14 June 2005

Sultanical Reforms in Brunei?

Macam-macam reports on the latest cabinet reshuffle by the Sultan of Brunei (whose Silver Jubilee mug I proudly possess).

Two of the most striking changes included the appointment of the first non-Muslim ever to the Cabinet:

Lim Jock Seng, an ethnic Chinese, was made foreign minister 2, a post higher than deputy foreign minister, but one step below Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, the sultan's brother.

and the removal of long-time Education Minister Abdul Aziz, reviled as one of the most pro-Muslim and anti-everyone else members of the Sultan's government.

This highlights one problem of nepotism-ridden bureaucracies: You need twice as positions, one to do the real work, the other to enjoy the title and ensure political reliability--or your customer base, in the case of a Chinese community bank I used to work for. Unrelated immigrants from China, Korea, the Philippines, and other states of the U.S. did a lot of the back office technical work, each carrying at least half the weight of a nonproductive relative of the owners who interfaced with the old-time customers. The CEO and principal shareholder, who was reputed to favor unrelated employees, but couldn't bring himself to fire the deadwood, eventually sold the bank in frustration.

The Brunei reshuffle reminds me of a linguistic treatise I read a decade or so ago about the proliferation of "speech levels" in the bureaucratic Malay of the Sultan's palace. Brunei's Palace Malay has a far richer treasury of words used to exalt one's superior and debase oneself than any other Malay dialect. (It almost equals Javanese.) And that vocabulary has expanded just as fast as the Sultan's well-paid bureacracy has expanded during the Sultanate's oil boom. It's as if the U.S. government were to issue guidelines for how a GS-8 is to address a GS-12, and vice versa, and so on up the bureaucratic ranks.

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