Brunei would have ceased to exist sans Al-Marhum: Lee
By Sonia K.

"At a turning point in its history, the Brunei Sultanate would have ceased to exist as an independent state without him. He put his position as Sultan and the fate of his people on the line."

Singapore's Minister Mentor Dato Laila Utama Lee Kuan Yew's words surmised Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien's vision and single-minded determination to see Brunei Darussalam attain sovereignty and grow into a country respected by all its neighbours in the region and the world.

Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah in collaboration with Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) jointly initiated the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Memorial Lecture yesterday, as a response to His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam's titahs emphasising the importance of and the need to develop and promote knowledge in this country.

The event started with welcoming remarks by Pehin Orang Kaya Seri Kerna Dato Seri Setia Haji Awang Abu Bakar bin Haji Apong, who is the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah and the chairman of the steering committee of the launching ceremony of the SOAS Memorial Lecture.

Minister Mentor Lee began his lecture by saying how fitting and proper it is that the Seri Begawan is commemorated.

Mr Lee gave a brief recount of Al-Marhum's personal history and touched on how their strong friendship began.

"He did not like air-conditioning. The room that my wife and I stayed in within this newly-built annexe was very hot, like an oven even at night. The sun would shine on the building in the afternoon and there was not enough ventilation. So I quietly moved out to stay at the rest house in a room with a window-model air conditioner," Mr Lee said.

"It was during this visit to Brunei that we struck a friendship that was to grow and endure the rest of his life."

Later in the lecture, Mr Lee reminisced how Al-Marhum Sultan and he become close friends way back in the 1960s.

"He trusted me because I never took advantage of his friendship to ask for favours. On one occasion, he asked his sons to sit in when I met him and he told them in his presence that I was a friend who could be relied upon," the Minister Mentor said.

"He wanted the friendship between us to continue with his sons. It has. The close ties continue between the Sultan and his brothers with the present PM and other leaders of Singapore.

"Less than three years after independence, on 7 September 1986, he passed away. He was deeply mourned by the people of Brunei. They knew that he had saved their independence and are able to live as they wish, keeping their oil wealth. It was Sir Omar's statecraft. He built the infrastructure of state. By the 1980s, he had given the sultanate's 200,000 people a high per capita income of US$20,000, among the world's most privileged. He strengthened Brunei's Islamic institutions," the former Singapore PM said.

He told the crowd that Sultan Omar Ali took calculated risks with courage. "He has a keen sense of what was politically possible. During the 17 years from 1950 to 1967, he brought economic, social and political developments to Brunei. With two Five-Year Development Plans, he provided for an education system throughout the state.

"Religious schools were given high priority. Hospitals, clinics were set up and dental services to schools were provided. He eradicated dysentery and malaria. He provided electricity for the whole state. He developed the roads and telecommunication system. He reclaimed swamplands and resettled people."

Earlier, Pehin Dato Haji Awang Abu Bakar in his welcoming remarks said, "The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Memorial Lecture is designed to be an annual event to be delivered by prominent personalities and intellectuals who have reached heights in their areas of specialisation."

He added that the SOAS Memorial Lecture provides a forum to increase and enrich knowledge besides providing continuous opportunities to exchange views and ideas with renowned specialists in various fields all over the world.

"Minister Mentor Dato Laila Utama Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, is no stranger to the sultanate having been an important political contemporary of the subject with this august occasion," the Pehin said.

He added that Al-Marhum and His Excellency stood shoulder to shoulder on several occasions especially in the early sixties. Since then His Excellency Dato never ceased to be a friend and well-wisher of Brunei Darussalam.

"Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien was by far one of the greatest rulers of Brunei Darussalam. Al-Marhum modernised Brunei Darussalam in many ways, especially its system of government, education and the social welfare services," he said.

Al-Marhum skilfully negotiated self-government for Brunei Darussalam through the promulgation of the 1959 Brunei Constitution, which served as a prelude to the path towards independence.

He told the 3,000 people who attended the lecture that Al-Marhum did everything in his means for the benefit of his subjects and for the survival of Brunei Darussalam.

"On ascension to the throne, Al-Marhum immediately began his programme of socio-economic improvements by launching the First Five Year National Development Plan in 1953. Al-Marhum's efforts to modernise Brunei gained him the rightful reputation as the Architect of Modern Brunei," Pehin Dato Haji Awang Abu Bakar continued.

Indeed Al-Marhum continues to live in the heart of his subjects who are eternally grateful to Al-Marhum for good deeds he had fulfilled, the Pehin said and added that there are a lot more noble achievements if one were to catalogue them in detail.

"This memorial lecture is part of the effort to place Al-Marhum continuously in our memory and to appreciate all that he did for the country and the people of Brunei Darussalam," the Pehin said.

One of the aims of the SOAS Memorial Lecture is to promote and expand knowledge as part of a contribution by Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah to the intellectual arena in conjunction with the efforts of institutes of higher learning and other agencies.

It is also aimed at promoting and nurturing knowledge, as well as providing an opportunity to listen and learn from world experts such as former world leaders or heads of government, academic professionals and experts such as Nobel Prize recipients.

Around 3,000 people attended the event including Cabinet Ministers, members of the Legislative Council, foreign envoys, senior government officials, private sector officials, students from higher institutions and other guests.

The SOAS Memorial Lecture was supported by Bank Islam Brunei Darussalam Berhad and Brunei Press Sdn Bhd as the official media partner. - Borneo Bulletin (26th Feb 2009)