Tradition and Innovation: Why Britain and Brunei can both do both

HE Rob Fenn's speech for the Britain Brunei Business Forum's afternoon tea talk on "Tradition and Innovation".

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Rob Fenn

Friends and colleagues from the Britain Brunei Business Forum,

It may seem strange, at first, that I am giving a speech about innovation at a Golf Club. The game of golf is often regarded as a bastion of conservatism. But my thesis is that we need both – tradition and innovation – and that a powerful chemistry can be unleashed when we master both these disciplines. For proof, look no further than the golfing stories of P G Wodehouse. In my humble opinion, they are the funniest stories written in the English language. But we wouldn’t find them funny in the slightest if we did not first know, and hold some respect for, the game of golf and all its traditions. Innovation often amounts to harnessing the creativity which comes from collective effort, channelled by a shared set of rules. What would be the fun of golf, without the rules?

Thank you for coming to hear my Swan Song. I’d like to share with you an optimistic message about innovation in Britain, and innovation in Brunei; why we can both innovate with confidence because we both operate within a culture which respects history and tradition, and seeks to give our children roots as well as wings. Come to think of it, “swan song” is not a bad metaphor for what I’m trying to say today: a bird capable of stretching its wings and soaring high; but a bird which can be contemplative and still, and which we tend to associate with the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

Let’s begin with 2012: our Diamond Jubilee, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games.What a year that was, for the UK and for the British High Commission here in Brunei! I could not have wished for a more powerful demonstration of the special relationship between our countries than the presence of His Majesty the Sultan in the inner circle of reigning monarchs with whom my own Queen chose to celebrate her Sixty Years on the Throne. We are two monarchies, united by tradition.

But 2012 was also a year of extraordinary innovation in the UK: the greenest, most sustainable Olympic Games on record, and the first time a Paralympic Games had taken its rightful place at the top table. Paralympic sport will never be the same again - an example of a tradition, the Olympic tradition, driving social change.

We were innovative here in Brunei too, thanks to the leadership of His Royal Highness Prince Sufri and the National Olympic Committee, the creativity of our friends at the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sports, the personal qualities of Brunei’s own Olympians, and the sense of fun displayed by people across the country.

I have so many “favourite memories”. They include our “Olympic Truce” event with the RBAF at the Berakas Garrison sports complex; our 1948 Olympic Torch run, with JIS, Standard Chartered and Loughborough College; and – of course – the moment Her Royal Highness Princess Masna visited our “Wheelchair Challenge”, where Maziah Mahusin and Awangku Hafiy Tajuddin demonstrated just how hard it was to better the shot-put distance of Brunei’s Paralympian, Shari Hj Juma’at.

I don’t think I have ever been prouder of my country and my profession than at that moment. But you have a chance to innovate again this year, because – in the run-up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games – the Queen’s Baton Relay will be coming to Brunei on 28-29 October. I hope Maziah, Hafiy, Shari and Anderson Lim can all have a part. These four Bruneians prove my point about the power unleashed when Tradition and Innovation go hand-in-hand. They are upstanding citizens; fine Ambassadors for their country and its traditions. But they are also risk-takers, prepared to push the envelope, not satisfied with yesterday’s performance.

The Commonwealth and its Common Law legacy provide other examples of Innovation and Tradition intertwined. Vying for the title of my “all time favourite moment in Brunei” must be this year’s Commonwealth Day. Thanks to the willingness to innovate of Yang Berhormat Pehin Speaker, a figure closely associated with tradition in Brunei, we celebrated Commonwealth Day inside the Legislative Council itself. And we did so with the lively participation of children from Commonwealth countries; because one of the “highest common factors” in the Commonwealth is an instinct to make our institutions accessible to the young.

Rounding off Commonwealth Week, two Eminent Speakers, brought to Brunei by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, delivered public lectures at UBD on two of the great issues of our day: how we can confront and cope with climate change (by innovation, of course); and how to build a great university.

This year is also distinguished by Brunei’s Chairmanship of ASEAN. Meetings in Brunei this week showcased Bandar not merely as the cross-roads of Asia. The presence of the European Union’s High Representative, Baroness Ashton, made Bandar – on Monday and Tuesday – a centre of gravity for the entire world.

