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History of Brunei - History

History of Brunei - History

Commentary: Prologue

We start from the beginning. And by beginning, I mean back to the time when the country of Brunei Darussalam was founded.

We all know the basic story: 14 brothers living in Garang (somewhere in Temburong) decided to search for a new place to settle. Their leader was Awang Alak Betatar – not the eldest but the smartest and the most handsome of the brothers. Two of the brothers – Pateh Berbai and Damang Seri – found the Brunei River. Pateh Berbai exclaimed ‘Barunah!’ which roughly is equivalent to the expression of ‘Found it! or Finally! or At Last!’ The term Barunah later became Barunai and eventually into Brunai/Brunei. One of the brothers was also Awang Semaun, a man with an extraordinary strength and was instrumental in expanding the Brunei empire throughout Borneo.

You may notice that the story told in my Prologue is different than the one that are popularly known. Here are some of the reasons:

– The legend of the founding of Brunei was primarily told in an epic poem called Syair Awang Semaun. What not a lot of people know is that there are at least six versions of it – not counting those that may be in private possession. And these six versions have different length and content.

– The standard list of the founding heroes is 14 brothers. But there is another version that omits familiar names like Damang Sari and included lesser known names such as Patih Bulu Mata Gajah, Harimau Taring, Panglima Kujal, etc.

– The figure known as Awang Semaun was not only just found in Bruneian legend. Variations of the Awang Semaun legend have at least appeared in the stories from Limbang, the Ibans, the Muruts, the Bisayas. I thought that it would make much more sense for Awang Semaun to be of a native Borneon (Murut or Lun Bawang) ethnicity rather than a ‘Melayu Brunei’.

– There is a theory that the Brunei royal lineage could be traced back to the old Cambodian Kingdom of Funan. It is believed that after the fall of Funan by the Khmers, the royal families of Funan fled to North Borneo and founded the state of Vijayapura in the seventh century – believed to be Brunei. In this story, I took the liberty to associate the names with ‘Patih’ on it with the Funanese royal lineage.

– In Syair Awang Semaun, our Bruneian heroes set out to conquer the Melanau kingdom after establishing a new state by the Brunei river. At Igan, Awang Semaun with Awang Jerambak and Damang Sari, fought with a djinn called Bilantapura. Bilantapura was a relatively minor villain in the epic poem but I decided to ‘expand’ his role in this story.

The version that I tell in this Prologue is definitely NOT historically accurate. BUT what is historically accurate? We don’t know.

It intrigues me that there is a lot of Brunei history that we don’t really know much. Specifically, the pre-1500s period (The time before the arrival of Antonio Pigafetta/the time of Sultan Bolkiah).

– The common story is that Awang Alak Betatar married with a Johor-Temasek (Singapore) princess (daughter of Sultan Bakhei) and converted to Islam – becoming Sultan Muhammad Shah, the first Sultan of Brunei. This is believed to have happened during the late 1300s. BUT the earliest known record of a Johor sultanate was in the 1500s.

– Sultan Muhammad Shah was the first Muslim King in Brunei (1363 – 1402) and Islam was consolidated by the reign of Sultan Sharif Ali (1425 – 1432). Sultan Sharif Ali was also the one that added ‘Darussalam’ (Abode of Peace) to the name of our country. But there are records by the Chinese that revealed that there were Muslim traders in Brunei/Borneo before the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah. Not only Islam arrived earlier but Muslims held considerable influence before it became the official religion in Brunei.

– The Salasilah stated the second Sultan was Sultan Ahmad (formerly known as Pateh Berbai – one of the 14 Saudaras/Founding heroes). But Chinese records showed that Sultan Muhammad Shah had a son named Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan (1402 – 1408) that died young and buried in China. He had a 4 years old son which we can assume to never grew up to become a Sultan. But accounts from the Klias River (Sabah) tells a story about Sultan Koyoh, another son of Sultan Muhammad Shah.

