The news sent the school into mass panic.
The Sultan was coming.
Teachers and staff rushed madly around the school trying to fix a failed institution in time for the visit of the man who had raised himself to the status of a god among his own people.
Bruneian teachers dashed madly this way and that for weeks in order to impress a man they regarded with an equal amount of reverence and fear.
“Kieran, you’ll be in the official welcoming party for his majesty,” I was told upon arrival.
Oh no, I thought. I Immediately knew I would be the only ‘orangputih’, or foreigner, in the welcoming party and the Sultan would never pass up a photo opportunity with one of the white people who gave his country’s education system the semblance of professionalism.
I also felt like death warmed up after a fitful night’s sleep which ended abruptly at 4.30am when the daily ‘reminder’ blasted through loud speakers. What’s more, I’d been required to arrive at school before 7am, knowing that my afternoon teaching shift wouldn’t start until 12.30, and would end at 5.30pm.
This meant that once the Sultan’s flying photo opportunity had finished, I’d be forced to twiddle my thumbs at school for hours. A morning teacher was occupying my ‘hot desk’, and I was only allowed to physically leave the campus if I got a permission note signed by my head of department and the Principal. On the day of his majesty’s visit, signing a form for a random English teacher would be the last thing on their mind.
In fact, I was more worried about the Sultan’s entourage. From all reports, the Sultan himself was quite a nice, friendly, amiable person – he can afford to be when he enjoys unlimited wealth and power. I was afraid that one of his entourage, including a sycophantic representative of the education department determined to assert their authority and improve their status in the eyes of the Sultan, would ask me a genuine question, and that I would offer a genuine answer. If they’d asked me what I thought of the school, I don’t think I could have resisted saying,
“It’s a joke. It clearly exists to corral teenagers and teach them nothing but obedience to religion and the royal family, and is deliberately underfunded to ensure that the students remain uneducated, because an uneducated population is easier to control”
I don’t think I would have kept my job.
I’d be the only white person in the line up because the only other ‘orangputih’ had drawn on his many years of experience in Brunei and called in sick that day, just as he’d called in sick the previous Thursday when the Sultan was originally supposed to visit. Funny that.
There was no way I was going to risk my job, so I snuck away to a place that I knew no one would find me. How did I manage to avoid any contact with the ruler of the tiny nation and his sizeable entourage?
I went to one of the normal classrooms. One of the classrooms in which I taught. A classroom with peeling paint, an old blackboard, cracked cement floors, a broken clock, a broken window, no internet reception, no technology, no air conditioning and fans that may or may not work, despite the incessant tropical heat.
Most government schools are like this, and I chose this as my hiding place because the Sultan was never shown the reality of the schools he visited. He was shown the few classrooms with paint on the wall, tiles on the floor, a working computer and functioning air conditioning.
This despite the billions of dollars in oil revenue circulating the Sultanate.
Another peculiarity of the Sultan’s visit was the disappearance of the recycling bins. The coloured bins had been brought to the school only a few weeks earlier. They weren’t really effective because their purpose hadn’t been explained to students who grew up in a country with no recycling and not even local council rubbish collection. In Brunei, if you want to dispose of your household or business rubbish, you pay a private contractor – or just throw it in the bush.
The day before the Sultan’s visit, the bins disappeared. I asked a local Teacher why this happened, and he said it was because they didn’t look nice.
I was thus able to hide out and ignore the Sultan. Despite my thumping headache, I got through marking some homework tasks. Every so often I would poke my head out the door and watch the smiling Sultan being politely gestured towards another polished classroom or polished student.
I noticed some of the other foreign Teachers lining up for selfies and thought about the reaction of some foreigners to the Sultan and the royal family. Many expat Teachers sought selfies for fun. They thought it was a laugh to score a photo with an obscure world leader and share it on their socials. Others, however, seemed to genuinely respect the Sultan. How is that possible? How could an intelligent, educated person from a democratic country genuinely respect a man such as the Sultan? Everyone had to respect him publicly, it was too dangerous not to, but some of them also spoke of him in glowing terms privately.
Why do I dislike the Sultan so much?
I dislike all royalty. Not just because they live a life of luxury off the public purse. Not just because they are born into privilege and never have to work a day in their lives. It’s also because I am a keen student of history and I know how they achieve and maintain power: through cruelty and propaganda.
There are a few specific situations which reinforced my disdain for the Sultan.
