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A visit to Brunei: A Sultan and His Subjects

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
25 Sep 2023

I don't hold a favourable view of monarchy; my faith lies in democracy, even with its imperfections. Recently, a senior lady member of the Travancore royal family mocked the Kerala Legislative Assembly, attributing disputes to the building's lack of adherence to Vaasthu science. 

It would have been beneficial if she had read Manu S. Pillai's "The Ivory Throne," which sheds light on how the Travancore Palace became a hub of intrigue, sorcery, illicit relations, and more. Was this due to the construction aligning with Hindu architectural principles? 

Our perceptions of alternative governance systems can be flawed. For example, I, like many Indians, once believed Pakistan to be an unfavourable place to visit. However, during my travels there, including Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, referred to as Azad Kashmir by the locals, I was pleasantly surprised by the respect and warmth extended to me as an Indian. 

The people were incredibly hospitable, readily offering assistance as soon as they learned of my nationality. In a shop, I inquired about an item's price, asking, "What if I offer just one rupee?" Without hesitation, the shopkeeper replied, "I would gladly accept it as a gift from a visiting Indian." 

With that, the matter was settled. I paid the requested price, and the shopkeeper generously offered a discount without any request. The only other Muslim country I have visited is Turkey. The people there are incredibly friendly to tourists, making you want to revisit the country repeatedly. At the Blue Mosque Pope Francis visited, I observed that both men and women who had exposed legs could borrow a piece of cloth to cover their skin while inside the mosque. 

Brunei has always held a special allure for me, thanks in part to a standing invitation from my friend, Laly Anto. My fascination with this country began when I read the autobiography of K P Kesava Menon, the founding editor of  Mathrubhumi. 

In his book, Menon recounts his journey to Brunei. He traveled there from Singapore to represent a client in a local court, and his efforts were handsomely rewarded. It took him six days to reach Brunei, and he emerged victorious in the case. 

However, fate took a strange turn when he learned that the man he had saved from jail had inexplicably gone blind, perhaps a consequence of his past misdeeds. Curiously, Menon himself would later lose his eyesight during his tenure as the editor of the Mathrubhumi. 

In a few succinct lines, he imparts the rich history of Brunei, a land where people have resided for over a thousand years. Similar to the East India Company's influence in India, a British company was the first to establish its presence in this Southeast Asian nation. Remarkably, even today, Brunei adheres to certain aspects of Indian law. 

When we arrived in Brunei on a Royal Brunei Airline flight just minutes before midnight, Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, was experiencing a torrential downpour. Waiting for us at the arrival hall was our friend, equipped with a generously sized umbrella, which she wielded ingeniously to shield us from the deluge. 

It was impossible to forget that umbrella. She's the daughter of India's Umbrella Man, renowned for introducing the St. George umbrella brand, blending human craftsmanship with a touch of religious legend. As she held out the umbrella to protect me from the rain, I couldn't help but recognise it as Popy's umbrella. In Kerala, Laly goes by the nickname Popy's brother. 

In Brunei, she had to make the trek to pay the parking fee, a process that still relies on cash transactions. She remarked, "We're quite spoiled here. No taxes, and until recently, electricity and water were free. The per-litre price of petrol has remained unchanged at 55 cents for over two decades during our time here." 

The journey to her house took just 50 minutes, meandering through a lush wooded landscape. She quipped, "I never feel unsafe around here. In fact, when boredom strikes at home, I embark on extended drives. I only dial my husband when I lose my way or encounter a flat tyre." 

During the drive, she pointed out various landmarks, including the school where her daughters had studied. Throughout the journey, she kept her husband, a dedicated paediatrician, informed of their progress. Truly, they are a perfectly matched couple. 

Their residence is a spacious bungalow nestled within a garden adorned with vibrant bougainvillea, all meticulously planted by their own hands. It's not uncommon for them to host unusual guests like pythons, black cobras, and a variety of reptiles, which they affectionately refer to as their wild friends. 

They also have a loyal dog, which once valiantly confronted a hissing cobra, staring into its venomous eyes. Dr. Anto's knowledge of animal care proved invaluable in saving the dog's sight. However, not all residents were as fortunate. 

They couldn't prevent a rooster from losing its eyes in a brawl with another rooster. Picture the situation with one hen and four roosters – it's no surprise that the rooster who relentlessly pursued the hen ultimately paid the price by losing its eyes. 

Anto Kalliyath is fluent in the local language, but he mentioned that he only understands the patient's language. He shared an important tip with me: The people of Brunei are generally liberal; however, they are sensitive to criticism regarding three specific aspects — their language, which is Malay, their religion, Islam, and their ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah ibni Omar Ali Saifuddien III. 

As was their custom, we had to cut a cake that Laly had made in our honour at their house. My eyes were drawn to a painting of a mosque hanging in the hall. It was unusual for a Christian to have such a painting in their home. 

