SOAS University of London

Centre of South East Asian Studies

Negara Brunei Darussalam: The birth, growth and sustainability of absolutism in the neo-traditional theatre state

Mu’izz Abdul Khalid
Mu’izz Abdul Khalid (National University of Singapore/King’s College London)

Date: 26 November 2019Time: 5:15 PM

Finishes: 26 November 2019Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: RG01

Type of Event: Seminar

Negara Brunei Darussalam 1
Photo credit: infophoto


About fifty years ago, one observer of monarchies developed a popular theory to address the issue of modernisation in traditional societies called the “King’s Dilemma.” The theory argues that absolutist monarchies are political anachronisms doomed to extinction in the contemporary world; as it was deemed impossible to maintain absolute power while fulfilling the requirement of modernisation. The theory seemed credible as a number of monarchs, such as those in Egypt, Libya and Iran, lost their thrones to military coups or nationalist movements. Yet a handful of monarchies still remain and thrive in the 21st century, including Negara Brunei Darussalam. Brunei represents an interesting case study as it is the only absolutist state in Southeast Asia and after Tonga’s democratisation in 2010, it left the Bornean Malay sultanate as the only absolutist monarchy in Asia-Pacific. Although Brunei’s ‘anachronistic’ political system may seem somewhat strange or even bizarre for many, it has received little scholarly attention. Thus, my study aims to contribute to bring Brunei into the wider discussion of colonialism and monarchism in Southeast Asia and the Malay world.

Negara Brunei Darussalam 2
Photo credit: infophoto

I will argue that absolutist states like Brunei are actually contemporary formations rather than endangered traditional political anachronisms. Monarchies in the contemporary world are arguably creations of the twentieth century as a result of European imperialism, mainly made possible through British colonialism. British colonial policies predominantly centred around working with local rulers to achieve the goals of their empire, as well as to maintain their geopolitical interest in former colonies after decolonisation. Consequently, the strong focus on working with rulers such as sultans, emirs, kings and rajas, contributed to the survival of many monarchies under the British empire. Such colonial policies led to the birth of several absolutist monarchies around the globe, including Negara Brunei Darussalam. However, unlike other absolutist states, Brunei is indeed a Negara or what Clifford Geertz refers to as the theatre state. Therefore, I intend to use the Geertzian negara-state framework to analyse Brunei, which will be the main focus in this presentation.

Speaker Biography

Abdul Mu’izz Abdul Khalid is a PhD Candidate from the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore under the supervision of Dr. Douglas Kammen and Dr. Sher Banu A.L Khan. He is also currently a visiting doctoral student at the Department of War Studies of King’s College London. He graduated from University College London in MSc Security Studies and The University of Sheffield in BA International Relations and Politics. His research areas include authoritarianism, monarchism, the intersection between religion with politics, as well as the region of Southeast Asia and the Malay world. For his doctoral thesis, he is solely focusing on the birth, development and sustainability of absolutism in Negara Brunei Darussalam.


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