Southeast Asia’s only absolute ruler is gradually imposing a tough new Islamic penal code, but what are the real motivations behind it? wonders Chris Pritchard.
From the air at night, Brunei’s compact capital is one of Asia’s most magnificent sights. Gigantic mosques, palaces and other key buildings bathe in a multi-coloured glow, accentuated by thousands of twinkling bulbs. Visitors’ magic carpet rides above this Islamic wonderland showcase oil-rich Bandar Seri Begawan at its most alluring.
There’s grand-looking Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and its moat-like lagoon with a concrete replica of a 500-year-old royal barge; Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, built in 1992 by the present Sultan; the Royal Regalia Museum, housing easy-to-understand insights into this unusual monarchy; and sprawling Brunei Museum.
Sadly, this gaudy welcome is misleading.
Despite outward confidence and genuine hospitality, self-doubt becomes evident soon after aircraft land. Bruneians, benefiting from petrochemical wealth, seem happy. But those in charge worry that contentment is wearing thin in a changed world where globalisation makes isolation impossible.
Brunei surprised the world with the unexpected three-stage introduction of tough new laws based on Islamic sharia concepts. The first stage, already applying, is for less serious offences such as having babies out of wedlock or proselytising on behalf of non-Islamic faiths. The second phase moves things up a notch while the third, to be enforced sometime this year, will allow stoning for adultery, abortion and homosexuality, along with amputation for theft and lashing for various offences.
‘Sharia is not for fun but to obey Allah’s commands,’ explains the Sultan.
Cynics argue that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s sudden demonstration of Muslim devotion is driven by a desire to dump a playboy image that is inappropriate for a 69 year-old. Southeast Asia’s only absolute ruler (one of the world’s richest men, with family wealth estimated at an incredible US$20 billion) inadvertently reminds us that no-one can choose his or her family.
The Sultan’s unsavoury reputation has been reinforced by ostentatious, some say vulgar, displays of wealth by family members. Particularly singled out is the Sultan’s younger brother, Prince Jefri, 61, a former finance minister who became globally notorious because of his passion for fast women, high-speed cars, jewel-encrusted watches and all manner of high-priced luxury goods.
Prince Jefri, stripped of important positions, departed Brunei in disgrace 17 years ago. His extravagant lifestyle became too much even for the Sultan, who disliked guilt by association tarnishing him with his brother’s philanderer image. Now based in Paris, Prince Jefri is still super-wealthy, reportedly making occasional trips back to Brunei, where he is tolerated so long as he maintains an ultra-low profile.
An Australian think-tank, the Lowy Institute for International Policy, identifies two other reasons for the Sultan’s sudden enthusiasm for sharia. First, reframed laws give authorities greater ability to tackle ‘internal strife’, whether political or criminal, and to target a new class of bored, unemployed young malcontents.
Second, redrafted legislation aims to attract greater investment from Islamic economies, speeding diversification and boosting Brunei’s hopes of becoming an Asian hub for Islamic banking and finance
Brunei’s wealth relies almost entirely on oil and gas. Nocturnal reminders are twinkling lights from offshore oil-drilling rigs, strung along a 161-km South China Sea coastline like a sparkling necklace. Officials worry about wealth after oil runs out, estimated to be in the 2040s. Middle Eastern petro-kingdoms’ diversification policies are closely studied. The government increasingly emphasises long-neglected tourism (highlighting Borneo’s jungle) and manufacturing. Most of all, it wants to attract Islamic investment in banking, finance and services. But creating an ‘Islamic Singapore’ requires erasing ugly images of moral turpitude.
Shoulder-shrugging non-reaction to Brunei’s sharia announcement from Islamic neighbours surprised some commentators. But Indonesia and Malaysia would not interfere in another nation’s internal affairs, and officials there noted that Brunei is Islamic, so Islamic law should not be unexpected.
A resounding silence also came from inside the 5770 sq km nation. Those of its 420,000 people (about 67 per cent Sunni Muslims) who work are mostly on the government payroll or are employed by state-controlled entities, and government employees are well looked after.
Roughly 13 per cent of the population is Buddhist (mostly an influential Chinese minority), ten per cent Christian and the rest Hindu, ‘other’ or atheist. Christians include many of the six per cent of the population belonging to Borneo’s indigenous tribes and most of a large contracted expatriate population. Brunei, sharing the island of Borneo with Indonesia and two Malaysian states, allows freedom of religion but Islam is the official faith. Alcohol is banned.
Brunei’s pampered citizens are sometimes said to live in a ‘shellfare state’. Pay rates are high, no income tax is levied and the government picks up health, education and welfare tabs. What’s more, home and car loans are cheap, as is fuel. Understandably, some residents describe Brunei as an Asian paradise—thanks to oil. Homes, often unimpressive externally, usually contain the latest electronic gadgetry: large plasma TVs, powerful computers, the latest mobile phones.
One suburb where most people work for the government is Kampong Ayer, built on stilts and itself a tourist attraction. Its 40,000 residents commute by three-minute water taxi rides on the Brunei River to ‘Bandar’. Over-water boardwalks run like pavements between houses. At several, a visitor is invited in for cool drinks. People interviewed say outsiders should not be surprised by adoption of Islamic law: ‘We’re a Muslim country. What do people expect?’
The Sultan is widely revered and often spotted riding a horse on Sundays in the grounds of the showpiece Empire Hotel and Country Club (with an 18-hole golf course and often called Asia’s most opulent resort). But he has recently been accused of penny-pinching; his theme park now charges, upsetting Bruneians with well-developed senses of entitlement. They complain of poor maintenance as well as rusting and non-functioning rides. Then there are suggestions that government-owned Royal Brunei Airlines, famed for low prices, could do with an injection of cash to buy newer aircraft.
After all, the Sultan is mind-bogglingly rich. He lives in the world’s biggest palace, the 1788-room Istana Nurul Iman, four times the size of Buckingham Palace with space for some of his astonishing collection of 7000 luxury cars.
When Prince Jefri lived the high life, beautiful women (‘his harem,’ claimed breathless tabloids) were flown in from Europe to entertain the elite. They were richly rewarded with jewels and cash.
Brunei’s worldwide foreign investments (controlled by the polo-playing Sultan) embrace commercial and residential buildings as well as blue-chip companies. Properties include some of the world’s most famous hotels such as London’s Dorchester, Paris’s Plaza Athénée, New York’s Plaza and the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Hollywood stars protested at the latter when sharia law was announced, because of anti-homosexual aspects, but a boycott quickly withered with celebrities drifting back.
Some commentators argue that although sharia penalties may be law, they won’t necessarily be imposed. For instance, the death penalty is part of the pre-sharia penal system but no-one has been hanged for more than half a century, fewer than in Malaysia or Singapore. Caning is allowed but only 41 people were whipped in 2013 (the latest year for which statistics are available) for a mix of violent and non-violent (including overstaying work visas) offences.
One United States newspaper suggested—perhaps tongue-in-cheek—that Prince Jefri be tried in a sharia court for adultery.
While it’s certainly true that Brunei has moved closer to its Islamic roots, the question remains whether this shift was motivated by politics, religion or economics. Observers often see the last-mentioned as critical. But only the Sultan and his inner circle know for sure—and they aren’t saying.