One of the monuments I had been eager to visit in Brunei was the mosque depicted in that painting. The mystery was solved when she told me that she had painted it herself. Due to my interest, the mosque built by the present Sultan was the first place they took us to. 

It was drizzling outside when we arrived at the grand mosque. The architect must have taken great pleasure in building it, as cost seemed to be of no concern. It was a magnificent structure that could awe any visitor, yet it also provided a serene atmosphere for the faithful to pray. Surprisingly, the caretaker had two prominent marks of piety on his forehead! 

The doctor is held in such high regard that the mosque granted us access to every room, even the one reserved for the Sultan. Next to his chamber, there was a larger one where he occasionally met with his ministerial colleagues. 

Additionally, the mosque boasts an extensive collection of 24,000 books. I was astonished when the librarian, Mohammed Haziq, told me that, on average, 10 people borrow books from the library. 

As we enjoyed a late lunch at an exotic restaurant, dusk had already descended upon us. Anto chauffeured us to the palace, boasting an astonishing 3600 rooms, though curiously, only a single guard stood watch at the front gate. 

It seemed that nearly every citizen had explored the palace or partaken in a meal there during the national day or the Sultan's birthday festivities. The Sultan's portrait remains incomplete without the inclusion of his wife's image. Laly cherishes her memories of their exchanges. 

It's true that he entered into second and third marriages, yet those wives eventually faded from his life, leaving behind the houses he had built for them as enduring monuments to the capriciousness of love. 

The reason for the people's loyalty to the Sultan is readily apparent. He guarantees stability within the system, offers outstanding education and healthcare services to the population. Despite gaining independence as recently as 1984, the country has maintained its status as one of the wealthiest nations. 

In contrast to our leaders who frequently criticise the British, the citizens of Brunei harbour no such grievances. Notably, the late Queen Elizabeth was one of the most prominent visitors to the mosque I mentioned. 

When the British discovered oil in Assam and initiated exploration, Brunei remained unaware of its own oil wealth. It was the British Shell company that commenced oil field exploration in 1929. 

I had the opportunity to visit the monument erected to commemorate the pumping of the billionth barrel of oil. Oil and natural gas have indeed been the hidden sources of Brunei's prosperity. 

Despite its sparse population, the country reinvests its wealth into infrastructure development. I had a delightful experience riding on the 26-kilometre bridge that connects two districts of Brunei. Interestingly, it was the Koreans who constructed this magnificent bridge. 

The King owns it all but he does not seem to promote himself like our own leader. In common stereotypes, Muslim women are often wrongly perceived as less educated and solely focused on childbirth. 

However, in Brunei, women are remarkably industrious and diverse in their roles. They engage in a wide range of occupations, including managing businesses and working at gas stations, where they even pump petrol. Additionally, many of them have at least some proficiency in English. 

The Bruneian people have a rich seafaring heritage, having historically lived on boats and earned a reputation as skilled fighters. Europeans traveling on business ventures to India and China once held a sense of apprehension towards them. 

However, less than a century ago, many transitioned to living on land, although today, tens of thousands still reside in houses constructed on stilts. This unique lifestyle is deeply ingrained in their culture and is supported by amenities such as schools, hospitals, and police stations to meet their modern needs. 

The locals are renowned for their politeness and sense of humour. During our visit to a local market, we were enthusiastically encouraged to sample a specific dish, abundant in meat and masala. "It's excellent for managing cholesterol," suggested the middle-aged man who intervened on behalf of the vendor. 

In his autobiography, Menon mentioned a plan to establish a Malayali community in Brunei, citing the climate as a suitable match. After enjoying lunch at a Malabar Restaurant, we discovered that the locals had a strong preference for masala dosa, chicken, and mutton biriyani, which they relished for all their meals. 

Indians were highly esteemed in the region. During my visit to the largest library in the downtown area, I found it completely deserted. The librarian was extremely appreciative as Anto obtained a membership allowing him to borrow up to 10 books at a time for a 14-day period. 

Following Menon, novelist Benyamin also documented Brunei in his writings. He recounted the tale of a Malayali nurse who displayed remarkable determination, crossing rivers and oceans to secure employment in Brunei. Her sacrifices, including forsaking her own comforts, enabled her to support her family and provide them with a better life. 

Indian doctors continue to play a crucial role in Brunei's healthcare system. It was heartwarming to witness a local woman identifying Anto as the doctor who had saved her baby. Indeed, he is a well-recognised figure in Brunei, having saved many lives in the community. 

In Brunei, one section of people, who have the least work are the policemen. Theft, robbery etc are rare. And when thefts take place, the police are so inexperienced that they do not know how to catch the thieves. The Indian Penal Code is used for criminal cases while cases dealing with family issues are settled under the shariat law. Now, I know why the people defend their ruler. Who am I to judge them? As the saying goes, Yatha Raja Thatha Praja (As the King, so the Citizen).


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