Ann Black is Reader and Associate Professor of Law at the University of Queensland where she is also the Executive Director of Comparative Law, for its Centre for Public, International and Comparative Law. She researches comparative law and legal pluralism with a focus on Asian and Islamic law. She is the author of numerous books and articles, a list of which can be found here. Her article “Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Royalty, Women, and Ideology in the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam” is available in the Royal Studies Journal issue 7.2.
RSJ Blog: Thank you for an insightful article about the sultan of Brunei. We learned so much! For those interested in studying Brunei, what languages would a researcher need to know? What archives should a researcher access?
Ann: The local language is Brunei Malay. It is also the official language. However, because Great Britain colonised Brunei, English has been the main language used for government, commerce and law. For example, English is used in the superior courts, and foreign common law judges sit on both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. Court reports are in English with most now available online through the Judiciary’s website. Legislation is available in both English and Malay and is similarly available online. Newspapers are available in English and Malay. So whilst knowledge of both is desirable, one can conduct research in English.
RSJ Blog: How did the legacy of British colonialism contribute to authoritarianism in modern Brunei?
Ann: In the colonial government, known as a Residency, all power – executive, legislative and judicial – was concentrated in one person: the British Resident. During that time, the Sultan only had control over the religion of Islam. When Brunei became self-governing, the powers of the Resident transferred to the Sultan who also retained his control over Islam. In essence, Brunei adopted the colonial model of power concentration; referred to as an Islamic Malay Monarchy. There was no participatory democracy in the colonial era. One can speculate as to whether Brunei might be democratic today if the Residency had embedded such practices and concepts..
RSJ Blog: What is the sultan’s “personal” wealth?
Ann: We do not know. The Sultan alone determines the allocation to himself and the royal family from the nation’s revenues, and this is not publicly disclosed. Estimates of his net worth are speculative. Neither the Sultan, nor the family are accountable for how their allocation is spent. Their lifestyles are lavish. For a nation with a population less than half a million people, the royal place, decorated with vast amounts of gold, is the largest in the world. The Sultan has a collection reportedly of 7,000 luxury cars with 500 of those Rolls Royce, which is said to be the world’s largest private car collection..
RSJ Blog: The article mentions that Brunei has nobility. Is a substantial part of the population of Brunei nobles or aristocrats?
Ann: Yes, Brunei has an heredity nobility with a complex structure of titles and entitlements, and the Sultan can award lifetime peerages. I am not sure of what percentage of the population today falls into either category but for a small nation there seems to be many with noble titles.
RSJ Blog: Your article mentions that not everyone is satisfied with the current political system in Brunei. Are these people fighting for constitutional monarchy? No monarchy at all?
Ann: People cannot advocate for change to the system, much less ‘fight’ for it in the stronger sense as occurs in other countries. To question or criticize the current monarchial system is seditious, and because the Sultan is head of Islam, it can be heresy. The recent Syariah Penal Code Order added another layer of censorship upon an already heavily censored society. As there are no elections in Brunei, the Sultan personally appoints Bruneians to government positions that they hold ‘at his pleasure’. There is no government opposition, and without elections, there is little need for political parties. The one political party permitted in Brunei, had to affirm its support for the existing Monarchical system.
RSJ Blog: Thank you so much for this great contribution to studies of modern monarchy!