A 1906 treaty established a British Residency in Brunei through which Brunei acquired protectorate status but retained nominal independence. Even as a wave of decolonization swept through the Afro-Asian world after World War II, Brunei remained reluctant to sever its ties with the British. In 1959 Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III consented to internal self-government, with the British maintaining control over defense, foreign affairs, and internal security.
In 1961, Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proposed a federation that would have included Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Sabah, and Sarawak. While discussions concerning the federation were ongoing, members of the Partai Rakyat Brunei (PRB, Brunei's People's Party), which favored immediate independence and a northern Borneo federation, launched a revolt on 8 December 1962. Although quickly crushed, the revolt strengthened Omar's inclination to join the federation. Talks, however, broke down, and Brunei opted out in July 1963. The result was strained relations with both Malaysia and Indonesia. PRB leader A. M. Azahari was believed to have received support from Indonesia, whose president, Sukarno, condemned the Malaysian Federation as a neocolonial tactic and subsequently launched the Crush Malaysia campaign. Emergency regulations imposed after the revolt expanded the Sultan's powers and delayed progress toward democratization. During the Cold War, the conservative nature of the sultanate and its reliance on the British placed it squarely in the pro-Western camp.
After formally declaring its independence in 1984, Brunei was welcomed into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations (UN), and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Its policies remain oriented toward cooperation with regional and international bodies to ensure regional and internal stability. Since the 1990s, the tiny oil- and gas-rich nation has also pursued friendly relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), the energy needs of which render it an important client.
The history of modern Brunei is also the story of its rulers' efforts to preserve the sultanate and maintain stability. To this end, sultans willingly surrendered territory and even some measure of sovereignty during the heyday of European imperialism. In recent times, Brunei's rulers—the current sultan and his father, Omar, in particular—have used the country's oil and gas revenues to provide a high standard of living to forestall internal dissent. Given that these are nonrenewable resources, however, Brunei's ability to continue along this path is open to question. Mindful of this, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s Brunei has focused on diversifying its economy. Whether its ruler can continue to control the process and pace of democratization also remains to be seen.
Soo Chun Lu
Saunders, Graham. A History of Brunei. 2nd ed. London: Routledge Curzon, 2002.; Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 2, part 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.