– Sultan Bolkiah (1485 – 1524) is a well known figure in Brunei History. He ruled the country during her golden age when Brunei’s influence extended from Southern Borneo to Manila, the Philippines. But there are two versions of his genealogy. The Salasilah version – the officially accepted version – stated that he was the son of Sultan Sulaiman (1432 – 1485) and grandson of Sultan Sharif Ali (1425 – 1432).

Another version comes from Syair Awang Semaun where Sultan Bolkiah was the son of Damang Libar Daun. Damang Libar Daun was one of the 14 Founding Heroes (with Semaun, Alak Betatar, Pateh Berbai, Damang Sari, etc). He emigrated to Java and married with a local. His son, Sultan Bolkiah returned to Brunei and had adventures with Awang Asmara – the son of Awang Sinuai and grandson of Awang Jerambak, who was Awang Semaun’s warrior friend.

But I think that between the Salasilah and Syair Awang Semaun, the latter’s reliability is much more questionable because the Syair has more fantastical elements in it. For example, the Syair said that Awang Alak Betatar’s father hatched from an egg that descended from the heavens.

There are a lot of things in the history of Brunei that we are not clear about. If you’re interested, you can find tons of information on Brunei History all over the internet. Here are the interesting ones:

Assessing the Epic Status of the Brunei Malay Sya’ir Awang Simawn: Place Names and Toponyms Allen R. Maxwell
(Where I obtained the extra names outside the standard 14 founding heroes – eg. Panglima Kujal, Harimau Taring, Tuan Sabtu, etc).

Headhunting and the social imagination in Southeast Asia
(Despite the title, there is a section about Syair Awang Semaun – notably on the near mythical conquest of Borneo by Awang Semaun, Awang Jerambak, Damang Sari. Also a bit on their fight against Bilantapura)

There are also lots of books published by the Brunei History Centre that are valuable to those who are interested in the subject.

There is also this book which piqued my interest as well

The Collection of Historical Documents Related to Bilateral Relations Between China and Brunei Darussalam” printed by the World Affairs Press, Beijing, China

For more on my thoughts on Local Brunei Legends, head over to my main blog: http://trylobyte.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/thoughts-on-local-brunei-legends/

Brunei Culture

Religion in Brunei

Islam is the official state religion of Brunei, and about two-thirds of Bruneians are Muslims. Buddhists (mainly Chinese) make up about 13% of Brunei's population Christians are 10%.

Social Conventions in Brunei

Visitors should dress modestly. Shoes must be removed when entering mosques and Muslim homes. Some Bruneians do not shake hands with people of the opposite sex. It is impolite to point with the index finger (the right thumb should be used instead). Food may be served without cutlery: eat using the right hand only. It is widely regarded as discourteous to refuse refreshments or to eat in public during Ramadan.

Visitors should note that there are severe penalties for all drug offences, and that the legal system in Brunei is partly based on Shariah law and can, occasionally, apply to non-Muslims, including visitors. Dress is informal except for special occasions. Women should ensure that their head, knees and arms are covered.

Book Description

The only full-length study of the Brunei Sultanate from the earliest times to the present. First published in 1994 and a sell-out success, RoutledgeCurzon is pleased to present this new edition, updated to the present. Saunders skilfully elucidates historiographical controversies over important events, persons and developments in Brunei's past which are still important issues in defining Brunei's identity and its political and social systems today. These controversies, over the antecedents of the Sultanate, the date of the conversion to Islam, the reigns of the early sultans, early contacts with Europeans and others, retain their relevance. Newly presented are interpretations of events since 1945 during the transition from protected state to full independence, and thence to the present Malay Islamic Monarchy.

