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Wanderer. To Brunei and Beyond.

Pengembara [pseud.], 2016, Wanderer. To Brunei and Beyond. Penang: Areca Books, Pp xviii, 142. Photographs, drawings, maps. ISBN 978-967-5719-24-0.

Throughout the history of secondary and higher education in Brunei Darussalam, a stream of foreign graduate staff, originally from Britain, have provided indispensable, qualified manpower as teachers and lecturers. Their potential for political destabilization in this Islamic absolute monarchy was perceived from an early date both by British Residents before the promulgation of a Constitution and switch from Residents to "High Commissioners" in 1959, and by the latter after the transfer of residual powers at "Independence" in 1984--though let it be said that a few Residents and High Commissioners themselves played a somewhat subversive role against Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III in the face of his resistance to the British strategy of imperial withdrawal. Nervousness on the part of the royal Court about the inherent risks of modern education became a sheer or near inevitability with the appearance of Education Officer Anthony Burgess's hilarious yet well-observed expose of Brunei, only thinly disguised by its location being transposed to Africa and its name substituted by "Dunia," (1)

But any nervousness should have been soothed by another British Education Officer, who became Principal of the late-comer secondary school in Tutong, Sufri Bolkiah English School, later head of Schools Inspectorate. His literary creativity was poured into a long output of "local color" reporting and historical memoirs, originally hosted in the main by the Borneo Bulletin. The first three collections of reprints were Pengembara. The Road Less Travelled (1997); Wanderer in Brunei Darussalam (2005); and (specifically on Sarawak and Sabah) Wanderer in Malaysian Borneo (2008) In this review I am considering the fourth collection: a set of 23 reprints chiefly from 1991-93, replete with evocative photography. As in the third set, the author has again cast his net beyond Brunei territory to include accounts of tourism and exploration outside Brunei's borders. However, only two of the latest items relate to the relatively far off Malay Peninsula. And three other non-Brunei items are worth reprinting anywhere at all: "Climbing the other Kinabalu" (about a physically and mentally challenging climb to the top of Mount Kinabalu by the "back route," i.e. Low's Gully); "Romance of Batu Lawi" (on another intrepid climb, in search of where Tom Harrisson and a group of Allied guerrillas were parachuted into the Kelabit Highlands from an Australian Airforce Liberator (B-24) in 1944; and "Learning Malay 400 years ago," an essay on the first Malay Language self-tutor for English speakers, DIALOGVES IN THE ENGLISH AND MALAIAN LANGUAGES, 1614, plagiarised from the Dutch original of Frederick de Houtman.

Nothing in this volume relates deliberately to politics or state structure. But this very omission may yield a glimpse of the orientation of a writer whose loyalty towards the Sultanate, and not least the incumbent of the throne, showed no signs of abating as the years went by. The article "Right royal banquet," decked by a photograph of the early 1980s-vintage Istana Nur ul Iman and first published in 1994, confines itself to describing a public banquet to which the author is unmistakably proud to have been invited, although saying nothing of the grandeur of the edifice and number of its rooms (variously estimated between 1,778-1,788) which have attracted ridicule and contempt from not a few outside writers. (2)

I freely admit that during his years in the service no hint of criticism would ever have been possible. Nor would the typical readership of Borneo Bulletin--transient foreigners curious to learn, let us suppose, and some English-speaking resident Chinese--have either noticed the self-censorship or taken it amiss. But as the author had left Brunei by the time of republication, he was arguably no longer in harm's way, and could have given some of his historical memorials a more enduring value by editing them up to the levels of expectation which an international, non-resident audience might bring to bear. This thought seems particularly germane for a collection, published in 2016: that is, since Brunei became better-known world-wide from its legislation for a punitive form of sharia (also known as hudud). At the same time, a certain diffuseness among the contributions is apparent, as they were not originally written as a coherent set. They are now combined with a two page introduction to the Sultanate for beginners, but this has the weakness, I suggest, of portraying the structure described in the modern national ideology (Negara Melayu Islam Beraja) as having existed since time immemorial.

(1) Anthony Burgess, Devil of a State. London, Heinemann, 1961. Burgess taught at one of the only two extant secondary schools with Fifth Form ("Senior Cambridge") provision in the late 1950s: Maktab Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin or SOAS

(2) The article appears to relate to a Sultan's Birthday banquet following a royal bestowal of titles. Was this the very Birthday at which the writer was bestowed, in 1990, with his cherished PIKB (Pingat Indah Kerja Baik)? In the absence of a translation of this state decoration, I suggest the meaning "Beauteous Medal for Good Work"--something like a decoration for long and loyal service at career's end. Opportunity for a little "social comment" is also missed in "What's in a name" and "More good names," which identify modern Bruneian residences of the grander type--owned by royalty or nobility and top government Ministers of recent vintage--without once breathing the word "auspicious "to explain the predominance of Arabic names; or names recalling Brunei mythical heroes; or a precious stone (even where in one such case the roof design of the house is bogus Minangkabau: cf on p 61 the photograph of the residence of the Sultan's brother, Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed, Istana Hijau Baiduri--"Palace of the Green Opal").

(Roger Kershaw, Lochinver, Scotland)
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Author:Kershaw, Roger
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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