15 April 2019

Examining in Brunei

An assassination attempt was made on me in 1997.  Attending the annual luncheon of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in London, I was pulled aside by the CEO who introduced me to a man from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  I was informed that they had “credible evidence” that an attempt would be made on my life during my forthcoming examining tour to India.  I was advised to “think about it” and, if I withdrew from the tour, the Board would understand, although they were anxious to increase their presence in India and this tour was a key part of that strategy. 

It seemed from the threatening letters received that a man with a grudge against the English and their colonial activities in India (a grudge with which I am not unsympathetic especially in this centenary year of the terrible Amritsar Massacre for which the English have, disgracefully, yet to offer a full apology) saw me as a “soft” but legitimate target on the basis that I represented a “Royal” organisation (the Royal name has gone now that the official name has changed to ABRSM).  Since the Indian Nationalist would-be-assassin’s anti-English correspondence was conducted exclusively in English, I rather felt it was a hoax and chose to continue with the tour.

Meetings in the Board’s then headquarters in Bedford Square followed, during which I was given updates on the efforts being made at the Indian end to identify the would-be-assassin, and various diplomatic people and Scotland Yard operatives gave me instructions designed to ensure, as best as possible, my own personal safety.  On arrival in Bangalore, the Board’s representative thrust a bundle of papers in my hand, told me that she wished “to God you hadn’t come” and sent me off to my hotel; we never met again. 
I was assigned a huge Sikh driver/bodyguard who accompanied me throughout the tour, but the intelligence was that the assassination would be carried out in the hill station of Ootacamund, so it was there that the full force of the Indian army and police service took over.  An entire wing of the Holiday Inn was emptied of guests and filled with armed guards and me.  And I was transported to and from the examination centre in a convoy surrounded by armed guards, who were so twitchy I suspected that I was more likely to be shot by one of them than any crazed anti-English Indian nationalist.

On my third day there, news reached me that a car had been stopped a short distance from the hotel and a heavily armed man arrested.  I lived to examine another day (or, to be precise, another 20 years).  The Board refused to prosecute the would-be-assassin, and instructed me not to do so either for fear of undermining confidence in their burgeoning Indian operation.  As an interesting postlude to all this, a decade later I found myself once more in Ootacamund, this time examining for Trinity, and was told that one of my candidates was the daughter of the would-be-assassin. 

The point of all this autobiographical preamble is to point out that, as with any international occupation, there are dangers which those of us who undertake such work recognise and accept.  Sometimes the British Government intervenes and specifically instructs exam boards not to allow its people to travel to certain places, and insurance companies occasionally make certain overseas tours impossible.  Rarely it goes wrong – as in a visit to Sierra Leone when I arrived just in time to catch a military coup, or when a plane-load of colleagues landed up in Kuwait at the same time as invading Iraqis – but we all know the dangers and live with them.  For an examiner, the importance of giving a keen young musician the chance to prove themselves is incentive enough to undergo a whole array of real risks.

So it is a matter of the most extreme concern to me, and to all my former colleagues, that one of the examination boards has cancelled exams in a loyal territory, not because of any risks, but because of pure social and commercial pressures.

When the Sultan of Brunei announced that he was going to impose full Sharia law, the world was outraged.  My feeling is that Sharia Law is primitive, medieval, inhumane and barbaric, but that’s because my cultural heritage ingrains in me a belief in the supremacy of tolerance, justice and common humanity.  It certainly is not for me to criticise a culture simply because it differs from my own, although I am totally at liberty to express my personal feelings, should I so wish, by refusing to visit Brunei or any of its overseas assets.  That, though, would be driven by my own conscience, not by pressure from others.

Trinity College examiners are not allowed the luxury of personal consciences on this matter, however.  Trinity College London has withdrawn its examinations from Brunei at very short notice this year on the grounds that examiners might feel under threat by the exigencies of Sharia Law.  Perhaps the examiners’ profile has changed since my day, and Trinity examiners are now more prone to indulging in public acts of homosexuality, adultery and theft (the issues which have most exercised the collective objections of those in the West), but somehow I doubt it.  Which means that, without any justification from the British Government or their insurers, Trinity have decided to oppose a purely internal Bruneian concern by withdrawing their services.

Candidates, having spent months and weeks preparing, have now had all their hard work negated because of some ridiculously narrow-minded, culturally intolerant and politically-correct imbecile in the Trinity headquarters.  Presumably pressure came from big customers in the UK who, probably unable to identify the Sultanate of Brunei on a map, think that it is peopled by darker skinned English-like people whose natural human rights are being denied them by a despotic government.

22 years ago I felt the commitment we as examiners owed to young musicians was worth putting my life on the line for; it seems that Trinity is more concerned in looking good in the eyes of the cossetted western campaigners than in fulfilling its moral duty to young students. This astonishingly weak action by Trinity College London will surely get everyone who lives in any territory where standards of English governance are not the norm, to ask whether there is any value at all in preparing candidates for Trinity music exams when a bit of public pressure from disinterested sources can lead to those exams being cancelled at a moment's notice.


  1. What a mixed bag of objections. And what’s the real story here ?

    Is it that Trinity used a lame excuse to cancel exams, when actually it was being pressurised by larger UK companies ? Or that Trinity tried to make a statement against Brunei’s introduction of stoning to death for of adulterers and homosexuals, but in so doing disappointed candidates who have prepared for exams ? Or maybe Trinity inconvenienced examiners’ travel plans by taking a stance in support of human rights ? How about the inconsistency that Trinity cancels exams in one territory which introduces Sharia Law, while continuing to carry them out in numerous others with Sharia Law or other death penalties ?

    Is your objection one of logic (that they used a nonsensical excuse), or one of priority (that the conduct of music exams is more important), or race / skin colour (something to do with being darker skinned, or non English-like people, and so denial of human rights doesn’t matter – you are on dodgy ground there ! ).

    I agree with you that if Trinity cancelled its exams "on the grounds that examiners might feel under threat by the exigencies of Sharia Law" then it seems a pretty feeble. Had they come clean and said it was a protest against the latest step of implementing Sharia Law, so as to allow the stoning to death of adulterers and homosexuals, would you have been equally critical ? Are there any countries where you think Trinity should not operate, or would you treat all abuses in other countries as internal matters which should not concern anyone else, least of all musicians ? Here we have the paradox that promoting something beneficial to individuals in a country involves associating with and in some way supporting a system that one may not agree with, and (like sanctions) withdrawing business to put pressure on a government actually also harms the individuals that are already suffering under that government.

    Poor old Trinity. How will they re-start their exams unless Brunei cancels Sharia Law ?

    Perhaps the solution is that thieves, adulterers and gays should be punished by having to take a programme of graded music exams, and Trinity examiners could restore their travel plans to become witnesses to such strange and unnatural forms of torture.

  2. Taking a graded music exam as a punishment? That's a very enticing notion - especially as that is exactly what it is to a great many candidates. But on a more serious note, examiners' travel plans don't come into it - Trinity organizes these and if you don't go somewhere, they will send you somewhere else. No, my objection lies in the complete fabrication of excuses and the total lack of transparency. They examine in countries where Sharia Law has long held sway, and with no qualms. What irks me is that they have not taken a stand here, but rather bowed to pressure from customers in the UK whom they so clearly value above those of Brunei.