Brunei is a custom laundered, crisply folded table linen of a country on an island where people eat with their hands. Every one of the 30-some thousand people in the capital practices flawless good manners, perhaps because they have nothing else to do.
The capital of this tiny country on Borneo’s north shore is Bandar Seri Bagawan, named after the ruler’s father. It is sauna hot, breathlessly dull, buggy, swampy, stultifying and untiringly friendly. It basks in the wealth of crude oil and natural gas, which account for 90% of its GDP.
Brunei ranks fifth in the world in per capita GDP, one notch ahead of the United States. Medical care and education are free. Most people work six hours a day, gas costs a dollar a gallon and there are no taxes. The capital’s Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque is magnificent.
Since the global oil trade began Brunei has reaped its benefits. Yet now Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, educated in Malaysia and at Sandhurst in the U.K., has come to fear globalization. Now His Majesty, who is also Prime Minister, wants a “strong and effective firewall” to protect his subjects from the rest of the world.
“Allah the Almighty, in all his generosity, has created laws for us, so that we can utilize them to obtain justice,” he says.
This month Brunei becomes the first Southeast Asian state to implement Sharia law as national policy. It is a banner Brunei hoists alongside Mauritania, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Maldives, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, among a few others.
Some of the Sultan’s subjects are wary. One wrote online: “It is truly frightening to think that we might potentially be stoned to death for being lovers, that we may be fined for being of a different sexual orientation, and that what we wear will be regulated.”
That’s the kind of insubordination that will drive a Sultan nuts.
His subjects can’t criticize the Sultan, but he can threaten their body parts off. Criticisms, His Majesty scolded, “are no doubt categorised as offences under the General Offences (of the law). They can no longer be given the liberty to continue with their mockery and if there is a basis for them to be brought to court, then therefore, the first phase of the Syariah (criminal) law this coming April will be relevant to them.”
Sounds like he’s coming to get them. And maybe non-Muslims, too.
At first Brunei’s religious establishment took pains to reassure non-Muslims. “They can continue to practise their own religions. There is no compulsion in Islam. Their religions and cultures are protected,” a religious figure said last October.
About a third of Brunei is non-Muslim, and now, six months later, that community is not so sure:
“Brunei hosts 30,000 Filipinos, most of whom are Catholics, and to whom baptisms may be out of reach in two years’ time. There will be no baptisms. There is not a lot we can do about it. We will have to wait and see what happens,” a worried Father Robert Leong, a Catholic priest in Brunei, told The Independent.
What is the Sultan thinking?
Brunei is already safe. It ranks near the bottom on the whole range of world crime statistics. The Sultan rules an entirely agreeable land and none of his subjects clamor for protection from the outside world. Unless, perhaps, it’s protection from Sharia.
Thing is, the Sultan hasn’t much stirred the Islamic pot in his previous 45 years of rule. After a life sometimes oriented more toward the secular than the spiritual, he is a curious standard bearer for Allah.
The Sultan has had three wives, though that is not so unusual for Muslim royalty. He is still married to his first wife. His second and third wives were a stewardess and a TV personality.
He lives in the world’s largest private residence, with some 1,800 rooms. Ceausescu’s Palace in Bucharest had some 1,100. In 1997, when he turned 50, the Sultan threw a $17 million birthday party at which Michael Jackson performed three concerts. He owns thousands of luxury cars including a 24 carat gold-plated Rolls-Royce.
A former Miss USA and others alleged in a 1997 lawsuit that they were held as “sex slaves” at the Sultan’s palace and were “intimidated and coerced into performing physically and morally repulsive acts of prostitution.”
In fairness, this appears to have been more about the Sultan’s brother Prince Jefri, who was also accused of keeping a harem of as many as forty women, embezzling $14.8 billion in state funds, and once had a yacht named “Tits.”
We meant to arrive in Brunei via the Labuan ferry. We watched it load up outside our hotel window in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah province, Malaysia. But it turned out no visas were issued at the ferry terminal, so we had to fly instead.
Royal Brunei blessed the flight with a video while tropical cumulus made like popcorn, rising into the sky at 9:00 in the morning. We skipped along the north Bornean littoral for scarcely twenty minutes.
A few minutes after takeoff, the captain announced, “Approximately a few minutes from now we begin our descent.” The customs man asked, so I confided that I had only the most wee tiny Galah brand whiskey bottle, bought in Kota Kinabalu because I expected I couldn’t get any here. He was just fine with that, didn’t need to inspect my stash, couldn’t have been more solicitous and I could have had gallons in my bag.