Modern History

In 1959, a new constitution was written declaring Brunei a self-governing state, while its foreign affairs, security, and defense remained the responsibility of the United Kingdom, now represented by a High Commissioner. An attempt in 1962 to introduce a partially elected legislative body with limited powers was abandoned after the opposition political party, Parti Rakyat Brunei, launched an armed uprising, which the government put down with the help of British forces. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the government also resisted pressures to join neighboring Sabah and Sarawak in the newly formed Malaysia. The Sultan eventually decided that Brunei would remain a separate state. In 1967, Omar Ali Saifuddin abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Hassanal Bolkiah, who became the 29th ruler. The former Sultan remained as Defence Minister and assumed the royal title Seri Begawan. In 1970, the national capital, Brunei Town, was renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in his honor. The Seri Begawan died in 1986. On January 4, 1979, Brunei and the United Kingdom signed a new treaty of friendship and cooperation. On January 1, 1984, Brunei became a fully independent state.

The history of Brunei before the arrival of Magellan's ships is based mostly on speculation and the interpretation of Chinese sources and local legends. Historians believe that there was a forerunner to the present day Brunei Sultanate. One possible predecessor state was called Vijayapura, which possibly existed in northwest Borneo in the 7th century (Not to be confused with the Indian state of the same name). It was probably a subject state of the powerful Srivijaya empire based in Sumatra. Another possible predecessor state was called Po-ni (pinyin: Boni) [1] By the 10th century Po-ni had contacts with first the Song dynasty and at some point even entered into a tributary relationship with China. By the 14th century Po-ni also fell under the influence of the Javanese Majapahit Empire. The book of Nagarakretagama, canto 14, written by Prapanca in 1365 mentioned Berune as a vassal state of Majahpahit. [2] However this may have been nothing more than a symbolic relationship, as one account of the annual tribute owed each year to Majahpahit was a jar of areca juice obtained from the young green nuts of the areca palm

The Global History

The Sultanate of Brunei ruled during the fourteenth to the sixteenth century CE. Its territory covered the northern part of Borneo and the southern Philippines. European influence gradually brought an end to this regional power. Later, there was a brief war with Spain, in which Brunei was victorious. The decline of the Bruneian Empire culminated in the nineteenth century when Brunei lost much of its territory to the White Rajahs of Sarawak, resulting in its current small landmass and separation into two parts. Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 to 1984.

The history of Brunei before the arrival of Magellan's ships is based mostly on speculation and the interpretation of Chinese sources and local legends. Historians believe that there was a forerunner to the present day Brunei Sultanate. One possible predecessor state was called Vijayapura, which possibly existed in northwest Borneo in the 7th century (Not to be confused with the Indian state of the same name. It was probably a subject state of the powerful Srivijaya empire based in Sumatra. Another possible predecessor state was called Po-ni (pinyin: Boni)[1] By the 10th century Po-ni had contacts with first the Song dynasty and at some point even entered into a tributary relationship with China. By the 14th century Po-ni also fell under the influence of the Javanese Majapahit Empire. The book of Nagarakertagama, canto 14, written by Prapanca in 1365 mentioned Berune as a vassal state of Majahpahit. However this may have been nothing more than a symbolic relationship, as one account of the annual tribute owed each year to Majahpahit was a jar of areca juice obtained from the young green nuts of the areca palm. The Ming dynasty resumed communications with Po-ni in the 1370s and the Po-ni ruler Ma-na-jih-chia-na visited the Ming capital Nanjing in 1408 and died there. In 1424, the Hongxi Emperor ended China's maritime program, and with it its relationship with Po-ni.

Pu is a common surname that, according to Chinese historians, identifies a person as a Muslim. The tombstone also identified Pu Kung Chih-mu as having originated from Ch'uan-chou City in China. During the Song Dynasty, Arab and Persian Traders flocked to Canton (Kwang Chow) in Kwangtung Province and Chuan-chou in Fukien Province.The tombstone of Pu Kung Chih-mu is not the only Chinese Muslim grave in Rangas graveyard. Another grave nearby belonged to another Chinese Muslim by the name of Li Chia-tzu from Yung Chun (Fukian) who died in 1876. Yung Chun is another city in China where Muslim travellers frequently traded.According to Chinese records, stated in the “Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca Compiled From Chinese Sources” written by WP Groeneveldt in 1880, one Chinese Islamic trader arrived in Brunei in the 10th century. His name was P’u-lu-shieh. He was both a trader and a diplomat. P’u-lu-shieh name is akin to Abu al-Layth.