So Brunei’s canvas is wide; and that makes it all the more significant that the Brunei government has placed young people at its centre. I admire Brunei’s attempts to make the sometimes remote meetings of regional leaders resonate with the young – just as we tried to do in LegCo on Commonwealth Day. And I’m delighted that the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sports has seized on the potential relevance of the Commonwealth to those efforts, after the Minister attended the Commonwealth Youth Conference in Papua New Guinea.

Brunei is on to something here. The Commonwealth itself combines Tradition and Innovation. It is a product of history which evolved into a fully-networked international organisation before the world had understood the power of social networks. Significantly, now that the world has understood the power of social networks, young Bruneians are leading the way – like the woman who was invited by the Commonwealth Secretariat to deliver a master-class in youth networking in London this year. She is now our Chevening Scholar.

Britain’s combination of Tradition and Innovation is different from Brunei’s. I must emphasise that. I’m drawing parallels between how we do things, not trying to equate what we do. The British economy is more diverse, our population bigger. It takes a bigger rock to make a splash in the UK, while here in Brunei the market is intimate, personal, and necessarily more cautious.

In Britain we have a taste for lampooning our traditions, but almost always in the form of a back-handed compliment. Think of the James Bond pastiche, complete with helicopter stunt, which launched the Olympic Games, and the affectionate roar which greeted the appearance of Her Majesty the Queen, safe and sound, in the Royal Box.

Think too of so much British literature which celebrates, and develops a genre, by looking at it sideways. My boys have introduced me to the new Dr Who. Britain’s favourite time-traveller has become a profitable industry. I’ve been struck by how much mileage they get from playing with stereotypes from British history, as the Dr and his friends zoom backwards and forwards in it. The modern Dr Who is kitsch but somehow patriotic. “Very British”, people say.

To be “very Bruneian” is not the same thing at all. What we share is not the nature of our national brand, but the fact that we have one, and how we can exploit it. The parallel I’m drawing is between the way we use tradition to inspire innovation in the UK, and the way it could be done here.

In the UK, tradition is a given. It is the box we think outside of. You can’t do that without having a box in the first place; something to stand on, while looking up at blue skies. A lot of research done in the UK is not of the problem-solving variety. It is pure – though we often find an application for it later on. Almost all of it is done within a structure of some kind, be it one of our universities, or the discipline of a faculty or profession.

Here in Brunei, tradition is a given too. Your box is different. In fact it is triangular: Malay Islamic Monarchy. But it provides structure in precisely the same way – a platform from which your creative industries can take flight – like my swan.

At the risk of overtaxing my metaphor about boxes and triangles, the British High Commission’s “Digital Scrapbook Competition” for Bruneian students is a box of sorts – not quite a “box office”, but at least a “soapbox” for young Bruneians at British universities. Over the last three years, many talented Bruneians have spread their wings by means of this competition. But as you can see from the films, they have not forgotten their roots, despite having flown so far from home.

In fact, the best films submitted to us were almost all meditations on that theme: how to get the best out of Britain while remaining quintessentially Bruneian. And I like to think that their loyalty to Sultan and country is one of the characteristics which makes Bruneian students so popular with their British peers. We respect, and find an echo of ourselves, in Brunei’s strong sense of its own, very different, personality.

This disproves a charge sometimes levelled at Brunei, that it will struggle to innovate because it is a conservative country. In reality, used creatively – as the UK uses its traditions - all three planks of Brunei’s national philosophy – Malay Islamic Monarchy – can give its people wings. I think of the work done here in Brunei’ by Prince Charles’ School of Traditional Arts. The PSTA specialises in helping countries identify the roots of their traditions, and develop those traditions in market-relevant ways.

I think of Brunei’s status as an early adopter of i-stuff: apps, lifestyles and attitudes; and how this is combining with the national focus on Islam to drive innovation in many sectors, from banking, to teaching materials, to Agro-Tech.

I think of the intense interest shown by British history documentary makers to tell “The Story of Brunei” in film, just as they told “The Story of England” and later “The Story of Britain”, using local kids to bring the archaeology to life.

