Which Country is Better – Singapore or Brunei?

free essayAmong British colonies, Brunei and Singapore are the most interesting because of two reasons. Many outstanding researchers, such as Hunt, Saunders, Yew, and McBeth wrote about British colonies and were fascinated by two aspects. First is the approach of the British government to forming their inner colonial policy and the opposition of local citizens executed by their representatives (the Sultan and political parties). Second is the resources that defined not only the role of Britain itself, but also that of Brunei and Singapore as of the countries with the successful economy progress in the world.

Brunei-British Empire Relationship

Brunei was one of the principalities that was founded and moved to the northern part of the Kalimantan Island by ethnic Malaysians who introduced the highly developed features of their historical homeland. In the 15th century, it strengthened Islam. Simultaneously, the dynasty of the Sultans of Brunei seemed to seize power, which constantly supported its authority until nowadays. Dr. Graham Saunders provides a deep analysis of Brunei in retrospect in reation to other countries. In her book A History of Brunei (2002), Graham says  that  in Brunei the importance was “attached to the armed forces, which received about a quarter of the budget, the maintenance of ties with Britain, and the agreement to station a battalion of Gurkha troops on the oilfield” (p. 34).

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In 1571, during his conquest of the Philippines, the Spanish king was willing to see Brunei as “one of his allies” (Andoscia, 2014, n.p.). However, it did not come to pass because of the interference in the internecine struggle in the Sultanate. European colonization of the region reduced trade income of Brunei and significantly diminished its importance of a major commercial center of Southeast Asia. The Brunei rulers struggled to compensate for their losses by patronizing pirates, who actively committed robbery along the coast of Borneo.

At the beginning of 19th century, Brunei and the UK signed a trade agreement, but it did not make any impact on the transformation of this area into colony. Nevertheless, the country suffered serious crisis, its population dramatically reduced. In 1846, the British attempted to capture the western part of Brunei – Sarawak. In 1863, Sarawak has been recognized by the United Kingdom as “an independent state”, headed by an English governor Brook (Andoscia, 2014, n. p.). Gradually, Sarawak connected new territories that Britain occupied by trade. Presently, the British established control over the North-Eastern part of Brunei, Sabah; and Brunei reduced in size to a tiny state of education. In 1885, the Anglo-Spanish agreement was signed, and since then, the United Kingdom recognized Spain’s rights to the Sulu Island. In turn, Spain gave up its claim to Sabah. Hence, since 1891, an official border between Sabah and the Dutch part of Kalimantan was established. However, Britain was not the only country trying to establish its dominance in Brunei. Since the middle of the 19th century, the United States entered into another trade agreement with Brunei.

However, the indigenous peoples, especially Dayaks, tried to resist the colonial governance; therefore, they provoked a major uprising during the first half of the 90s. In response, the colonial authorities took extreme measures to suppress them. Simultaneously, they tried to provoke conflicts between the Malaysians and the Dayaks. This scenario was used on the territory of Sabah as well.

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Singapore as the British Colony

Although British government at first considered Singapore only a trading post for delivery of British goods to China, it quickly proved to have more advantages. British merchants occupied a dominant position around the area together with the royal political influence on the Malaysian Peninsula. The importance of this area for the British crown can be illustrated with the example of Malaysian port being built as a “commercial branch of the East-Indian company”, which, in fact, “had no equal competitors before” (Yew, 2014, p. 16). Even the Netherlands’ government, whose marine industry shows strong leadership, signed the agreement with Britain, surrendering the Malaysian peninsula and gaining the island of Sumatra in return. This was important for companies who “looked for a cheap and geographically convenient source of oil” (McBeth, 2013, p. 149).

The income from investments increased educational opportunities in Singapore: many teachers from England moved to the exotic place intending to educate specialists locally. It saved time for factory modernization because the workers were qualified to work with machinery. It was especially necessary when British government was working on engineering communications while teaching local citizens to not only produce, but consume the final product. Hence, under the British protection, Singapore found opportunity to develop economically as a land of new investments.

Singapore merged with the island of Penang and Malacca urban agglomeration in a single British colony in 1826, and was recognized as the capital in 1832. The Straits Settlements received the status of a crown colony, and the British ministry gained control. The government made large “investments in local communication infrastructure”: the overpass across the Johor Strait (linking the island to the mainland), the railway through the Malacca to Bangkok, and other. (Yew, 2014, p. 51). Consequently, Singapore became one of the major economy centers in entire Asia.

Brunei and Singapore: Political and Economic Comparison of the Two Colonies

Although British invasion had some drawbacks of its impact on the colony’s life and economy (human trade, slavery, and other.), it produced the positive changes fro the local citizens as well. Tristram Hunt initiated a discussion about the parts of the British Empire and their roles. In his book Cities of Empire (2014), he applies the term “transnational empires” while objectively speaking about the influence of Britain on the development of its colonies (p. 26) and agreeing with Dr. Saunders (2002) about “special relationship” of Brunei and Singapore (p. 34). Perhaps, numerous similarities that exist between two colonies explain these particular relations.

