Self-Censorship in Bruneian Literature and Journalism
Dr D. Bruno Starrs, Queensland University of Technology, Australia
Brunei’s government is very active in censoring non-Islamic cultural artefacts, including English language literature. This paper examines two Bruneian novels, H. K. Lim’s Written in Black and Amir Falique’s The Forlorn Journey, both of which were published in 2014, with the purpose of assessing them with regard to Chin’s argument that Singaporean and Malaysian authors practice self-censorship relating to the subjects of race and religion. The paper concludes that, as with the conduct of authors in these neighbouring democratic countries, authors in the monarchy of Brunei are in constant fear of overstepping an unspecified ‘line in the sand’ that determines what can and cannot be said about the nation’s non-secular philosophy of Malay Islamic Monarchy, and this fear is probably shared by news reporters. This paper thus serves as an original overview of the nervous state of literature and news production in a nation intent on implementing Sharia Law.
Brunei; Censorship; Literature; Religion; Malay Islamic Monarchy; Islam
In 2010 a novel-writing contest was promoted by the Bruneian government’s Language and Literature Bureau in conjunction with the Sultan’s 64th birthday celebrations. To the great embarrassment of the organisers, the output of no Bruneian writer even made the top three. As a result a letter writer to The Brunei Times English language newspaper complained of the absence of literature-makers in the Sultanate: ‘there were no novels deserving enough to be given top status and hence become one memorable signpost to mark the eventful progress of Bruneian Malay literature during His Majesty the Sultan’s reign’ (Yusof 2010). This article therefore studies the only two English language novels published and available in hard copy by Bruneian authors since 2010 and questions to what extent the Brunei government’s adherence to the national philosophy of Malayu Islam Beraja (MIB) - or Malay Islamic Monarchy - restricts or otherwise affects literary freedom in this uniquely Muslim South-east Asian monarch-ruled nation.
The country of Negara Brunei Darussalam, internationally known as the self-declared ‘Abode of Peace’, is a politically independent, geographically bisected state of around 398,000 citizens (Oxford 2009: 8). It is located on the north-western coast of the island of Borneo, a huge equatorial land mass the tiny nation shares with Malaysia and Indonesia. Brunei has, since the 1930s, developed much wealth from the discovery of its extensive oil and natural gas fields. Subsequently it enjoys, after Singapore, the second-highest Human Development Index in South East Asia and is classified as a ‘developed country’ (United Nations 2009). Its currency is pegged to the Singapore dollar, the cost of living is low and petroleum for commuters is amazingly cheap. The International Monetary Fund ranks Brunei fifth in the world by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), estimating that Brunei is one of only two countries in the world (Libya being the other) with a public debt at 0% of the national GDP.
Significantly, Brunei also boasts the only governing monarchy in Southeast Asia (other monarchies, such as the Kingdom of Thailand, for example, whilst often immensely popular with the citizenry, leave the actual matters of governance to their ministries). Headed by the Sultan of Brunei (who wears the title of Yang Di-Pertuan Negara), the country’s hereditary monarchy has been in continuous power for over 600 years. The present leader, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, is the 29th such ruler. Formerly a British protectorate (from 1888 until full independence was granted in 1984), the 1959 Constitution affirms the apparently much-loved Sultan as both head of state and prime minister of Brunei, and has given him full executive authority including emergency powers since a failed revolt in 1962. These emergency powers have never been revoked and, in effect, now permit the monarch to rule his lands entirely unchallenged.
Shafi’ite Islam is the official religion of Brunei and its precepts are adhered to at all levels of government with the national philosophy of MIB giving credence to the bureaucracy’s assiduous devotion. Indeed, the association between Brunei and Islam is one of the oldest in Asia with Loo stating in 2009: ‘the ancestry of MIB purportedly intertwines with the dawn of Islam itself’ (153). The monarchy is even said to possess a hereditary link to the prophet Mohammed and the significance of this national ethos was affirmed during the reign of Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien when reference to it was included in the 1967 constitution, and subsequently consolidated upon Brunei’s declaration of independence from the British on the 1st of January 1984. On that momentous occasion, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah declared the country ‘shall be for ever a sovereign, democratic and independent Malay Muslim Monarchy [founded] upon the teachings of Islam’ (Sidhu 2009: 120).
