The first recorded references to Brunei are in documents regarding China’s trading connections with ‘Puni’ in the 6th century AD during the Tang dynasty. Before the region embraced Islam, Brunei was within the boundaries of the Sumatran Srivijaya empire, then the Majapahit empire of Java. It may be hard to believe considering the country’s current diminutive size, but in the 15th and 16th centuries the sultanate held sway throughout Borneo and into the Philippines.
In 1838, British adventurer (and budding imperialist) James Brooke helped the sultan put down a rebellion from warlike inland tribes. As a reward, the sultan granted Brooke power over part of Sarawak, which in hindsight was a big mistake.
Appointing himself Raja Brooke, James Brooke pacified the tribespeople, eliminated the much-feared Borneo pirates and forced a series of ‘treaties’ onto the sultan, whittling the country away until finally, in 1890, it was actually divided in half. This situation still exists today – if Bruneians want to get to the Temburong district, they have to go through Sarawak.
Facing encroachment by land-grabbing European nations, Brunei became a British protectorate in 1888. But it got its own back when oil was discovered in 1929. The development of offshore oil fields in the 1960s allowed Brunei to flourish. In 1984 Sultan Sir Hassanal Bolkiah, the 29th of his line, led his country somewhat reluctantly into independence from Britain. He celebrated in typically grandiose style by building a US$350 million palace.
The Asian crisis of 1997 (when Thailand’s currency nose-dived after too many years of unsustainable growth, sparking similar recessions across Southeast Asia) was a wake-up call for Brunei, with the sultan’s personal fortune being considerably depleted. But the greatest shock to the country was delivered by the sultan’s younger brother, Prince Jefri, who around the same time apparently managed to go on a US$16 billion spending spree. This included gambling debts that totalled nearly US$25 million. He was eventually reeled in by his brother and forced to hold an auction in 2001, where many of his prized possessions, including gold-plated toilet-roll holders and a helicopter flight simulator, went under the hammer.
In 1998 the sultan’s son, Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah, was proclaimed heir to the throne and began preparing for the role as Brunei’s next ruler and 30th sultan. That preparation included the 30-year-old prince’s wedding in September 2004 to 17-year-old Sarah Salleh, in a ceremony attended by thousands of guests. While Brunei may not be facing the same promise of prosperity that existed when the current sultan took the throne in 1967, it’s clear that the sultan sees the crown prince’s careful apprenticeship as crucial for the continuing (and absolute) rule of the monarchy.
There was a whiff of reform in November 2004 when the sultan amended the constitution to allow for the first parliamentary elections in 40 years. However, only one-third of parliamentarians will be publicly elected and the rest will still be hand-picked by the sultan, when and if the election ever happens (Bruneians are still waiting).