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Brunei or Bust

05.13.2004 | TRAVEL

Quick, name the wealthiest Islamic country in the world. Saudi Arabia, you say? Wrong. Kuwait? Guess again. In terms of standard of living, the Sultanate of Brunei is the leader among Muslim countries.

Located in a remote corner of the island of Borneo and cut in two by a sliver of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, Brunei has been blessed with huge reserves of oil and natural gas. This wealth has made the Sultan of Brunei one of the world's richest men. Tales of extravagance from the royal family are the stuff of legend. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah hired Michael Jackson to perform at his 50th birthday party and Whitney Houston provided entertainment at his daughter's wedding (the same daughter who received a private jet for her 18th birthday). Italian sports cars, polo and rumors of harems around the world gave rise to a legendary profligacy that would make even a Saudi prince blush. Things came to a head, however, when the Sultan's younger brother, Prince Jefri, put the country's finances in serious jeopardy through his outlandish spending and ill-advised investments. Some estimate that Prince Jefri cost the country over $7 billion; as one person in Brunei put it to me, the prince has since been "grounded."

The Sultan has been generous to his subjects as well. You're not likely to find another monarch who has provided his people with an amusement park such as Jerudong Park, which has been described as a "cross between an Arabian Night's fantasy and Disneyland," free of charge. Furthermore, the people of Brunei pay no income tax, receive free health care and education, subsidized housing, and generous pensions for the elderly.

All of which could explain the utter docility of Brunei's people. Considering both its reputation for a more conservative interpretation of Islam than its neighbors--Malaysia and Indonesia--and its fabled wealth, I wondered if I would find in Brunei a hotbed of fundamentalist sympathies and a potential source of funding of extremist causes. What I found were people who spoke with deference of their monarch, who avoided just about any talk of politics, and who continuously stressed the peace of their country, Brunei Darussalam, or "abode of peace."

In the country's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, I visited the town's main mosque, Masjid Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin. The mosque was built in 1959 by the current Sultan's father of granite imported from Hong Kong, tiled with marble from Italy; its prayer rugs came from Iran and its chandeliers from England.

Everyone I encountered in Brunei was extremely friendly. My water taxi driver gave me a big thumbs-up sign when I told him the country of my birth as we raced around the traditional houses on stilts that comprise the water village Kampung Ayer. A naturalist told me fondly of his visit to California as he guided me through mangrove swamps in search of one of Borneo's treasures, the Proboscis Monkey, an endangered monkey that is the world's largest and found only on Borneo.

But though everyone I spoke to was keen to stress the stability and peace of Brunei, the situation is bit more complicated than that. Dissent is not tolerated in the Sultanate and constitutional freedoms have been suspended since the Brunei Revolt of 1962.

As is so common in history, a tiny country was caught between two much larger countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. When Brunei moved towards joining the Malaysian Federation under the guidance of its British protectors, the strongman of Indonesia, Sukarno--who had dreamed of making Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei a part of a "Greater Indonesia"--cried foul and mobilized elements of the army based in the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, also on the island of Borneo. He took advantage of the Sultan's hesitancy to join the federation and sent his troops in to stir up unrest. The Sultan appealed for British help and British and Gurkha troops were mobilized from Malaysia and Singapore by air and sea to help stifle the unrest. During the violence, the Sultan suspended rights from the British-authored constitution and soon after finally opted to stay out of the Malaysian federation with guarantees of British protection in place to mollify his concerns about his rapacious neighbors, a security arrangement which still stands today.

Brunei finally became officially independent in 1984. Shortly before my visit, the Sultanate celebrated its twentieth year of independence. "All citizens of the world seek peace, of which we possess now," Sultan Bolkaih boasted to his subjects. But when I asked Abu Sufian Ali of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs why the country is still in the state of emergency declared during the Brunei Revolt, he just grinned embarrassedly and said, "The most important thing is to live in a peaceful environment." I asked him what Brunei has done to prepare the country for the possibility that oil and gas reserves will eventually run out and he told me that "experts" have been predicting these sources would run out for twenty years but "it is still down there." When pressed, he said, "We have an agency that invests abroad" to ensure the financial well-being of the country. The agency invests in "hotels, investment funds and bonds," but there was no way for me, or citizens of Brunei for that matter, to find out about this agency's specific assets or what is done with the profits.

When I met with the Haji Bujang Haji Masu'ut Director of the Information Department of the Prime Minister's office, he seemed to willing to do just about anything for me aside from give me information about the government. He ignored or deflected my questions about the government altogether, instead inquiring about my hotel. So persistent was he in automatically turning my questions about political affairs to questions of my accommodation, that I realized that despite his solicitous manner he was unhappy that a journalist had come to the country without formally registering with his office, a step I had never heard of but one which he suggested was routine.

While this tiny country is certainly peaceful, it is also a somnolent place where nightlife consists of hanging out in front of the KFC or playing video games at home, it comes at an Orwellian cost. Last month the country jailed without trial two retired military and police intelligence officers for leaking government secrets. The supposed state secrets were posted at, but were quickly edited to remove the offending secrets. Only wordy complaints of bureaucracy and corruption remained.

The government does not tolerate criticism of Islam or the Monarchy, so it was of little surprise to followers of the country's affairs when the memorandum released by the Internal Security Department claimed that the accused took part in actions "which were of a subversive nature and are detrimental to the country's stability and security."

There would certainly be no protests rocking the streets of Bandar Seri Begawan. But Mr. Ali did hint that his government had new thoughts on democracy. Perhaps he felt bad about ducking my questions politics when he suggested an evening tour of the capital in his car. As we passed the magnificently lit up mosques around the capital, he told me of the government's interest in the political systems of Malaysia and Singapore. He asked me my opinions on the governments of those countries and told me that Ministry of Foreign Affairs was studying their models, often called "benevolent dictatorships" or "managed democracies", with an eye towards greater civil liberties for Brunei in the future. It was hard to tell if he was trying to distract me from his evasive answers to my awkward questions. But with a robust election season underway in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, he was right in noting, "In this globalized world we can't avoid looking at these questions."

About the Author
Jeremy Hurewitz is an analyst with Project Syndicate, a global association of newspapers based in Prague, Czech Republic.
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