Socio-Political Issues

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Socio-Political Issues


In October 2001, the government announced the release of three local men arrested and detained at the end of 2000 under the Internal Security Act (ISA). They were allegedly trying to recruit members into an underground movement that had links to a religious cult in neighbouring states. The authorities had considered their activities as subversive because they could instigate disharmony among the general public and, thereby, create instability in the country. The ISA, which was introduced in the 1960s, allows the government to detain without trial suspects who pose a danger to national security. The detention period can be up to two years. Before their release, the detainees had to undergo a rehabilitation exercise and pledge loyalty to HM the Sultan.11 Although it is unlikely that Brunei would experience religious and ethnic strife and Islamic militancy, it is keeping a close watch on the current situation in Indonesia and Malaysia.

In September, a law to regulate newspapers was introduced. The law, which is criticized as being regressive, requires all local newspapers to obtain a yearly permit. A deposit of B$100,000 in cash has to be paid to obtain the permit. Under the law, all directors of a newspaper company must be Brunei citizens or permanent residents. The punishment for contravening the new law would be a fine of up to B$40,000 or a jail term of up to three years, or both. The law also gives the Minister for Home Affairs sweeping powers to refuse or revoke the permit for a locally printed newspaper and to stop any overseas newspaper from being brought into the country. However, Dato Hazair, a permanent secretary in the Prime Minister's Office claimed that the law is more liberal than press laws in some neighbouring countries. He explained the reasoning behind the introduction of the law: to make newspapers more responsible and to prevent foreign interests from manipulating the local media in ways that may jeopardize the safety and security of the country.12 Currently, there are three daily newspapers in Brunei --- Borneo Bulletin and News Express in English, and Media Permata in Malay. Other than these papers, several newspapers from Malaysia and Singapore are also circulated widely in the country.

There has been a significant shift in the Brunei Government's attitude towards more tolerance and transparency. This can be seen in the issues raised in the letters columns in the local newspapers, which would have been unpublishable a few years ago. Besides criticizing lethargic government agencies, issues relating to the people's rights have also been raised. Newspapers have been more liberal and open in the kinds of news they publish. These changes might have prompted the government to introduce the newspaper law. The issues have been raised not only in newspaper columns, but also in dialogue sessions with government officials organized by the Information Department of the Prime Minister's Office held throughout the country. The sessions, which were first held in 2001 and attended by relevant permanent secretaries and directors, aim to explain government policies and projects to the people. However, members of the public had taken the opportunity to raise issues about their rights and privileges and, on some occasions had even questioned the government on political changes in Brunei.

There has been little progress in the review of the original Constitution passed in 1959. The Constitution, which introduced a semi-elected Legislative Council, had been suspended as a result of the abortive rebellion by Partai Rakyat Brunei (PRB, or Brunei People's Party) in 1962. In 1996, a committee was established to review the Constitution, with a view to reintroducing it. No details have been made public. Perhaps the financial crisis in 1997 and the Amedeo crisis in 1998 have made the government cautious about introducing changes when the country's immediate problems remain unresolved.

The Parti Perpaduan Kebangsaan Brunei (PPKB, or Brunei National Solidarity Party) held its annual meeting in October 2001.

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