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First of all, the development of British colonialism both in Brunei and Singapore resulted in investments attraction and economic advancement. In Brunei, the British capital owners began actively participating in the local economical processes, in particular on the territory of Sabah, from which they exported ivory, gutta-percha, camphor, and other products. In the middle of the 80s of the 19th century, the British entrepreneurs began harvesting, which soon became the main export goods sent to China and Australia. In the end of the 19th century, they started mining ore, created tobacco and rubber plantations. The influx of Chinese immigrants increased, and they became engaged in commerce and trade and started working on the plantations and in mines. In addition, Brunei had high oil and natural gas revenues, thus, the country had one of the highest incomes per capita.

The economic development of Singapore was comparably less gradual than in Brunei due to the policy of Brunei’s local elites that did not give their power quickly. The British Empire turned Singapore into marine industry. Authorities declared Singapore a free seaport, which contributed to its rapid development and benefited Britain. Considering the fact that India was a satellite of Britain, the Singapore ports guaranteed its ability to control the East Asian trade and migration flows. Similarly to Brunei, Britain controlled the export of oil. McBeth (2013) wrote about the British oil policy: “By 1923, Britain’s consumption of petrol, fuel and gas oil had increased enormously since pre-war days” (p. 88). Obviously, the British Empire positively affected the economy of both colonies even though everything was done to their own benefit.

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Brunei and Singapore had (and still have) high oil and natural gas revenues providing the countries with the highest income per capita even though they were political colonies. The Sultan of Brunei provided his people with exemption from income tax, free medical care and education. At first, medical care in Singapore was well-developed due to the British policy, but thereafter due to the internal measures of Sultan. Nevertheless, these common measures (except different tax percentage policy) created greater opportunities for Brunei and Singapore on the international arena and made the areas attractive for investments.

Moreover, both colonies were similar in their striving to gain independence by maintaining their own political parties and strengthening local leadership that would drive rid them of invaders. However, in 1951 in Brunei, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin acceded to the throne; he was more liberal than his predecessors. Being dependent, he sought to obtain Britain’s permission to expand his own power. Brunei was declared a Malaysian Islamic Democracy, which is divided into four administrative districts. As for Singapore, in February 1942, after a fierce month-long siege, its strongest fortress was surrendered by the Japanese troops (Library of Congress, n. d., n. p.). During the Japanese occupation, the situation there was extremely complicated because of mass arrests, tortures, and executions. The Japanese renamed the city Seanan and made the island a place for prisoners of war. People could not forgive British government for surrendering Singapore to Japan so easily; hence, the authority of the United Kingdom has been significantly eroded. Singaporeans have firmly decided to rid themselves of any influence, and consequently, in 1948 British government had to permit the first elections to the Legislative Assembly (Library of Congress, n. d., n. p.). In fact, this acted as a catalyst for gaining independence in political aspect by local people, and the policy of economy provided preconditions for the total modernization of the country.

In addition, British colonization influenced the political area and led to popularization of the national parties in both Brunei and Singapore. The anti-colonial tendencies of 50s and 60s forced British invaders to pay similar attention to the requirements of two colonies’ representatives. Hence, British authorities made concessions, and the status of Brunei’s local elites improved in the spheres of economy and social management. In Singapore, the two nationalistic parties with different levels of radicalization participated in social life, and the elite of Brunei were more persistent and better organized. For example, at the end of 1940s, Singapore did not have a clear political program like Brunei did. The program displayed strong influence of the Indonesian leadership of the Sukarno era and included such requirements as liquidation of the British Protectorate, establishment of the constitutional monarchy, democratization of political life, and closer partnership with Sarawak and Sabah (including the formation of the federation). In Singapore, the necessity to create a similar program (except for the part about governmental structure and legal issues) appeared much later – in 1960s. However, this time Brunei demonstrated less political activity mainly because of the traditional obedience to Sultan and economic growth during this period.

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Finally, both countries are still under the influence of British government, and it is obvious on the international level. After the two greatest wars, the British Empire naturally lost its colonies since it was too hard to keep independent people enslaved. Besides, investments and natural resources allowed local governments to be more confident, and despite Britain’s maintained political influence, some measures taken by the local elite eliminated further decline in economy. However, strong ties still exist between the countries. Simon Richmond and Damian Harper (2007) state that “westernization and the peace of modern life are changing the cultures of the region, but traditional customs and religious values remain strong” (p. 47). Nevertheless, legal, political, and economic models borrowed from Britain allowed Brunei and Singapore to learn the most efficient ways of exploitation of the precious natural resources.


Works of the outstanding scientists and personal analysis allowed to form own vision of the role of Britain in the development of its colonies. Brunei and Singapore were valuable being the trade points, gas and oil areas, and the human resource. However, mutual benefit from being a part of the British Empire was gained because of large investment revenues that helped the countries to construct a successful economical model. Due to the efforts of the local political and social sectors, the colonies gained political independence; however, Britain will still play an important role in their lives.

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