in 1521 it found a prosperous town with a flourishing trading community linked into the Southeast Asia–China trading network. Throughout the 16th century it engaged in political and commercial relations with other states in the Malay world, comprising the Indonesian archipelago, the Malay peninsula and the southern Philippines.

Brunei became a major regional kingdom in the 16th and 17th centuries, with its influence stretching into the southern Philippines and its territorial claims extending over most of the north coast of Kalimantan, including what are now the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. As the first Islamic kingdom in the area Brunei was the base for the Islamisation of the southern Philippines and surrounding areas, frequently coming into conflict with Catholic Spain after the Spanish conquest of Luzon, the central island of the Philippines. In 1578 Spain attacked Brunei and briefly captured the capital. It was unable to hold the town, largely because its forces were decimated by sickness. Spain continued to try to conquer the Islamic Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippine islands, finally succeeding in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Brunei did well out of the Portuguese conquest of Melaka. Not only did it become an important port for Muslim traders but it was able to negotiate a deal with the Portuguese for cooperation in the Southeast Asian trade with China. Brunei was no threat to Portugal, having no territorial claims outside Kalimantan. It also shared a commercial interest in promoting the China trade. In 1526 the Portuguese established a trading post at Brunei to collect the valued products of Kalimantan and surrounding islands. Brunei became an integral port of call on the Melaka to Macau route.

Brunei’s commercial and political power was at its peak in the middle of the seventeenth century. It had managed to stave off Spain and had reached a mutually beneficial accord with Portugal. From the middle of the 17th century it was increasingly challenged by the Sultanate of Sulu in the islands north-east of Kalimantan. Ostensibly under Brunei sovereignty, the Sultanate of Sulu gradually established total independence, going so far as to acquire from Brunei sovereignty over most of the area which today constitutes the Malaysian State of Sabah.

By the beginning of the 18th century the political and economic power of the Malay rulers in Kalimantan and what is now the southern Philippines was declining sharply. The rule of the once-powerful Sultans of Brunei and Sulu now barely extended outside their capitals. Their decline resulted largely from the development of European entrepots in Southeast Asia, which offered local traders a better price for their produce and were free from the taxes of the Malay ports. The development of local trade with European entrepots, especially Singapore, Batavia (Jakarta) and Manila, and the decay of the older trading centres of Brunei and Sulu meant a drastic reduction in the Sultanates’ revenues with a consequent decline in political power.

About 40,000 people lived in Brunei town and surrounding areas in the mid-eighteenth century. By the 1830s the population had declined to about 10,000. The northern coast of Kalimantan, except for Brunei town itself, was ruled by local chiefs based at river mouths. The coastal population was predominantly Malay (and Muslim) with a small group of Chinese merchants and pepper growers and a smattering of people of Arab descent. The tribal people who lived in the interior were neither Malay nor Muslim: they were subsistence farmers who traded with the coastal Malays but resisted attempts to bring them under Malay control. To Brunei’s west (in Sarawak) the most significant tribal people were Iban, or Dayak. To the east (in Sabah) the most significant groups were Kadazan–Dusun and Murut.

In addition to its economic decay the Brunei Sultanate was further weakened by power struggles within the Court. Omar Ali Saifuddin, who succeeded to the throne of the Sultanate in 1828, was a weak ruler. During his reign a bitter power struggle developed between two rival factions led by Brunei Chiefs. The decline in the Sultan’s power was evidenced by the increasing independence of provincial rulers, and by the growth in the power of formerly subservient chiefs. In the late 1830s, Sarawak, the westernmost province claimed by the Sultanate of Brunei, was in open rebellion against the local provincial ruler whose rule had become progressively more oppressive as he became more independent of Brunei. In 1837 the Sultan tried to suppress the rebellion but without success.

The British impact

In the first half of the 19th century the interest of the British government and the English East India Company in Southeast Asia was limited to the protection of the China trade routes from interference by other European nations and the provision of minimum conditions for the expansion of British trade in the area. The Anglo–Dutch Treaty of 1824, under which Britain acquired Melaka from the Dutch and relinquished Benkulen on the south-west coast of Sumatra and under which the Dutch withdrew all objections to Britain’s occupation of Singapore, contained articles which guaranteed British traders’ entry to the Dutch-administered ports and laid down maximum rates of import duties.

The failure of the Dutch to carry out the commercial clauses of the Treaty led to a growing agitation by merchants in Singapore and Britain that Britain should directly challenge the Netherland’s position in the Archipelago by opening an entrepot to the east of Singapore. The unsuccessful settlements in northern Australia – Melville Bay, Raffles Bay and Port Essington – had been made partly with this end in view, but in the late 1830s attention was focused on the north-west coast of Borneo, the only part of the Archipelago not recognised as lying within the Dutch sphere of influence.

Into this situation of a decaying Sultanate of Brunei, facing rebellion in Sarawak and a growing commercial interest in the north-west coast of Kalimantan by the British community in Singapore, a remarkable Englishman named James Brooke arrived in August 1839. Brooke was in the mould of the early 19th century Romantics: he admired what he saw as the simple and unsophisticated life of the peoples of the Malay Archipelago and wanted to improve it by bringing to them what he saw as the benefits of British civilisation, without destroying the basic simplicity of their lives. He became convinced that he had a divinely-appointed mission in the Malay archipelago. With the proceeds of his wealthy father’s estate he bought a boat and journeyed first to Singapore and then to the north-west coast of Kalimantan. His timely arrival at the head of the Sarawak river with an armed yacht in August 1839 brought the rebellion of the local chief to an end. In return he received the Governorship of Sarawak.