The Brunei King at that time was named Hiang-ta (Bongto). The arrival of the diplomat-trader from China was greeted with great ceremony. If this is so, Islam has actually arrived in Brunei in the year of 977.One may discount the fact that the Muslim diplomat-trader did not do anything in Brunei but merely brought greetings and therefore one should not read too much into this. However the interesting thing was that the Brunei King’s delegation to China to return the Emperor’s greetings was headed by another Muslim by the name of P’u A-li (Abu Ali).Based on this fact alone, Abu Ali must have held an important position in the Brunei Government if he was tasked to be Brunei’s Ambassador in those days and even if the King of Brunei then was not himself a Muslim, some members of his royal court were Muslims.A number of European historians claimed that Brunei was still not a Muslim nation until the 15th century. However, the Ming Shih, Book 325, a Chinese reference book noted that the King of Brunei in 1370 was Ma-ho-mo-sa. Some say that this should be read as Mahmud Shah. But local Brunei historians take this to refer to “Muhammad Shah” the first Islamic Sultan of Brunei, during his reign Brunei was also visited by Arab, Persian and Sindhi merchants.

Brunei Lama - Musbaqah at Masjid Kajang early 1950s

Prior to Independence

The Sultan of Brunei participated in efforts to form a federation of Malaysia with the Federation of Malaya, Crown Colony of Sarawak, Crown Colony of North Borneo and the Colony of Singapore, but decided not to in the end due to the issue of oil profits and massive popular opinion against the move. This wish by the sultan resulted in a coup by the most populous party in the nation, comprising a vast majority of the population, by the Brunei People's Party (PRB). This failed due to poor organisation and their leader, A.M. Azahari, not even being in the country during the coup. Another option considered was a federation between North Borneo, Sarawak, and Brunei, but this was rejected due to oil revenues and the possible limitation of the Sultan's power.


On 14 November 1971, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah left for London to discuss matters regarding the amendments to the 1959 constitution. A new agreement was signed on 23 November 1971 with the British representative being Anthony Royle.

Under this agreement, the following terms were agreed upon:

  • Brunei was granted full internal self-government
  • The UK would still be responsible for external affairs and defence.
  • Brunei and the UK agreed to share the responsibility for security and defence.

This agreement also caused Gurkha units to be deployed in Brunei, where they remain up to this day.

On 7 January 1979, another treaty was signed between Brunei and the UK. It was signed with Lord Goronwy-Roberts being the representative of the UK. This agreement granted Brunei to take over international responsibilities as an independent nation. Britain agreed to assist Brunei in diplomatic matters. In May 1983, it was announced by the UK that the date of independence of Brunei would be 1 January 1984. [9]

On 31 December 1983, a mass gathering was held on main mosques on all four of the districts of the country and at midnight, on 1 January 1984, the Proclamation of Independence was read by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. The sultan subsequently assumed the title "His Majesty", rather than the previous "His Royal Highness". Brunei was admitted to the United Nations on 22 September 1984, becoming the organisation's 159th member.


Brunei’s oldest known flag was a solid yellow square with no logo on it. Brunei adopted the modern flag prophecy in 1906 when it became a country under the protection of the British Empire. The new Brunei flag had the same yellow background and stripes as the modern flag but did not include the nation’s crown.

The crown was added to the flag only in 1959, the year the country adopted a new constitution. Brunei gained full independence from Britain in 1984, but unlike many other nations, did not ratify the new flag at the same time. He easily retained the flag that he had represented for two and a half decades and still represents today.

History of Brunei Constitution 1959

WOULD you be able to name the first Brunei Menteri Besar post-Brunei Constitution 1959 proclamation, without Google or Wikipedia? Unless you have a significant interest in Brunei history or it was your major in university, then obviously you would not know or remember that particular historical event which shows the need to spread Brunei’s history knowledge to the people.