Over at the Sheraton the talk at the front desk was “Fire at the KFC!” and thinking back, that kind of summed up Brunei right there – all local news, no wider world, with the Sultan and his team quietly pocketing the country’s cash.
Countries like Brunei operate below international intervention radar. Paul Kagame may chase his foes abroad and kill them. Kim Young Un may have fed his uncle to starving dogs. It may be true but their lands are just too small, odd and far away for the big guys to intervene.
I knew the mini-bar would be alcohol free. I called down anyway to order a beer and got an embarrassed, “Sorry sir, only at the border.” The hospitality industry played the alcohol question by staying oblique. Here’s a letter from Boyd Williams, the General Manager of the Sheraton, a business hotel hosting hard-drinking oil men from Shell:
“Announcing a new service in the Menchanai Room – 6th floor. The Menchanai Room has been modified so as to create a club lounge atmosphere and is now open to all registered hotel guests… The concept is designed to fit within the framework of existing regulations and so you need to be cognisant of the limitations we all face.”
So no hanging in the hotel. Indian dudes in the boutique downstairs played the shady trader role. I asked for a street map and if they could produce some beers and everything went hush-hush, conspiratorial. We became mutual international smugglers.
“I will try, but I cannot guarantee it.” He turned his body away from the reception desk.
They pulled me away from the front desk staff to whisper that if we went to the Terrace Hotel and asked discreetly, sometimes it was possible to be served a beer. All behind the hand, side of the mouth, straight-up guilty stuff.
With a knowing look, they also suggested the Chinese.
I strolled to the center, only a few blocks. The streets were quiet on Friday, the holy day. Every building was a government building: The Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, ministries of this and that and the magnificent Mosque of Omar. It sits apart in its own lagoon. The gold domes bounced sunlight that made me squint.
Past the parliament and toward the waterfront, Chinese and Indian traders scurried about their business. Beer was sometimes discreetly served at the Han Han Restaurant, they said. Today it wasn’t. At least not to me.
Jalan Pretty, Pretty Street, led to the waterfront and a stilt village prim and well kept as everywhere else in the capital. Then an indoor, air-conditioned multi-level shopping mall led right back to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque – and there you had downtown.
Going Buddhist, I circumambulated the mosque clockwise. On the backside, a more forgotten-about side of town, every soul among more run-down stilt houses presented as unfailingly polite – giving a thumbs-up sign as they drove by, or a big smile from a kite-flying teen, or a young fellow maybe seven or eight on a bicycle, drawn to the curiosity of a foreigner. He peddled up for a look – a discreet look – and kept moving, but as I said hello, he replied solidly, “Hello. Welcome to Brunei.” Everybody’s an ambassador.
Back at the Sheraton I cracked the Galah whiskey from Sabah and it was so awful I had one sip, put the bottle down and left it in Brunei. It cost a dollar and tasted like it.
The crowd followed the muzzein’s call back to the Omar mosque.
These days the call to prayer is usually taped – but this was a live sermon, with coughing and unexplained noises that made people around us laugh. It sounded like the lecturer knocked over his lectern. The Bruneian language is Malay but Arabic filled the air, the way the Catholic liturgy is delivered in Latin, and I’m not sure how many people understood it.
Islam’s pageantry flowed serene and beautiful. The holy message wafted over the lagoon largely uncomprehended, the sky faded pink to deep blue, and green neon illuminated the minarets. With the chanting of the sermon, Islam resounded graceful, self-confident and elegant.
Pageantry, though, is but one aspect of Islam.
Until the 2002 Bali bombing few Americans realized Indonesia (which comprises most of Borneo) is the world’s most populous – though not most fervent – Muslim country. Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra is ruled as a special territory, its extra autonomy embracing some Sharia prohibitions.
Malaysia’s population is more than fifty per cent Muslim, and in the long running, low grade conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand, some 5300 have died. Sharia in Brunei furthers at least the perception of the creeping Islamization of Southeast Asia.
Though six are on death row, Brunei has not killed a man since 1957. Now, Sharia means that for adultery, rape and sodomy, His Majesty will impose stoning, which is to say, burying men to their waist or women to their chest and then hitting them with rocks until they are dead.
They say the Sultan intends that limbs be severed for theft. For abortion, alcohol consumption and homosexuality, he shall have people flogged with canes.
The once benevolent Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah wields power absolute and unchecked. He is one of the richest men in the world. Now 67 and Sultan since he was 21, he approaches the end of his reign. In gratitude for a lifetime of luxury, wealth and power bequeathed solely by the random chance of birth, the Sultan’s unsought parting gift to his subjects is the harsh justice of Islam.