Positive change in the air
By Waleed PD Mahdini

As the nation rises today to celebrate the tempered 63rd birthday anniversary of His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, the people would do so with an unmistakable whiff of positive change in the air.

As the oldest-running and foremost media agency in the country, the Borneo Bulletin has been privileged to be a chronicler of the nation's histories.

Forty years ago, on July 19, 1969, His Majesty highlighted the fact that "His government would always be ready to accept constructive criticism" in his inaugural titah to the country following his coronation as the 29th ruler of Brunei Darussalam - which the Borneo Bulletin aptly captured in its headline of the day as 'Brunei's Birthday Blast'.

Forty years on, having watched the country and its people develop and grow towards maturity, there is undoubtedly no one more qualified to deliver a scathing and critical review of the failures, faults and shortcomings that the government has failed to rectify other than His Majesty.

"Do you have to wait for my order? Can't you think about this? Has anyone ever thought of it seriously? Is it because you are scared to plan until I myself mention it repeatedly? Is this a right approach or is the idea mature enough?

"I believe it is not a mature idea but an idea that is selfish, an idea that doesn't show concern. This is the way of looking at matters... and not just with a 'wait and see' attitude. Is this not a problem?

"...Is this not a disaster? A disaster in burdening the government and bringing misery to the people. This is what I did not like to hear. The heads of department work just like a robot with no discretion or common sense. They just wait for instructions, they will not take any steps even though they are mandated to make certain considerations and take logical steps.

"But the question lies in whether they are sincere or are they forced? This should be looked into and scrutinised."

These are some of the points that the monarch raised before his ministers during a meeting at the National Disaster Management Centre two days ago that has been seen and touted by the people as a similar 'blast' to the one that His Majesty delivered 40 years ago.

What the monarch was clearly telling his ministers was for them to be bold enough to take the initiative and to apply more common sense in making decisions, and at the same time, completely dispense with their perceived 'wait-and-see' attitude that grossly prevails within the civil service. What His Majesty also made very clear was to stop using their positions and responsibilities to glorify him for their own agendas.

Five months ago, in a titah that His Majesty delivered to the people during the country's 25th National Day celebrations, the monarch insisted that in order to stimulate growth and achieve excellence as a country "we need to change our mindset and attitude".

"Quality human resources are the deciding factor for the country's capability to maintain and enjoy prolonged prosperity. Because of this we have never neglected education. The underlying principle is clear - to produce intellectuals with expertise in various disciplines, in order to generate credible leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs," His Majesty said.

What His Majesty asked for here is also very clear. For the people of Brunei Darussalam to rise to a new level of dynamism, self worth and collective responsibility by standing up for themselves - their children, their families, their collective kin - and to take the initiative and help plot the course towards a new era of government responsibility, accountability and utilising plain "common sense" - another constant that His Majesty has repeatedly made.

Three months later, during the 48th anniversary of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces, His Majesty highlighted the imperative for a plan to prepare against pandemics, the global financial crisis and global warming.

To many observers, repeating the same messages for 40 years must be heart wrenching - especially to the head of state and government. What indeed has the government been doing? Granted, the country has progressed leaps and bounds but changes have only been superficial.

For a country with a total population of under 400,000 people, the civil service employs some 65 per cent of Bruneians in its ranks.

Bruneians do not pay income tax. Government servants are entitled to car and housing loans. Education is free. Even Haj pilgrimages are subsidised for government servants. Hospital care costs a single dollar for citizens and the government even foots the bill to fly patients overseas if they require more intensive medical treatment.

As many as 40,000 expatriates do most of the private-sector jobs because most Bruneians want only to work for the government.

There is a deficiency in the process of human capital formation. A fundamental barrier is the fact that the native population is accustomed to a standard of living that is provided by the state through oil revenues.

With our hydrocarbon resources, we have been blessed with a very sheltered existence. But as some countries have already shown, with their oil and gas resources dwindling, will we be prepared for that storm? Our oil resources are finite and dwindling, His Majesty has more than often mentioned. But in this pampered atmosphere, getting Bruneians to worry about oil is difficult to say the least, despite the constant calls and reminders by His Majesty.

The thick blanket of complacency has overwhelmingly smothered the people's mindset - something that has proven extremely difficult to correct.

Most of this current generation are heeding the calls by the monarch and his government to help diversify the country's economy. Many youths are now willing to accept careers in the private sector - an imperative, as the monarch and government have said to our continued economic prosperity.

The global financial meltdown has not affected the people. The country was also spared the devastating effects of the earlier SARS and Avian Flu outbreaks. But it has not managed to dodge the more rapid onslaught of the A (H1N1) virus.

In Asian customs, even more prevalent within Brunei's customs and traditions, the principle of reciprocity is inculcated into everyone from an early age. For 40 years, His Majesty has been nothing but fair, kind, patient and extremely accommodating to his people. Isn't it high time, for all of us, young and old, rich and poor, government servant or publicly employed to give back the equal amount of measure of effort, determination, spirit and dedication to the country that has given us everything that we have and hold dear. For if not us, who? And if not now, when?

What we do in this life, tells the world precisely who we are. If people strut around the world in ignorance, in complacency, in prejudice, in deception, full of bias and with airs of superiority, few will take them seriously, except perhaps themselves.

So the more we listen carefully to others, the more we will learn ourselves - and learn about ourselves, but the more we preen, the sillier and more irrelevant we will seem; not only to our own detriment but to the people and the whole nation.

If we read between the lines, what His Majesty is asking from us is not to wait any longer. That if we see something that needs to be done, we should just do it. Any action, be it right or wrong, is ultimately better than sitting idly by and not doing anything about it. So perhaps, instead of being lazy, waiting for instructions, that would exonerate any guilt and perceived faults that we are afraid of making, we should find it within ourselves to embrace this change that has been long been asked for by His Majesty and just make it happen. As the world has caught on another slogan that is now ushering in a new era of change in many other countries, perhaps, we too should believe in one of our own: 'Yes, we must'. So let's make it happen Brunei. - Borneo Bulletin (15th July 2009)