Al-Marhum SOAS III: Architect of Modern Brunei

(Al-Marhum SOAS III. Pic credits to

As Brunei gets ready to celebrate its 35th National Day, let us take a moment to recount the enlightened life of Al-Marhum SOAS III, the 28th Sultan of Brunei. Born on the 23rd September 1914 in Kampung Ayer, he grew up when Brunei was then a British protectorate.

Al-Marhum’s formal schooling began after the age of 18 years old. Under the recommendation of British Resident T.F. Carey, Al-Marhum attended the Malay College at Kuala Kangsar (the ‘Malay Eton’) for four years. He also studied English from Mr HF Stalley. He became the first Bruneian royalty to receive a Western-style education in a foreign institution.

Upon returning to Brunei, under the advice of British Resident R. E. Turnbull, the young prince entered the State administrative service as a cadet in the Forestry Department. For a year he worked and lived in the jungle of Ulu Belait where he would move around Bukit Sawat, Pengkalan Siong, Kuala Melayan, Sukang, Melalas, and Ingai (Al-Sufri, 2010: p9).

In an interview, Al-Marhum said, “In my work, I had to use a parang (machete) and changkol and hack my way through the jungle.” (Hussainmiya, 1995: p57). His “stint in the jungle and close-up observation of the common folk who toiled under difficult circumstances gave the young Prince an opportunity to understand the people’s problems and their needs.”  (Hussainmiya, 1995: p57).

After a year, he joined the Judiciary as a cadet officer. There he learned the aspects of civil and criminal law as an understudy to H. Huge Hallet, Assistant British Resident. Al-Marhum then went on to join the Resident’s office under the recommendation of Ibrahim bin Jaafar, a distinguished Bruneian who later became the country’s first Chief Minister.

Fast forward to 16th December 1941; the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Brunei. During the occupation, Al-Marhum SOAS III and his family, like everyone else in the country, suffered severe hardship. After the war was over, SOAS III recounted how elated he was with the coming of the Allied forces. He considered Winston Churchill a war hero. He even built a Winston Churchill statue in the capital.

(SOAS III built a Winston Churchill on top of the location where the “Rumah Besar” once were)

In 1947, he was installed as the nation’s Pengiran Bendahara (highest-ranking Wazir). Here, he spent his time to visit the interior districts, mukims and villages talking to people to learn about the conditions and way of life of the people in Brunei.

After each visit, Al-Marhum made reports for submission to his brother Al-Marhum Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Akhazul Khairi Waddin and the British Resident. According to Al-Marhum, most of his recommendations were implemented by the government particularly during the time of Mr EEF Pretty’s term as British Resident (Al-Sufri, 2010: p18).

“As news became widespread of Al-Marhum’s action in attending the sufferings of the people, more complaints were submitted to Al-Marhum. Although the amount of work to be resolved began to pile up, it was the work, which he greatly enjoyed because the opportunity help people in need of his help was capable of being fulfilled by him.” (Al-Sufri, 2010: p18)

On 31st May 1951, Al-Marhum was crowned as the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei. Al-Marhum SOAS III’s 17 years reign (1950-1967) was ambitious and Brunei progressed rapidly under his rule. The first Five-Year National Development Plans (FYNDP) was initiated in 1953 with a budget of $100 million. The principal objective was to modernise Brunei out of its backwater status in Southeast Asia.

Mr ER Bevington (1954-1958), Commissioner of Development, was appointed to carry out the immense task of implementing the plan. In an interview, Mr Bevington explained that the FYNDP was, “in essence the laying of a foundation for the State’s future. The plan has provided electricity and water supplies, roads, airfields, telecommunications and the best services without which industry could not hope to be attracted here (Brunei)” (Borneo Bulletin, 4th October 1958).

In his report, master-builder Mr Bevington opined that the ambitious development programme required three factors: money, materials and people (Horton, 1985: p392). Al-Marhum realises that Brunei could afford the first two with the vast national oil wealth coming from Seria Oil fields, which was discovered by Dr Emil Braendlin, but local expertise was still lacking. To fill this gap, he decided that education should play a considerable part in Brunei’s modernisation process.

Al-Marhum was pragmatic and never wavered in instilling the spirit of education to his people. Thus, when the FYNDP plan was approved, it was agreed that English Schools should receive priority in social development. It was a matter of survivability that necessitated Brunei to adopt English as a tool to strengthen the polity and to eventually win her independence.

In 1954, the Sultan ordered the establishment of the first English public school called Brunei Town Government English School (Today known as SOAS College) followed by STPRI in 1957 and Abell College in Seria in 1958. Led by HJ Padmore, the State Education Officer (1954-9), the national education policy was aimed at building capable and educated Bruneians who would someday replace the expats and in leading the country’s destiny.

Al-Marhum said in his poem, that knowledge (like English) “is a weapon most useful, brought here and there truthful, even if brought, everywhere needful, not once becoming unfaithful.” Syair Nasihat, p2 (Al-Sufri, 2010: p61).

Furthermore, it was under Al-Marhum SOAS III that a lot of our local students were being sent to be educated and trained overseas. “As a result of his wisdom, a large number of local children with high qualifications have filled posts in high positions in the machinery of the administration of our country today.” (Titah, Borneo Bulletin, 13 Sept 1986).

My father who studied in the UK was one of many people who benefited from Al-Marhum SOAS III’s farsighted policy.

Moreover, Al-Marhum SOAS III knew the importance of inclusive development or the ‘Whole of Nation’ approach to building Brunei. As Al-Marhum said through his Asli Rajang Hari poem, “Hand in hand performing beneficial activity, towards well-being without anxiety, giving opinions with no uncertainty, peace and happiness in the hand firmly” Syair Asli Rajang Hari, p32-33 (Al-Sufri, 2010: p 77)”

He was also open in giving people the chance to air out their ideas and opinions. In his poem, he said, “A master plan is in preparation, exchanging views in discussions, sufficient numbers in calculations, benefit and happiness aim of recommendations” Syair Laila Hasrat, Rampaian Laila Syair, p5 (Al-Sufri, 2010: 69)

His greatest achievement culminated in ushering Brunei to its full independence. Leading the three shouts of Allah Akbar after the Proclamation of Brunei’s Independence read by His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam on 1 January 1984, Brunei finally secured its position as a sovereign and independent nation-state. Truly, Al-Marhum deserves the title ‘Architect of Modern Brunei’.

Al-Marhum passed away on Monday evening 7th September 1986. Everyone was in a state of great shock to hear the sad news. Thousands pay their last respects to Al-Marhum on 8th September 1986 at Istana Nurul Iman.

As Brunei soon celebrate its 35th National Day, let us be grateful for Al-Marhum’s enlightened leadership. Let the values of education become the guiding spirit to take Brunei forward to realise Wawasan Brunei 2035 and beyond.


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