The state of the school
As mentioned above, the school was falling apart. It was poorly maintained, it lacked technology and teaching resources, many Teachers are not actually qualified, and it was poorly managed. Bruneian children are not supposed to learn, they are supposed to obey.
The school was also dirty. The cleaners were employed during school hours, so the most they could do was drag a dirty mop around sections of the staff room, before they retired to one of the storerooms for their tea and cake. We would see them huddled together, sharing stories over tea and cake, and they would smile and wave at us without a care in the world. Meanwhile, the dirt and grime festered in the tropical heat.
The cleaners didn’t clean the classrooms. That was the student’s responsibility. The philosophy of inculcating civic responsibility may succeed in Japan, South Korea and Singapore, but not in Brunei. Classrooms were filthy.
Plus, the male students and Teachers shared a bathroom.
Oh, and the sick bay was in the staffroom. Of course, the Sultan was never alerted to these facts on his visits.
The Sultan the Saviour
One story appeared in the national newspaper during my stay. The Sultan was praised for funding the travel and medical expenses of an elderly Bruneian man who needed major surgery in Singapore. The man apparently lived in a squalid shack by the beach and could not afford to pay for the urgent surgery. The newspaper article extolled the virtues of the Sultan who covered the cost of the successful surgery, and showed a photo of the grateful and loyal subject on post-operative recovery in his squalid shack.
Why couldn’t the Sultan pay for the man to live in a decent house after surgery, and why was a Bruneian citizen living in a dilapidated shack in the first place?
The Sultan is one of the richest people, and richest monarchs on the planet, he lives in the world’s largest residential palace, but he hasn’t redirected any of the nation’s oil wealth to a man and his wife who live in a shack.
The reluctant princess
Another story which was told to expats was the story of the reluctant princess. According to popular knowledge, Princess ‘Sarah’ was one of a group of virgins presented to the crown prince Al-Muhtadee Billah for marriage. Apparently, the crown prince chose Sarah who is undoubtedly beautiful and apparently quite intelligent, but is also his cousin. The bride to be, however, did not want to marry the prince or enter the royal family. Thus, her parents tried to whisk her away to Switzerland where she has residence/citizenship courtesy of her mother Suzanne Aeby. The attempt failed, however, when the princess was greeted by security staff at the airport and escorted back to her home, then down the aisle to marry the crown prince. She remains in loyal service to the royal family to this day.
The Sultan is one of the world’s richest men and one of the world’s greatest religious hypocrits. He introduced Sharia law, a strict Islamic law, into his country in 2013, but lives the playboy lifestyle of the rich and famous. He drinks alcohol, he owns a hotel chain which profits from the sale of alcohol and non-halal products, and he is famous for adultery. Details of his encounters with prostitutes are now well known, especially after a member of his harem, Jillian Lauren, revealed secrets in her book Some Girls: My Life in A Harem.
What’s more, Sharia law classifies homosexuality as illegal and punishable by stoning, but it common knowledge that one of the Sultan’s sons, Prince Abdul Azim, is gay. Abdul Azim spends most of his time partying with celebrities in London and protected by his father.
Prince Abdul Azim was the ‘patron’ of the school at which I taught, and I remember being told once that my teaching programs, lesson plans and reports must be completed to the very highest standard, because Prince Abdul Azim would review them personally. The Principal struck fear into the hearts of many of the local staff who slaved away for hours of their reports. I made sure I used pink highlighter on mine.
Lauren’s book also details how the Sultan and his brother, Prince Jefri, would swap women in their harems. Prince Jefri is a famous sex addict and is currently estrnaged from the royal family because he wasted away much of the country’s fortune on women and parties.
What happened to me?
The commotion subsided, so I emerged from my hiding place to discover that the visit was over. A few days after the dust had settled from the Sultan’s visit, the Principal called me into her office.
“I notice you are not in any of the photos,” she said.
“Ah, yes, I was feeling sick, I know I looked sick and I didn’t want to embarrass the school in front of the Sultan,” I explained.
I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe me but she was diplomatic enough not to take the matter further. Our Principal knew the expat Teachers worked very hard to improve her school and her reputation. I was given a perfunctory slap on the wrist by my employer, a British organisation contracted by the government, and life at the school returned to normal.
The staff at the school had endured weeks of extra work, long hours, stress and panic so that the Sultan of Brunei could breeze through one of his schools and pretend that he is educating his loyal subjects.
That’s why I snubbed the Sultan.