This proclamation has been proudly adhered to ever since, despite the fact that official censuses identify only about 67% of the Brunei population as Muslim, leaving a sizeable minority identifying as non-Muslim, that is, 13% of Bruneians are counted as Buddhist, 10% as Christian, and the remaining 10% as ‘other’ (Bouma, Ling and Pratt 2010: 49). Many of these non-Muslims are of Chinese descent and there is a sizeable population of expats employed in the mining and education sectors. Nevertheless, ‘All schools are prohibited to teach courses on Christianity. During school time Muslim and non-Muslim female students of government schools are required to wear Muslim attire including a head covering or hijab’ (Bouma, Ling and Pratt 2010: 48). Indeed, teaching any other religious material besides that which promotes Islam is forbidden in schools and indications are that Islamic religious studies will soon be compulsory for all Bruneian school students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike (Harun 2014). Bibles are unavailable and the public celebration of Christmas is prohibited (although private Christian services are permitted).
Talib notes, however, that despite the government’s dedication to promoting the Islamic religion, the Sultan views the practices of radical Islam as undesirable for his citizens. Nevertheless, Brunei actively seeks to placate those with extremist, puritanical agendas: ‘Mindful of the potential threat of Islamic extremism, the government pays great heed to the religion by building grand mosques, establishing religious schools and colleges, and even sponsoring pilgrims to Mecca’ (Talib 2002: 143). Thus, while moderate Islam is highly supported, there has been little interest by the Sultanate in courting the opinions of Islamic fundamentalists and extremists, as many nervous non-Muslims suspect may now happen with the country’s much delayed introduction of its so-called third and final phase of Sharia Law, the first phase of which was enacted in late 2014.
Although its native people share much genetically, socially and culturally with surrounding Malaysia, Brunei is nevertheless quite unique amongst its neighbours thanks to its rare status as an absolute monarchy, with Talib stating: ‘the Sultanate of Brunei is often seen as a political anachronism in a region in which democratic institutions of government prevail’ (2002: 134). Constitutional amendments in 2004 even removed the requirement for the Legislative Council to consent before any law is passed by the Sultan, which Horton cynically argues demonstrates ‘a desire to wrap the kingdom in some of the clothes of a liberal democracy without actually being one’ (2005: 181).
Not unlike democratic Muslim majority Malaysia, however, promoting Islam is a major preoccupation of this non-secular government, with the powerful Ministry of Religious Affairs - established in 1986 - exerting its influence widely. It consists of five departments, they being: Mosque, Hajj, Islamic Studies, Islamic Law and Islamic Da’wah. The latter office energetically propagates Muslim teachings and includes in its activities the publication of numerous Islamic books and journals, research projects, regional conferences and academic seminars. The Islamic Da’wah centre’s Publication Control and Censor unit, as the name suggests, enthusiastically censors publications, removing passages that it deems contradict Islamic beliefs. Radio Televisyen Brunei (RTB), a government-owned free-to-air TV station, devotes more than 20 hours per week to religious programming, including a short Qur’anic recitation to begin and close each day’s broadcasting, five daily calls to prayer, coverage of the weekly Friday Khutbahs (sermons) as well as Qur’an reciting competitions and Islamic entertainment shows. There is little happening, culture-wise, that is not monitored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and it is a body kept justifiably busy preventing the adulteration of wholesome Islamic life in the Sultanate by the ever-growing influence of non-Islamic, Western pop culture and its allegedly loose mores.
