Self-Censorship in Bruneian Literature and News Reporting

By Starrs, D. Bruno | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Self-Censorship in Bruneian Literature and News Reporting


Starrs, D. Bruno, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


In 2010 a novel-writing contest was promoted by the Bruneian government's Language and Literature Bureau in conjunction with the Sultan's 64th birthday celebrations. To the great embarrassment of the organisers, the output of no Bruneian writer even made the top three. As a result a letter writer to The Brunei Times English language newspaper complained of the absence of literature-makers in the Sultanate: 'there were no novels deserving enough to be given top status and hence become one memorable signpost to mark the eventful progress of Bruneian Malay literature during His Majesty the Sultan's reign' (Yusof 2010). This article therefore studies the only two English language novels published and available in hard copy by Bruneian authors since 2010 and questions to what extent the Brunei government's adherence to the national philosophy of Malayu Islam Beraja (MIB)- or Malay Islamic Monarchy-restricts or otherwise affects literary freedom in this uniquely Muslim South-east Asian monarch-ruled nation.

The country of Negara Brunei Darussalam, internationally known as the self-declared 'Abode of Peace', is a politically independent, geographically bisected state of around 398,000 citizens (Oxford 2009: 8). It is located on the north-western coast of the island of Borneo, a huge equatorial land mass the tiny nation shares with Malaysia and Indonesia. Brunei has, since the 1930s, developed much wealth from the discovery of its extensive oil and natural gas fields. Subsequently it enjoys, after Singapore, the second-highest Human Development Index in South East Asia and is classified as a 'developed country' (United Nations 2009). Its currency is pegged to the Singapore dollar, the cost of living is low and petroleum for commuters is amazingly cheap. The International Monetary Fund ranks Brunei fifth in the world by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), estimating that Brunei is one of only two countries in the world (Libya being the other) with a public debt at 0% of the national GDP.

Significantly, Brunei also boasts the only governing monarchy in Southeast Asia (other monarchies, such as the Kingdom of Thailand, for example, whilst often immensely popular with the citizenry, leave the actual matters of governance to their ministries). Headed by the Sultan of Brunei (who wears the title of Yang Di-Pertuan Negara), the country's hereditary monarchy has been in continuous power for over 600 years. The present leader, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah, is the 29th such ruler. Formerly a British protectorate (from 1888 until full independence was granted in 1984), the 1959 Constitution affirms the apparently much-loved Sultan as both head of state and prime minister of Brunei, and has given him full executive authority including emergency powers since a failed revolt in 1962. These emergency powers have never been revoked and, in effect, now permit the monarch to rule his lands entirely unchallenged.

Shafi'ite Islam is the official religion of Brunei and its precepts are adhered to at all levels of government with the national philosophy of MIB giving credence to the bureaucracy's assiduous devotion. Indeed, the association between Brunei and Islam is one of the oldest in Asia with Loo stating in 2009: 'the ancestry of MIB purportedly intertwines with the dawn of Islam itself' (153). The monarchy is even said to possess a hereditary link to the prophet Mohammed and the significance of this national ethos was affirmed during the reign of Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien when reference to it was included in the 1967 constitution, and subsequently consolidated upon Brunei's declaration of independence from the British on the 1st of January 1984. On that momentous occasion, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah declared the country 'shall be for ever a sovereign, democratic and independent Malay Muslim Monarchy [founded] upon the teachings of Islam' (Sidhu 2009: 120).

This proclamation has been proudly adhered to ever since, despite the fact that official censuses identify only about 67% of the Brunei population as Muslim, leaving a sizeable minority identifying as nonMuslim, that is, 13% of Bruneians are counted as Buddhist, 10% as Christian, and the remaining 10% as 'other' (Bouma, Ling and Pratt 2010: 49). …

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