This was the question asked by the author to the participants of Program Bicara Sejarah’s seminar held by the Brunei History Centre and Brunei History Association (PESEBAR).

The lack of knowledge on Brunei’s history strongly suggests that the education sector could make improvement to make history learning much more interactive and possibly an interesting experience.

Given that we live in the present, we tend to be concerned more about the future. The more we plan and worry of the future, the more we tend to forget our past.

While the country should focus on the future development of the country and be ready to face the next industrial revolution, we ought to not forget our history that holds our roots, culture and heritages either.

Fortunately, Brunei History is one of the subjects taught in education institutions. Unfortunately, it gets harder to justify the importance of history, thus people become less drawn to the subject and starts questioning the purpose of studying history.

The signing of the Brunei Constitution 1959

There are histories that define beauty, demonstrated through our tradition and cultural heritage. It may be a monument like Istana Darussalam, a royal palace with minimalist design, a place such as Tasek Merimbun, or a showcase of our Malay culture.

History also helps us understand the people and their lives, the laws and the policies they abided to, the growth and declination of the country as well as the growth of Islam, all which has shaped the nation to where she is now today.

Understanding our past helps us understand how and why we got here in the present, and it allows us to learn from our past to improve our future, Insya Allah.

In line with His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam’s titah where the people of Brunei should know and learn the history of the country and the history of Islam, we believe that Brunei History and religious education are to be taught in every education institution along with other important subjects with hope that it can nurture our younger generations who will drive and secure a future for Brunei, a country that strives on Malay Islamic Monarchy.

Program Bicara Sejarah was organised to commemorate the declaration of Brunei State Constitution on September 29, 1959, called the ‘Brunei Constitution 1959’.

Representing the MIB Office, the author was invited to present Perlembagaan Negeri Brunei 1959: Asas Revival Negara Melayu Islam Beraja, along with Associate Professor Dr Hasbol bin Haji Mail who presented JawatanKuasa Tujuh Serangkai that highlighted the initial proposal for the Brunei Constitution 1959.

The author illustrated the negotiation stages taken by Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien from the initial proposal in 1953 until its completion in 1959.

The stages began with the drafting on a constitution in 1953, and eventually a discussion of the proposed constitution took place with the British Government in the Colonial Office in London namely, Sir Alan Lennox-Boyd. The proposal was accepted by both parties and the constitution was finally signed in Bandar Seri Begawan between Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien and Sir Robert Scott on September 29, 1959.

It was a known fact that Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien wanted the declaration of 1959 to be executed specifically on September 29, 1959. But questions remain unanswered on the significance of the date chosen by Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien.

What we do know is that, Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien strongly believed that the proclamation must be executed on that date. It’s also a fact that the Brunei State Constitution 1959 is the highest written law of Brunei Darussalam that will be a foundation in the implementation and development of the national administration policy.

This event was a vital turning point for Brunei as she starts leaning closer towards her independence and a sovereign held by her MIB philosophy. And on January 1, 1984, witnessed by his royal subjects, His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam declared Brunei as an independent country.

While the philosophy of living as an MIB nation has existed for 651 years, it was during the Brunei Constitution 1959 proclamation that MIB was officially acknowledged to be Brunei’s national philosophy.

Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien was extremely upset with the extended time taken to process the constitution draft as it stretched over five years to complete from his announcement that was made in May 1952, to the eventual signing of the Constitution on September 29, 1959.

Factually, the process faced obstacles and challenges from both domestic and foreign parties.

Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien set an ultimatum and set the date September 29, 1959 as a “crash” deadline to ensure the constitution was completed on time. This ultimatum gave him the confidence to fulfil his promise to reform the governmental system in Brunei, although his move was strongly discouraged by the British official as they believed Brunei was still an infant and needed more time to develop.

