Quora Post

I stumbled upon a Quora question that dealt with the issue of Brunei’s survival. Here is my answer to that question.

One man stood in the way from the total annihilation of Brunei. His name was Malcolm Stewart Hannibal McArthur (1872-1934). He wrote the Report on Brunei 1904, recommending the UK’s FCO to institute a British Residency system. The Report led to his appointment as the country’s first British Resident and the decision by the British government to maintain Brunei as a separate administrative entity, sealing the country’s survival from being swallowed up by big powers.

As British Resident, McArthur was entrusted with power backed by the Imperial might of Britain. As a result, McArthur was able to protect Brunei from further foreign annexations. For example, when Charles Brooke wanted to seize Kota Batu and Muara for himself, McArthur said no. Charles Brooke used to get his way through violence and intimidation. But not this time. When Charles Brooke continued his protest and sent his ship, McArthur dispatched Britain’s Man-O-War from Labuan to stop him in his tracks. Charles Brooke turned tail and left humiliated and in shame.

Man-of-war - Wikipedia

(An illustration of Britain’s Man-O-War. Before this, Charles Brooke used to get his way to intimidate Bruneians into submission, but now he has to submit to a greater power: Malcolm McArthur, British Resident of Brunei.)

(Illustration: Colonialist Charles Brooke being mad and humiliated by the end of his life by Brunei’s Hero Malcolm McArthur)

McArthur was also instrumental in modernizing Brunei. He built up the police force, justice system, postal system, reformed the extractive feudal Land Code, carry out the first urban planning, laid out the first roads and bridges, strengthened the local industry, led the war against the Cholera epidemic, and, most importantly, put down the highly corrupt and conniving elites that have for so long betrayed the interest of the King and country.

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In fact, Sultan Hashim become such a broken man due to the corrupt elites, he had to call on McArthur in private to discuss the future affairs of the Kingdom. By then McArthur was already a trusted counsel to the Sultan. Sultan Hashim, sensing his imminent death due to old age (he was 81 years old), asked for him in one final private audience. There he requested McArthur to protect his kingdom and legacy. McArthur agreed. The resulting contribution was the Report on Brunei 1904. The Sultan died in 1906.

McArthur’s ensuing visionary and transformative leadership as the British Resident in modernizing Brunei and protecting the state from being seized by Brooke or other foreign powers using the might of British power, as well as paving the way for Brunei’s development and cleaning up the corruption within the Kingdom has changed Brunei history forever. It is also safe to say that without McArthur Brunei would have ceased to be an independent Kingdom.

(Report on Brunei in 1904. Considered to the most important document in Brunei 20th century history)

As such, his legacy is terminally understudied among Bruneians. Despite McArthur’s massive contributions, however, the only remnants of his great legacy is a tiny road named after him along Brunei’s capital (one of the first roads ever built) and copies of his report now gathering dust in the national library of UBD. The State’s emphasis in breaking from its colonial past may also seem the natural course of action as a means to promote its national philosophy of MIB (Melayu, Islam and Beraja).

Nevertheless, his legacy continues on. Works done by expats such as Dr. B.A. Hussainmiya, a retired UBD historian, and bloggers like Brunei Resources will commemorate them in the digital space and hopefully reach out to the more tech-savvy younger generation. Given the paucity of information we have about McArthur and his personal life – he was a deeply private man – perhaps someday we will know of him deeply through new scholarship.

Long after McArthur retired from his post as British Resident, he re-visited Bruneis capital and Kampong Ayer. There he was greeted by the people with smiles and a warm, friendly welcome by the people of Brunei. He died in Italy due to ill health in 1934. He was only 62 years old.

He may not know it, but his contribution will go down in Brunei history that led to the survival of the decaying Kingdom.