The real or imagined threat from external, and potentially corrupting, Western influences are swiftly (but not necessarily transparently) dealt with by these robust censorship mechanisms, which are bolstered by ‘the power to arbitrarily shut down media outlets’ and to imprison transgressors ‘for up to three years […] for portraying the country in a negative light’ (Bandial 2013: un-paginated), hence, newspaper journalist Bandial alleged, many artists and authors, for whom the guidelines regarding what is unacceptable are never really made clear, ‘live in constant fear. Fear of overstepping the invisible line in the sand that defines what [they] can or cannot say’ (Ibid.). It is important to note that while this controversial article actually went to hard copy press it was soon removed from The Brunei Times online archives. Apparently, the Bruneian government has deemed the mention of state censorship (actual or potential) worthy of, well, state censorship. MIB rules supreme in Brunei, and there is no reason to doubt there is some basis to Bandial’s fearful and anxious comments, given the censorship applied to his writing. Indeed, the world is presently watching with overt anxiety as Brunei slowly unveils its third and final phase of Shariah Law, and many commentators are wary, with the United Nations calling the laws (which include the amputation of limbs for stealing and death by stoning for homosexuality or adultery): ‘illegal and inhuman’ (Doherty 2014).
Unfortunately, if only for the veracity of this article’s reference list, The Brunei Times ceased publication as of the 7th of November 2016 (without explanation apart from a front page statement blaming unspecified economic factors – perhaps they had crossed that ‘invisible line’?). Several of this article’s sources can no longer be accessed, unless the reader seeks them in hard copy form. Un-redacted, fortunately, is the comment by then Singaporean academic, Grace Chin, about Singapore and Malaysia:
Be it man or woman, the writer located in the plural contexts of Malaysia and Singapore has always been aware of the censorship apparatuses operating within the nation space. S/he has learnt to treat with caution the subjects forbidden in these countries – namely race and religion (Chin 2006: 13).
Chin might just as well have counted Brunei alongside Singapore and Malaysia – but diverted censors in the country where she was later to find teaching work at University of Brunei Darussalam - by not doing so. Judicial writing has enabled this academic to retain a professorial position in English literature at the University of Brunei Darussalam: it may be assumed that Chin practices what she preaches with regard to exercising caution when mentioning race or religion.
The nation of Brunei is without doubt aware of her neighbours’ lack of autonomy in news reporting, and such practices are perhaps normalized as a result. In addition to Singapore and Malaysia, Brunei is bordered by Indonesia, and Tapsell notes: ‘self-censorship in Indonesia is encouraged by the powerful ruling elite, whose intention is to limit criticism of its actions’ (2012: 228). For journalists in Indonesia the ‘taboo topics’ are the allegations of corrupt dealings by the rich owners of the newspapers they write for. Typically avoided is mention of environmental scandals such as the mudflow in Sidoarjo (242), for which certain unscrupulous businessmen allegedly hold responsibility. The difference between Indonesia and Brunei, however, is the identity of that ‘ruling elite’: in Indonesia it is wealthy businessmen whereas in Brunei it is the Islamic government.
It is impossible, of course, to determine exactly how much censorship of literature due to the government’s policy of MIB occurs in Brunei. To investigate the existing literary milieu, as non-transparent as it probably is, I will look now to two English language novels - set in Brunei and written by Bruneian authors (but published in Singapore) - which demonstrate entirely different responses to the ‘fear of overstepping the invisible line in the sand that defines what [they] can or cannot say’. One novel steers clear of any mention of Islam in Brunei whatsoever, serving as a young Chinese Bruneian boy’s ‘coming of age’ story, thus avoiding potential government censure, while the other obsequiously promotes a science fiction scenario in which the Sultan of Brunei himself serves as saviour of the world. The first of these two novels I shall examine here is Written in Black (Lim 2014), a work which tiptoes delicately around the ‘line in the sand’ by avoiding any reference in its pages at all to Islamic activity or values.
K. H. Lim’s debut published novel which, according to The Brunei Times: ‘sold out within the first week it was available in the Sultanate’ (Hizam 2015), is set in contemporary Brunei Darussalam and is about a ten year old boy, Jonathan Lee, and his quest to speak to his mysteriously estranged mother, whom he has not had contact with for six months and who is now en route from Australia to Dubai. It is the eve of his Grandfather’s funeral. His Ah Kong, like the rest of the multi-generational Lee family, was a proud member of the Chinese diaspora, although his Bruneian-raised grandchildren cannot understand much Mandarin. From the evidence of Jonathan’s quoted dialogue to his interior monologues, the reader is entitled to conclude the children cannot speak much Bahasa Malay (the dominant language of Bruneians) either. Most unconvincingly, instead, the reader is expected to believe this primary school child speaks 100% fluent English with a vocabulary befitting any native English-speaking university graduate (Note: the author currently practices medicine in Singapore, having earned his degree in 2008 from a UK university). This is one of many weaknesses in this un-ambitious novel: it reads as an in-authentically articulated, first person point-of-view story.
