Real Royalty

By Jheri St. James

The State of Brunei (Abode of Peace) has one of the highest standards of living in the world. It became independent in 1984, after declining to join the Malaysian Federation and remain a British dependency. Its ruling royals, led by the head of state Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, possess a huge private fortune.

Prince Jefri, the brother of the sultan, at one time held a 400 million pound distress sale of his art collection, the biggest ever single-owner sale of art, in four auctions--because some of the paintings offended Islamic fundamentalists. Previously Prince Jefri paid the highest price ever for a painting, at 50 million pounds. His collection includes Impressionist and Modern art from artists such as Renoir and Modigliani. The best pictures hang in the private apartments of the Sultan and princes in the Royal Palace.

(Princes Jefri and Al-Muhtadee Billah Bolkiah, and the Sultan)

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Brunei is located on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Apart from its coastline with the South China Sea, it is completely surrounded by the states of Sarawak and Sabah, East Malaysia. The culture of Brunei is predominantly Malay, with heavy influences from Hinduism and Islam, but is seen as more conservative than Malaysia. The sale and public consumption of alcohol is banned, with foreigners and non-Muslims allowed to bring in 12 cans of beer and two bottles of spirits every time they enter the country. After the introduction of prohibition in the early 1990s, all pubs and nightclubs were forced to close. Drug trafficking and illegally importing controlled substances are serious offenses in Brunei and carry a mandatory death penalty.

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An Islamic Asian country of dense forests and mangrove swamps, whose people enjoy high subsidies and pay no taxes, Brunei is highly dependent on imports. Despite its immense wealth, most of the country outside the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, remains undeveloped and unexploited.

Queen Mother Earth is alive and well in Brunei Darussalam. This is always good news to Common Ground 191, as we pay homage to Her in our art project, and to the unity that the platform of Her being provides for all human beings of whatever social strata residing upon that surface.

Borneo has long fascinated biologists. Charles Darwin described the island as “one great wild untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself.” The Heart of Borneo is a forested highland region, which covers 30% of the island, and is home to creatures such as the orangutan, clouded leopard, sun bear, Borneo pygmy elephant and proboscis monkey.

A WWF (World Wildlife Fund, now World Wide Fund for Nature) expedition between July 2005 and September 2007 added another 52 species discovered in Borneo, including three new trees. Also found was a previously unknown type of snake which can change its color spontaneously like a chameleon. When picked up and put in a bucket, it was reddish-brown but later changed its color to white. The biologists named the serpent, two specimens of which were recovered, the Kapuas Mud Snake, after the river that flows through the region. They said that although some reptiles with legs had the ability to change color, it was rare for snakes. With around 15,000 plant species, Borneo is the most botanically diverse region on the planet. The UK by comparison is home to 1,623 species. “The rate of discovery is about four new species a month for 10 years,” said Stuart Chapman, the international coordinator of WWF’s Heart of Borneo program. (Photography: David Kirkland)

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First contact with Shova Thapa of the U.S. Embassy and the collector in Brunei, was made in July of 2006. The soil was received here in Laguna Beach, California in December so, much as the processes of the earth itself, the unfolding of our project is often slow and progress invisible.

Shova and her associate, a so-far unnamed person from the Brunei History Museum, picked up this soil collection in a town called Seria, Brunei Darussalam. “This small town is also known as the birthplace of the nation’s wealth and home of the oil industry, affectionately known as Brunei’s economic heartland . . . the Seria oilfields are a famous landmark. The Billionth Barrel Monument stands near the site of the very first oil well dug at Seria.” Below are her photos.

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Yellow with two diagonal bands: white (top band, double-width) and black (starting from the upper hoist side). The national emblem is superimposed in red at the flag's centre. The emblem includes the following components:

Swallow-tailed flag, representing Royalty

The Royal umbrella

Winged column, symbolizing the protection of justice, tranquility, prosperity and peace

Two upraised hands, signifying the Government's pledge to promote welfare, peace and prosperity

An upturned crescent, symbol of Islam, the national religion of Brunei

Embodied within the crescent in yellow Arabic script is the nation's motto, which can be roughly translated: Always in Service by God's Guidance

A scroll beneath the crest with Arabic script reading "Brunei Darussalam" or "Brunei, the Abode of Peace"

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An education officer from Brunei, Zul Fakhari Muksin aka ZulF is the 25-year-old winner of the first ever music competition in Brunei Paspot to Fame (P2F) in October 2000. His group is known as Pneumatic Soulz and they are responsible for the new audience for Brunei artists in his country, formerly fans of Malay musicians only. In much of the world, musical fame is a revered form of royalty.

Here a bride and groom, always momentary figures of aristocracy, get their feet washed as part of their wedding ceremony in Brunei.

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When people think of royalty, they think of sultans, kings, queens, princes and of late divas and celebrities of all stripes. Politicians and the very wealthy take on the trappings of royalty, surrounding themselves with secret service men and armed guards, riding in their sleek black automobiles. These are actions and images of human beings.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this (England/Brunei?),
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home . . .
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world . . .
                                                          (William Shakespeare)

Some people believe that real royalty is “this earth of majesty”, the foundation of all the dreams of mankind, Mother Earth, provider of the soil of Brunei, now part of the Common Ground 191 collection. Thank you, Shova. The word for peace in Brunei is Aman sejahtera.

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