According to historical records from Washington DC’s National Archives, the date and time for Brunei 1959 Declaration was exclusively and strictly decided by Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien. On October 7, Robert Ballantyne, who was then the Second Secretary of the United States (US) Embassy based in Singapore stated the following:

The constitution itself underwent a good deal of amendment in the last weeks and days before Constitution Day, according to the Brunei Desk Officer, who explained that he was unable to furnish the Embassy with an up-to-date version of the Constitution at this time. He said the promulgation of the constitution had been on a “crash” basis as the Sultan had decided that September 29 was an especially propitious day for Brunei and accordingly done all out to meet the Sultan’s wishes that the constitution be launched on that date.

Few factors that affected the extended amount of time to complete the draft was due to the process, discussion and meeting on the constitution was held in different places, and in certain occasion, different countries, such as the Lapau Lama Building, Istana Darul Hana, Colonial Office (London), Singapore as well as Federation of Malaya.

The preliminary idea for Writing Constitution came about on Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien return trip from London in 1952. This proposal was discussed at the Lapau Lama Building with Sarawak Governor, Sir Anthony Abell (High Commissioner for Brunei) including the British Resident in Brunei.

However, the initial meeting with State Council concluded without favourable results. In July 1953, Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien formed a seven member committee named the Jawatan Tujuh Serangkai, who became Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien’s ears and eyes with his subjects and their task was to get the people’s opinion on the constitution. The people of Brunei generally supported this reform plan to further enhance the involvement of the people in the field of administration and development of the country.

However, British officials in Brunei and London were unable to commit to Brunei’s proposal at its current state. This can be demonstrated based on the minutes of meetings held in London in 1957.

However, the British had to accept the proposal from his government in view of the urgency of the people of Brunei especially the pressure came from the leftist party of the People’s Party of Brunei who wanted political development taking place through the introduction of a full-fledged democracy system. This led to Sir Anthony Abell suggesting that this matter to be brought to the Colonial Office, in London.

For their first meeting in London, Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien, together with his delegates departed on March 14, 1957. He stated to his subjects their intention to London is to negotiate the political future of Brunei Darussalam, where he wishes to empower and give the opportunity to the local people to administer their own country’s affair. Unfortunately, they came home with little success.

However, it did not stop them from pursuing and attempted their second mission in September 1957 and Alhamdulillah, the outcome of the meeting was favourable to Brunei.

Throughout the ordeal from 1957 until 1959, Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien was consistently calm and patient facing the challenges. His action is reflected on a Malay proverb “biar lambat asalkan selamat” translated as “it does not matter how long it takes you to get there, as long as you get there safely”.

There was a great deal of challenges faced by Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien’s Government for this constitution. As we know that Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien’s intention and ambition to introduce the Written Constitution of Brunei, an abstract of the text in Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien’s titah (however, this titah was not included in Titah 1959-1967 book published by Language and Literature Bureau).

This statement (titah of Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien) was obtained from Dato Paduka Haji Marsal bin Maun (former Menteri Besar of Brunei) during his interview with the author at his home in Jalan Tutong in the late 1990s.

The Brunei Constitution of 1959 not only represents the declaration of independence. It represents the foundation of an independent Malay Islamic Monarchial state, the beginning of sovereign land blessed by Allah the Al-mighty, led by an Islamic leader, a Sultan who cares for his subject and at the same time is loved by his patriotic subjects. It also represents the hardship, the struggle and the victory won by Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien and His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam who led his country towards independence.

And only from our history, that one would know who their leaders were, their sacrifices, their visions and the legacy they have left for us and our future generation to carry forward.

Now that we know our root and ancestors, we can be proud to be the descendants of Pahlawan Brunei.

And to address the first question in this article, the first Menteri Besar of Brunei was Pehin Datu Perdana Menteri Dato Laila Utama Haji Awang Ibrahim bin Mohammad Jaafar.

Watch the video: Michael Jackson - HIStory Tour live in Brunei 1996 (December 2021).