Richard Lindsay, the British High Commissioner to Brunei. Photo: Ain Bandial

The relationship between Brunei Darussalam and Great Britain has been intertwined since 1888, when the two countries signed a protectorate agreement giving the British government control over the internal administration of the sultanate.

In 1959, the residency system was abolished and the constitution and Legislative Council were formed, giving Brunei control again over its domestic affairs — only defence and foreign affairs were left in the hands of the British — and paving the way for full independence in 1984.

Even after becoming a sovereign state, the lingering influence of the United Kingdom still looms large in many aspects of Bruneian life, and the close ties between the royal families remain.

Last week we sat down with the new British High Commissioner to Brunei, Richard Lindsay, to discuss the evolution of the bilateral relationship over the past half-century, as well as the Earl and Countess of Wessex’s visit to Brunei for His Majesty the Sultan’s Golden Jubilee.

Q: Thirty-three years after Brunei’s independence, the influential relationship with the UK still looms large in many aspects of Bruneian life —  from education to our legal system. Why has this relationship endured even after independence?

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RL: I think it has to do with the way the history of Brunei has grown up in partnership with the United Kingdom, since His Majesty became monarch until Brunei took on full independence in 1984. And it’s been a process of Brunei taking the best out of the UK, and working with it and building its own institutions and own system of governance. Same is true in the armed forces and same is true in the civil service and so on.

Brunei took on its full independence over a long period of time, it helped to grow into that space where it was comfortable in doing so. The UK was able to help it get to that place. Brunei is fully independent now and the UK remains a very close partner in ways in which we can help and work together as proud independent nations.

The legal system is based on the (English) common law system and the education system is an absolute mirror of what happens in the UK.

The number of lawyers that go for training, the number of British teachers that come in here for coaching, for building standards for Bruneian schools. Higher education, those that go off to the UK to study bring back a whole lot of the United Kingdom in their genes. You see it everywhere you turn, the UK influence in Brunei.

HRH Prince Edward (R) and HRH Princess Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, attend celebrations for His Majesty’s Golden Jubilee at Istana Nurul Iman on Oct 5. Photo: Infofoto

Q: His Majesty the Sultan and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II are the two longest-serving monarchs in the world, with the Sultan’s Golden Jubilee falling on October 5, 2017. Do you have any insight into their personal relationship? 

RL: There is a very close link between them. They see each other regularly at state occasions — the last time was in London in 2015, at the 200th anniversary of the Gurkhas’ (service to the Crown).

The Earl and Countess are here to pass on the Queen’s congratulations to the Sultan and to represent her at the state banquet. His Majesty was one of the very few international guests at Earl’s wedding at Windsor Castle in 1999.

They (HM the Sultan and HM the Queen) will see each other next year at the Commonwealth summit in London and Windsor in April 2018. They see each other regularly and because they are the longest-serving monarchs in the world, they have become good friends.

The Commonwealth Summit for next year is going to be focused on reinvigorating and rejuvenating the Commonwealth towards a common future. Focusing on building trade between Commonwealth countries and building focus on the youth — things that will resonate in Brunei, just as they resonate in the UK.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah (4R) poses with members of the Brunei and British royal families during Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Brunei in 1972. Photo: Infofoto

Q: Touching on the Commonwealth, why is it still a relevant organisation decades after the end of the British Empire? 

RL: It’s an organisation about common values… The way in which we speak a common language, we understand they way in which we work. What is at its heart is that the Commonwealth is an organisation of values — that’s its strength, but it also means that it’s never going to be an organisation that is dramatically going to change the world — it’s a soft power organisation, and that’s something in which the UK and Brunei are very close partners.

Q: As we reach the 50th year of His Majesty the Sultan’s reign, how would you characterise the growth and development the bilateral relationship between the UK and Brunei over the past half-century?

RL: I’d start in 1962 and the (Brunei) rebellion and the way in which the United Kingdom helped to suppress the rebellion and secure the royal family here. That has shaped the way in which we still have a significant role in the security in this region — and the garrison as it remains here is a legacy of that.

The economic relationship is absolutely about oil and gas, and about Shell. And the way that Shell permeates the oil and gas system from upstream to downstream, and that is a British company that has been operating here for over 80 years and will hope fully do so for many years to come.

Over the decades, Brunei has made the decision to sponsor so many students to the UK for their further education — that has really helped shape the development of the youth and entrepreneurship.

Q: What role do the British Garrison play in maintaining security here? 

It’s a really important presence, it’s a British military presence… They are some of the best, battle-hardened troops in the British army.

They have a row of functions — they are part of the British army, they are developing their own skills, working in this unrivaled space for jungle warfare. We’re doing more work with the Bruneian armed forces, and working closer with other partners around the region on building broader defense cooperation.

His Majesty visits the First Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles in Seria in April 2017. Photo: Courtesy of the British High Commission

Q: With the drastic downturn in global oil prices over the past few years and the resulting contraction in the domestic economy, Brunei had to seek new development partners in the region, such as China. How do you see the UK’s role in the next 20 years? Will Shell still have a future here in 20 years?

I would certainly hope so, and I would expect so. And I would expect that Brunei is looking at a broader range of countries to do business with. I will hope that Brunei will look to the UK in the specific areas that we can help its further development. That doesn’t mean we will move out of the existing areas where we’ve been working with Brunei so closely because that should remain the cornerstone, the pillar of our relationship. But we should be looking for new areas that are in keeping with out expertise in the UK.

We’re not a major leader in every sector, but we are in a lot of sectors where we are pushing such as the services sector, particularly financial services.

I see our relationship as based on the pillars as I’ve discussed — defence, education, economy, and our royal ties. We want to strengthen those pillars but also to broaden them, particularly in the economic sphere. As Brunei diversifies its economy, the UK is a partner for Brunei in many of those areas.

In response to the sustained lower oil prices, that’s going to be an evolution that Brunei is going to take on this journey, and we need to be helping and finding our niche in that.

Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.