BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The past three years has seen Britain’s role in the world change dramatically.
The political turmoil and anxiety precipitated by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and more recently by the COVID-19 pandemic, has presented many challenges for the UK, a country still trying to find its place in the post-Brexit era.
Richard Lindsay, the outgoing British high commissioner to Brunei Darussalam, said despite the upheaval in Europe, the UK’s relationship with the sultanate — one that has endured for over 120 years — remains largely unaffected by Brexit.
As the country looks to renew partnerships within the Commonwealth, and eyes new trade relationships in ASEAN, he sees deepening engagement with the Far East.
This also means deeper security engagement – the Royal Navy has redeployed key assets to the Asia-Pacific, marking a return to the region after five years. British naval ships have docked in Brunei four times over the past two years, and the two countries also renewed a long-standing defence agreement which maintains the presence of the British Garrison in Brunei.
The personal relationship between the royal families of the UK and Brunei remains a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship. Lindsay’s tenure as high commissioner saw two royal visits — one from the Earl and Countess of Wessex for the Sultan’s Golden Jubilee, followed by a stopover by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
Reflecting on his first posting as high commissioner, Lindsay said championing cooperation on environmental issues is an area close to his heart, which saw him run the entire coast of Brunei to raise awareness on plastic pollution.
In his final press engagement, Lindsay spoke to the media about his time in Brunei and the future of UK’s relationship with the sultanate, and the wider region.
NB: Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: During your time here, you’ve had to navigate a number of tricky issues – Britain has been through a lot of political turmoil over the past three years with regards to Brexit. As an envoy for the UK, how difficult has it been to navigate those issues on a diplomatic level?
A: I’m quite comfortable representing the values that are consistent with the UK’s policy, and that is driving the Global Britain agenda. We have left the EU but our values of international engagement and wanting to work with our partners around the world hasn’t changed at all.
Yes, there has been political turmoil – we’ve had a general election and change of leader of government. All of that is normal in any democracy, although it’s probably been more exciting that normal. But that doesn’t change the ability of a public servant like me to represent the country and our values and international policies that have been consistent.
Q: Post-Brexit, do you see more British engagement with Southeast Asia?
A: I absolutely do. The United Kingdom has applied to be a dialogue partner with ASEAN. We had been as a member of the EU, because the EU is a dialogue partner. We are now looking to become a dialogue partner in our own right since we left the EU.
We already have very deep relationships across Southeast Asia with every single ASEAN member. Bilateral trade with ASEAN last year summed to about $50 billion, we expect that to increase because this is an area of growth.
If you look at the economic impact of COVID, Southeast Asia is one of the least affected, so that is an area where we will continue to deepen our trade relationships. But it’s not just economic relationships, but also the socio-political communities of ASEAN that we will continue to engage with.
Q: Before you came to Brunei did you have any preconceived ideas of what it would be like, and did any of those ideas change?
A: I tried to come here with a very open mind, but we all have preconceived ideas. I’d never worked in an Islamic country and I didn’t know — I suppose I would say unsure — of how that was going to work out. I’ve learned so much about working with and in an Islamic country, and that has been a great joy and real privilege. That’s an area where I’ve probably learned the most.
Q: Last year, Brunei faced a lot of international scrutiny with the introduction of the Syariah Penal Code. As an envoy, how has it been navigating that particular issue, representing the reality on the ground to your counterparts back home in the face of negative perceptions about Brunei in the West?
A: That’s a really important point – how do I represent what’s happening here as opposed to the perceptions. What happened last year was very much about international perceptions about Brunei. My role as an envoy was to understand what the domestic implications were of the introduction of the SPCO.
We [the UK and Brunei] had differences of opinion, there’s no question about that. But what we were able to do was build understanding on both sides of what this was about and the impact it would have. And to build a focus on the values that I’ve discussed: on the rule of law, importance of the common law, and respect for rights and minorities.
His Majesty’s assurances that he gave at the start of Ramadan last year were critically important, in that commitments to observe individual privacies and to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture, and the moratorium on the death penalty – these were really important statements which the international community took a significant amount of assurance from.
Q: Do you feel like it’s impacted bilateral cooperation in any way?
A: Not in the least.
Q: What have been your most memorable moments in your three years as the British high commissioner?
A: Well, I still have the sand imprinted on my feet [from the Brunei-UK Beach Run]. That was a mega event which I will never be able to forget. We raised money for autism and SMARTER Brunei. I have a nephew that has autism, so it meant a lot to me to raise money for an autism charity, and my wife has been volunteering there ever since we came here.
I think having the privilege of going into His Majesty’s palace, welcomed into his home and being able to have conversations with him on a regular basis at various stages and events. The accessibility of a head of government to all of his people is something which is unique and that’s very memorable to me.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’ll be returning to London and living in the UK for a few years. It’s good to go back to the same country where my children are. I don’t know yet what role I’ll be in but I’ll be in the Foreign Office.
My successor’s name is John Virgoe and he’ll be arriving in August. He’ll be taking forward his own agenda but I can assure you that the work on climate change will be a top priority for him. The work on economic cooperation, trying to promote British businesses doing business in Brunei – whether that’s in the oil and gas sector, or the education sector, or building technical or vocational training. These areas will be very much on his radar.