I think of how the sense of history and continuity which comes with monarchy, has freed Brunei from the short-termism which blights environmental policies in many countries, combining with reverence for the created world to make Brunei a good steward of its natural resources – from rainforest to reef. As many of you know, another candidate for “favourite chapter” in my Brunei story has been my connection with UBD’s Sungei Ingei Expedition in Ulu Belait – supported, I am glad to say – by Standard Charted Bank. I have had equally exciting visits to the Kuala Belalong Field Study Centre, in another part of the Heart of Borneo – supported, I am also glad to say, by HSBC. Two British banks backing Brunei’s bid for a biotech bonanza.

Over time, this and other parts of Brunei’s wholesome brand will make research and development in the field of life-sciences a component of Brunei’s diversified economy. My joy will be complete when Oxford University’s Rapid Botanical Survey is launched in Brunei, hopefully later this year. It will put Brunei’s biodiversity on the map.

So we can see that Britain and Brunei both have a “winning formula” – our steadfast refusal to choose between Tradition and Innovation. Our determination to have both. The last point I want to make this afternoon is how much we stand to gain by pooling our efforts and innovating alongside each other, as natural partners.

We already “speak the same language” – culturally and metaphorically, as I have just discussed, and literally too. Brunei’s consistent approach to the English language as a medium of learning is about to pay off big time. This year’s ASEAN Chair, Brunei Darussalam, is fluent in what will be the common language of the ASEAN Economic Community, come 2015.

Those of you who have seen the film we distributed at our Queen’s Birthday Party, “English as an ASEAN Language: The Brunei Story”, will know how big a story we think this is. The UK / Brunei education partnership has given Brunei the jump on its neighbours, when it comes to reaping benefits from a single market in South East Asia; and the even more ambitious trading system which is taking shape under Brunei’s chairmanship this year: pronounced R-CEP, I believe.

But you don’t have to wait till 2015. British partners are available for Brunei’s researchers and innovators today. We have regular visits from business people and senior academics, most recently from the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Foreign Office at the time of Brunei’s National Environment Conference. Professor Robin Grimes has suggested ways to link UBD’s IBM Blue Gene supercomputer with research groups who use a similar machine in the UK. The British High Commission and Britain Brunei Business Forum are here to match-make.

We are already working closely with Brunei’s Ministries and with BEDB, as symbolised so wonderfully by the new livery of the High Commission’s hybrid vehicle: covered in icons of British innovation, linked to Brunei by a ribbon of roadway which turns first into a fibre optic cable and then into stars over a mosque. The competition which produced that beautiful design we ran with the i-Centre, as a salute to the design community in Brunei.

I’d like to end with two examples from the education field. The first has already started. The second is the thing I would most like to see happen next.

When my boss, William Hague, was here in April last year, he launched with Yang Berhormat Pehin Abu Bakar the BUBA Awards – prizes given by the British Universities’ Brunei Association to Brunei-based Sixth Formers for the best piece of work inspired by research going on at a British university. The BUBA Awards are already a hit. I have thought of a way to make them bigger still. The High Commission had a cash windfall recently, of £10,600, which I have given to BUBA to distribute through their Award scheme. With this money I hope the next set of Bruneian winners will be able to visit the UK, to meet the research teams who inspired their work.

But the greatest legacy I can imagine for my four years work in Brunei would be a British solution to the shortfall - here and throughout the region – in good technical and vocational education and training, TVET. I am convinced that part of the answer lies with your old partner CfBT, and their new partner Highbury College Portsmouth, England’s best performing FE college (or polytechnic, in old money). They have offered support to Politeknic Brunei; or to set up in the private sector here, with investors mustered (who knows?) through our BBBF.

If this happens, Brunei will have killed two birds with one stone. One bird – not my swan – being the ugly one called Youth Unemployment. The other bird is the bottleneck represented by the lack of Bruneian technicians to take the many jobs created by Brunei’s booming energy sector. If that works, and Brunei becomes a successful platform for UK-branded TVET, the Sultanate could become part of the answer to the TVET shortfall suffered by its ASEAN neighbours, adding a whole new sector to its own economy along the way.

And guess why parents across South East Asia would be queuing up to send their darlings to be trained in Brunei? Because Brunei has been true to its traditions, and has a reputation as a safe and wholesome place. That’s why.

Tradition + Innovation (UK style) = knowledge economy and jobs for young Bruneians. Q.E.D.

Thank you.

Published 5 July 2013