Over the next thirty years Brooke established a personal fiefdom in Sarawak, remorselessly extending its borders at the expense of the Sultanate of Brunei. He was adroit at persuading British naval commanders in Hong Kong and Singapore to support him in forcing the Sultan of Brunei to make concession after concession. However, his attempts to persuade the British government to make Sarawak a British protectorate for the moment fell on deaf ears. The ‘White Rajah’ was one of the more colourful oddities in the history of British colonialism.

A weakened Sultan of Brunei made further concessions of territory in 1877. This time it was to a private company, the American Trading Company, owned by an Austrian and an Englishman. The Austrian sold out to the Englishman in 1881. In order to keep the French and the Germans out of a strategically important area, Britain then granted a royal charter for the establishment of the British North Borneo Company. Further Brunei territory was successfully claimed by Sarawak in 1882, reducing the Sultanate to two small areas, the core around Brunei town and a small pocket of land inside Sarawak. In 1888 in order to protect what was left of the once great Sultanate of Brunei and finally to ensure that rival European powers were kept out, Britain declared a protectorate over Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo. A series of arrangements between the British North Borneo Company and Sarawak saw Sarawak add further territory and in 1906 Britain appointed a Resident to Brunei in order to supervise the state, modernise its administrative structures and ensure its survival against its predatory Sarawak neighbour.

Brunei had been territorially reduced to but a shadow of its former self. But oil and gas were discovered beneath its land and under its territorial waters in the 1920s. The history of Brunei from then on has revolved around the enormous wealth created by oil and gas. The Sultan and his family became very rich, very quickly. Access to such a strong revenue stream enabled the Sultanate by the 1960s to provide free health, education and social welfare services of a high standard to all its people, and all with very low rates of taxation.

After the Second World War and the defeat of Japan, Brunei continued to be a British protectorate with the Sultan ruling with advice from a British Resident and under the protection of Gurkha troops. As Britain steadily decolonised in Asia and Africa, this arrangement came to be seen in Britain as anachronistic. In 1959 Brunei achieved self-government, at the insistence of Britain. A constitution was drawn up which provided for elections to a legislative council. In 1962 the first elections were held. They were won by the Party Rakyat Brunei, a party which opposed the monarchical system and demanded full democratic rights. It also advocated that Brunei join the neighbouring states of Sabah and Sarawak in the mooted Federation of Malaysia. The Partai Rakyat Brunei was strongly opposed by the Sultan and the ruling elite and its demands were rejected. Brunei was to remain a monarchy.

As a consequence the Partai Rakyat Brunei launched a revolt which was quickly crushed by the Gurkha troops stationed in Brunei. The Sultan declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, declared the recent elections void and banned the Partai Rakyat Brunei. This was the only election ever held in Brunei. In 1962 and early 1963 the Sultan became involved in discussions about joining the new Federation of Malaysia, but when Malaysia was formed in September 1963 Brunei elected to remain outside. Disagreements over the distribution of oil and gas revenues (Brunei was determined to protect its revenue) and concern about the relative status of the royal family among the other Malaysian Sultans, all of whom were constitutional monarchs with limited powers, finally persuaded the then Sultan, that Brunei should remain a British protectorate.

The protectorate arrangements were changed in 1971, but Britain still retained control of foreign affairs and defence, although all costs were now met by a very wealthy Sultanate. At Britain’s insistence, embarrassed by the continuation of this relic of colonialism, Brunei became a sovereign state on 1 January 1984. Independence brought with it few perceptible changes for the people of Brunei. Political parties remain banned. State ministries essentially remain in the hands of members of the royal family and trusted members of a tightly knit elite.

Since the 1960s, Brunei has become increasingly involved with its Southeast Asian neighbours. Its relations with the countries making up ASEAN (originally Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) since its formation in 1967 have been extremely good, although from time to time there has been some debate in sections of Malaysian society about the merits of Brunei’s benevolent but authoritarian monarchy. In 1987 Brunei joined Asean as a full member, thereby formalising the already close relationship.

Brunei in the late 1990's

Brunei’s revenues are almost entirely dependent on royalties from oil and gas. Conscious of the eventual exhaustion of these finite resources, the Brunei Government in the 1980s and 1990s has placed priority on developing the agricultural sector so that it can cease to be a net importer of food. Efforts are also being made to develop light manufacturing. But for the foreseeable future Brunei will be dependent on oil and gas revenues and the considerable income from its investments overseas.

The social composition of Brunei has changed quickly over the past four decades, most noticeably in the growth of an educated middle class. This educated middle class will contiue to increase in numbers. A major question is the extent to which the middle class will demand greater political involvement and representation in keeping with their educational and economic achievements.

Copyright © Asean Focus Group Pty Limited. All rights reserved.

About this edition:

This is the complete text of the 2nd edition of the book. Short History of South East AsiaThe first edition of "Focus on Southeast Asia" was published in 1997 and the second edition, which was renamed "A Short History of South East Asia", was published in 1999. With so much change taking place in South East Asia over the last few years we recently decided to update the book and a fifth edition was published by John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com) in 2009. The cover set out is of the fifth edition.

The 5th edition of "A Short History of South East Asia" is available to purchase from Amazon, as both an e-book and a paperback, and via its publisher, Wiley.


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