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 Continue reading