Apart from the implausible writing style, Lim’s novel irritates with its fractured storyline. Narrative shortcomings include the never answered question: ‘Why has Jonathan’s mother been absent from their home and from Brunei for so long?’ Jonathan’s father says she is resting from an unidentified illness with friends in Australia but the reason behind her journey onwards to Dubai is a topic persistently evaded by Jonathan’s taciturn father and entirely unexplained in the book. Such parental non-communication is, however, typical of Bruneian fathers and in the boy’s extended family, and Hizam explains that ‘Asian patriarchal stereotypes are plentiful’ (Hizam 2015). Jonathan’s gormless niece hints at the possibility of an extra-marital affair but by the end of the novel the reader is still no wiser.
Another narrative flaw involves an eerily deserted house Jonathan stumbles across. It is the eve of the funeral, yet he discovers a room which suggests the hidden lair of a local psychopath and which creepily indicates someone is already privy to the funeral’s occasion. Lim writes:
hanging before me, from corner to corner and from edge to edge, were hundreds of wooden figurines, tied to a series of wooden rafters running across the ceiling. They were the size of a typical rag doll that any child would’ve chosen to play with, though few would have chosen one of these faceless, vaguely human-shaped effigies, many sporting gruesome mops of long, straggly, hair-like tendrils on their heads. And each one of the dolls, without any exception as far as I could see, had its body speared through by metallic rods the size of knitting needles (105).
What is the purpose of this unnerving exhibition? Who is responsible for its construction? The scene moves deeper into the realm of horror genre as the child narrator continues: ‘sheets of newspapers covered the entire span of the room, all of them obituary pages [ … ] Faces upon faces stared up at me, the black-and-white portraits of all the deceased beckoning me to join their ranks’ (105). Then Lim’s protagonist spies a familiar face among the newspaper obituary clippings: ‘It was Ah Kong, that same shot that was being used for the altar back at Ah Peh’s house, stared back at me, underscored by his date of birth and death, and the names of his descendants. Including my name’ (107). How is the deranged and absent curator of this exhibition able to collect newspaper clippings that are as yet unpublished? Before any answer is even hinted at, the sound of a nearby door creaking open sends the frightened boy running, and the reading audience is left scratching their frustrated heads as the plot returns to its formerly realistic style. Amateurishly, the author never mentions this weird, seemingly supernatural experience again.
Also never mentioned in Written in Black is that which most characterises the Sultanate in the eyes of the world today: Brunei’s MIB. Lim makes no reference to anything Muslim-related in his novel. He mentions not Ramadan, not women’s head scarves or veils, not the heavily policed alcohol restrictions, not the adoption of Sharia Law, not even the country’s many magnificent mosques. The Chinese funeral feast for Jonathan’s grandfather even includes pork - which Muslims are of course forbidden from eating - and Lim glosses over the fact that Chinese non-Muslims in Brunei are a statistical minority. In fact with just an hour or two of editing work, all references to Brunei in this novel, be they place names or geographical references, could be replaced and the novel subsequently set in an entirely different country. The Bruneian setting of Written in Black is largely irrelevant to the storyline, and as The Brunei Times notes, ‘it is in no way an attempt at a Kenali Negara Kitani (KNK) tourism campaign’ (Hizam 2014). But in Lim’s defence, he ends his novel with a disclaimer: the book is not ‘to be taken as a definitive description of day-to-day Bruneian life. To the reader interested in learning more about Brunei, there is plenty of information available on the web for your perusal. Or better yet, you could go over and see for yourself’ (Lim 2014, un-paginated). Nevertheless, it is remarkable that a Bruneian author could so persistently ignore such an important elephant in the room.
