By Edi Kurniawan*
According to the data given by Harun Abdul Majid (2007:3) the size of Brunei is 5,270 square kilometres, of which three-quarters is still pristine rain forest. The population (2002 estimate) is 343,700. The population comprises Malays (between 64% and 67%) and Chinese (between 16% and 20%). In terms of religion, Muslims make up 63% of the population, while 14% are Buddhists, 8% are Christians and 15% are indigenous and people with other beliefs.
This data informs us of how small Brunei is; perhaps many of us are asking about why Brunei Darussalam is so small a country and how could that has happened?
To answer this question, let us look at the history of the country. In the early 15th Century, with the decline of the Majapahit kingdom and widespread conversion to Islam, Brunei became an independent Sultanate, in which it was greatly influential in the spreading of Islam.
From the 16th to the 19th century, the Sultanate of Brunei ruled over Borneo, Sulu, Moro, Cebu, Oton, Manila and some islands adjacent to it. Brunei enjoyed particular prominence during the era of Sultan Bolkiah. This era is regarded as the golden age of the Brunei Empire, with territories stretching far and wide as mentioned above.
Unfortunately, the coming of Western Colonialism had left a significant impact on the future of Muslim Brunei. First of all, it reduced Brunei into the small Brunei we see today; its geographical limitations consequently cut down the spreading of Islam.
In 1571, Brunei was colonized by Spain through Manila. According to The Philippine Islands’ writer (Vol. I: 1903-1909: 35), if the arrival of Spain had been delayed, “all the people would become Moros [Muslims], as are all the islanders who have not come under the government of the Philippine…”. That is why Dr. Francisco De Sande, the governor of Spain in Manila, sent a letter to Sultan Saiful Rijal, the 7th Sultan of Brunei, to stop the Islamic teachings (daʿwah) in the Philippine Islands (Awang Mohd Zain: 1992: xxxix), because it could be a threat to the Portuguese power and slow down the Christianization process.
The Portuguese, however, tried to attack Brunei in April 16th 1578 but they eventually failed and went back to Manila, where at that time, Manila had been conquered by the Portuguese. Due to the frustrating failure to conquer Brunei, three days before going back to Manila, in June 23th 1578, Dr. Fransisco de Sande burned the Masjid Jami’ of Brunei, marking the end of the attack coming from the Portuguese to Brunei; however, some of the territories of Brunei, fell to the Portuguese such as some Islands in the Philippine, while Borneo fell to the British.
By 1888, Brunei was under British rule. Brunei retained internal independence but the British became responsible for foreign relations. Four years before it (1884), the British Colonial Office recommended that what was left of the Sultanate be divided between Sarawak and the North Borneo Company.
In 1971, the British gave the authority to Brunei to control the state and in 1984 Brunei became independent. Unfortunately, what was left of Brunei is a small portion of its former size.
The second impact of Western Colonialism on Muslim Brunei was in the field of education. Let us see what Edward Saʿid (2003: 41-2) mentions in his book Orientalism: “The period of immense advance in the institutions and content of Orientalism coincides exactly with the period of unparalleled European expansion; from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it.”
Western Colonialism will always be associated with Orientalism. They, support each other; their mission is not only for “gold” but also to cut down the spreading of Islam as mentioned further by Edward Saʿid: “Snouck Hurgronje went directly from his studies of Islam to being an adviser to the Dutch government on handling its Muslim Indonesian colonies; Macdonald and Massignon were widely sought after as experts on Islamic matters by colonial administrators from North Africa to Pakistan…”. (p. 210)
We can see in Indonesia for instance, Snouck recommended the Dutch Government to liberate Muslims from their religion (Islam) that it could only be done through large-scale educational organization: “parenting and education is the way to achieve that goal,” Snouck said. (Karel Steenbrink:1955:122) So, the effective method that they used to cut down the spreading of Islam is through education.
In Brunei, however, the same case also happened. Kampong Ayer as the centre of Islamic education and daʿwah was very –much appreciated by the Brunei people, although it was not formal education. After the modern era, or more specifically from 1914 to 1931, they had two educational models: Sekolah Melayu and Sekolah Cina. But, after 1931, two more educational models were added: Sekolah Inggeris, and Sekolah Agama Islam. (Tassim Bin Haji Abu Bakar: 120).
To elaborate in more detail on the effective method of Colonialism through education, Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (2001: 47) explains that the coming of Western powers to colonize the Muslim country has had a big impact by cutting down the Islamic sciences through education, and gradually importing the western worldview to the Muslim world. Through this, when the Muslims became independent, they would have guaranteed that the Muslims have forgotten their own worldview.
We can see the influence of British like it was mentioned by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas that the big problem of colonialism through education is that even when they got the independency in 1984, through education, the British still has influence there.
The third impact of Western Colonialism on Muslim Brunei was in the area of the implementation of the sharīʿah as the Sultanate’s constitution and administration which began during the reign of Sultan Sharif Ali (1425 – 1432), the 3th Sultan of Brunei. (Islam di Brunei, p. xxx)
Before the coming of the British, the laws implemented at that time were the custom (adat istiadat and Resam), sharaʿ, and Canon Law. Unfortunately, after the coming of the British, the acceptance of the Resident System has brought changes both administratively and legislatively. As a result, Islamic law was reconstituted according to British’s thoughts, beliefs and views (Saadiah DDW Hj Tamit: 2006). It is now akin to its neighbor countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia where Islamic Law is limited in the matter of family law (aḥwāl al-sakhsiyyah).
Recently, in April 22th 2014, the Sultanate of Brunei began implementing the sharīʿah law holistically, in which it is not only limited to Family Law like before, but also including hadūd. As a result, which was to be expected, Western countries strongly condemned it. “Under international law, stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited”, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
However, it should be noted that the aim of this article is not to discuss the implementation of hudūd, but to see the condemnation from some Western countries, where it shows that we (Brunei and Malay World especially and the Muslims World in general) are facing a new “soft colonialism” in the name of Human Rights or other terms such as Liberalism, Secularism, and Pluralism after facing “hard colonialism”.
* Edi Kurniawan is a Master Student at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilization (CASIS) - Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Kuala Lumpur.