The other writer I shall examine now not only acknowledges this elephant but accords it world-saving powers as the author obsequiously promotes MIB in his debut novel (although never actually mentioning the term). Initially set in the year 2025, Amir Falique’s The Forlorn Adventure (2014) tells the far-fetched tale of the first Bruneian to enter outer space. A guest trainee of NASA thanks to his unequalled cryptogenic skills, the main character, a young Bruneian man named A’jon, is cryogenically frozen on-board a space-ship when WWIII breaks out on Earth. He is thawed out exactly 500 years later.
Along with the cryogenics expert responsible for saving him, the Russian Professor Vasilli, A’jon had undertaken two months of intensive pre-launch training in the US prior to the doomed journey. But despite having compiled a detailed dossier on their esteemed guest, the US space agency has assigned the avowed Muslim an inappropriately-stocked bungalow as accommodation. In a glaring cultural faux pas they ignore the basic tenets of Islam and have stocked his refrigerator with beer and pork: ‘[A’jon] searched for a halal logo. I can’t eat this.’ (Falique 2014: 19). Alcohol, like pork, is haram, that is, forbidden for Muslims, but like many other residents of ‘The Abode of Peace’, A’jon abhors confrontation and takes to bed rather than making a fuss.
Five hundred years later, and Islam has apparently taken over the world after being nearly destroyed in WIII, the conflagration that saw the 2015 mission abandoned (with A’jon cryogenically suspended and Vasilli and the spaceship’s pilot the victims of merciful suicide as they refuse to starve to death in space). The Sultan of Brunei is now ‘the big boss’ (93) of NASA’s replacement, the International Space and Research Center (ISRC). Home to the Resistance, it is ‘a global organization that protected the earth and its people from any acts of terror’ (94), and is dedicated to defeating the mysterious Pelegrians, who initiated the third world war, had been around since the 7th Century, and were still in operation in the 26th Century.
Fighting the good fight against these futuristic terrorists, the new big boss’s name is Sultan Akamadin Shah (201) and he has ‘the power to gain access to classified information from any establishment at his fingertips’ (201). Back in his home country’s now developed oil refinery city of Kuala Belait, in 2525, A’jon is tailed by the Sultan in disguise as he buys groceries. ‘‘Thank you, Your Majesty,’ said A’jon, finally able to address the sultan with a deserving title’ (200) as he is informed on board the Sultan’s private jet: ‘Brunei’s the only country left on this planet being ruled by a monarch’ (204).
Indeed, the fawning to the Sultanate is frequent in Falique’s novel, and Brunei’s positive statistics are introduced early in the narrative: ‘The country was the forty-ninth member of the Commonwealth, was the sixth member of ASEAN, and joined the United Nations on 21 September 1984. It’s rich in oil’ (12). The novel’s storyline features a patriotic fervour for all things Bruneian, and the righteousness of Islam is demonstrated by the positive changes in society during the five centuries A’jon is frozen.
In his 2525 accommodation, now fitted out appropriately per Muslim sensitivities, there hangs ‘A vintage, framed poster of P. Ramlee’ (149). Teuku Zakaria Teuku Nyak Putih Ramlee was a Malaysian film artist and singer who acted in and directed 66 films and recorded 360 songs. An icon of Islamic Malay popular entertainment, he died in 1973 and was immensely popular in Brunei and Malaysia, but relatively unknown to the Western world. Indeed, Falique has imagined an unlikely future in which much of contemporary Bruneian popular culture has survived and he seems to enjoy stressing the longevity of Bruneian commodities and place names. Falique also writes lovingly of Uncle Samrin tobacco, which he describes as Bruneian-made, although the brand name is the author’s invention. A’jon is a heavy smoker, and is convinced of the drug’s innocuity: ‘He had been smoking the Uncle Samrin cigarettes constantly, hoping it would increase his brain power’ (165) as he attempts to crack a 2525 year code. Nevertheless, one wonders if the name has been chosen to express the desired friendship between Brunei and the United States, or ‘Uncle Sam’ as the country is still often referred to today. One also cannot wonder at the author’s self-indulgent promotion of smoking, for it is a relatively non-Muslim activity (in present day Brunei, at least). He writes of cigarette smoking being healthy and a ‘stress-relieving medicine’ as declared by an ISRC doctor (101). In reality, the first conviction under Brunei’s implementation of Sharia Law in 2014 was of a Muslim caught smoking during the fasting hours of Ramadan (Zailani 2014).
Like Lim’s novel, there are many flaws in The Forlorn Adventure. Ironically, Falique tries to make fun of a Chinese shop-keeper’s ‘Chinglish’ in Chapter 23, whilst simultaneously mangling the English language himself. His writing is very poor and grammatical errors abound, as do mistakes in spelling. The present tense is frequently mixed with the past, and the style is clunky, for example: ‘The meathod in which he was about to execute came form a book at a local bookstore (sic)’ (122). Regardless, like Written in Black, the novel sells in hard copy version at numerous Bruneian outlets.
Neither of the two novels discussed here would have raised the ire of the government’s Da’wah office. Had they done so, one can rest assured their sale in Brunei’s bookstores would have been rigorously prevented. By self-censoring their references to Islam they demonstrate that, as per the conduct of novelists in Malaysia and Singapore, they have ‘learnt to treat with caution the subjects forbidden in these countries – namely race and religion’ (Chin 2006, 13). Hejazi describes self-censorship as “censorship by fear” (2011: 294) and Lim and Falique may well have been frightened of retribution had they written any bold literary affronts to Brunei’s MIB. But these two Bruneian authors have self-censored in completely different ways. Lim has studiously avoided all reference to Islam and/or MIB, whereas Falique has obsequiously flattered Brunei’s MIB like a fawning sycophant. Both approaches, while arguably insipid and timid, have permitted their work to be openly on sale in the Sultanate. Unfortunately, both approaches have resulted in poor quality writing, thus offering nothing to counter Yusof’s complaint that there has been no ‘memorable signpost to mark the eventful progress of Bruneian Malay literature’ since 2010. Perhaps the only signposts are indeed negative: The Brunei Times newspaper recently ceased publication after ten years of popularity, with non-Brunei based commentators pointing the finger at government interference over an unflattering story on Brunei/Saudi Arabia relations, this despite ‘Reporters and editors [already] exercise[ing] self-censorship on political and religious matters’ (Maierbrugger 2016). The challenge for news reporters in Brunei is determining what constitutes a taboo subject and what does not. MIB is obviously taboo, but so, it seems is criticism of Saudi Arabia, possibly due to that country’s prominence as a Sharia Law-ruled nation and Brunei’s intention of becoming a similarly Sharia Law dominated nation. As with journalists in Indonesia, of whom Tapsell writes: ‘almost all journalists [interviewed] stated that they had never met the owner [of their newspaper] and had certainly not received a document or official policy on the issue of reporting an owner’s business or political affairs’ (2012, 242), it is unlikely that official guidelines from the Sultan or his government’s office of Da’wah were ever issued to The Brunei Times staff (indeed, as an occasional contributor myself to this newspaper, I myself was never informed of such). Successful Indonesian reporters who stay employed guess correctly at which topics are taboo and as a result their ‘articles become slanted to suit the owners, critical questions are not asked, and sensitive topics are avoided’ (Ibid.), but they must be flattering to businessmen, not politicians. In Brunei, the penalty for unflattering reportage of the government seems to extend beyond the sacking of individual authors: the entire newspaper may be shut down. In such a repressive, authoritarian environment it is hardly surprising that the Sultanate remains a literary desert, a writer’s waste land in which Bandial’s ‘fear of overstepping the invisible line in the sand that defines what [they] can or cannot say’ (2013, un-paginated) continues to prevent the autonomy of understandably nervous authors, thus discouraging not just the production of bold new literature but bold news reporting as well.
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D. Bruno Starrs holds Masters degrees from Bond University and the University of Melbourne and a PhD from the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. He has lectured on film studies, pop culture and English literature at universities in Australia, Thailand and Brunei. Starrs has published widely in academia and is the author of The Films of Rolf de Heer, which is in its third edition. He has also published three novels and was the winner of the Dungala-Kaiela award for creative writing in 2015 and 2016. He is a 2016 recipient of the Magabala Indigenous Creator scholarship for his forthcoming novel, entitled “Bullroaring!”, which is a satirical account of racism and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. In 2015 his stage play “Voicing up the Marriage” won Overall Best Production at the Manila Short + Sweet Theatre Festival.
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