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After a successful 2013 chairing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah announced in late October that a wider-ranging sharia penal system would come into force in Brunei, one of three Muslim-majority countries in southeast Asia, by April 2014.
Brunei’s brand of social Islam has typically been more restrictive than in Malaysia or Indonesia. The new broadening of the Sultanate’s Islamic laws – which are currently mostly aimed at family matters – will allow faith-defined corporal punishments such as amputations for theft and stoning for adultery.
The Sultan has ruled since 1967 and has seemingly become more devout as he gets older, with sharia-infused exhortations peppering his public speeches. “The new dictates appear to be emanating from the Ministry of Religious Affairs led by Minister Dr. Haji Muhammad bin Pengiran Haji Abdul Rahman,” said the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies, reviewing the hudud move.
While the announcement drew the predictable ire of human rights groups, it is difficult to gauge how it has been received among Bruneians – almost 70 per cent of whom are Muslim – given the country’s tame and hamstrung press, curbs on the holding of public protests, and the absence of elections since 1962.
“It hopes to address the many ills/crimes present in society, and at the same time seeks to give justice to victims,” said one letter-writer, named “Fairness,” in an October 29 submission to The Brunei Times.
The timing of the announcement came shortly after Brunei hosted the ASEAN and related summits in October, and seemed to have been held off until the world’s media attention was elsewhere.
Save for the no-show by U.S. President Barack Obama, snared by domestic political troubles, the summits were a success for the host, ensuring no repeat of the 2012 fracas when then-chair Cambodia openly sided with China over ASEAN member-states The Philippines and Vietnam over the disputed South China Sea.
While rancour continues over the South China Sea, Brunei’s ASEAN chairmanship saw some diplomatic success, with pre-summit shuttling by Sultan Bolkiah paying off, in the short term at least, with China agreeing at a July meeting of foreign ministers to start consultations with ASEAN on a binding Code of Conduct over the Sea, to which Brunei has claims as well.
The Sultan is currently trying to diversify the country’s oil and gas dependent economy, which accounts for around 60 per cent of GDP and more than 90 per cent of exports. Brunei’s near US$17 billion economy means that it’s citizens have the second-highest per head income, after Singapore, in southeast Asia, a relative well-to-do-ness buttressed by free healthcare and education and subsidies of all sorts for Bruneians.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in June that it expects the Brunei economy to grow over 5 per cent over the coming half-decade, with new petrochemical and refinery projects starting.
And though the country has fiscal reserves in place to maintain living standards in the event of any global fall-off in energy demand or slump in oil and gas prices, the oil reserves could run out in two decades, meaning that Brunei needs to diversify its economy in the coming years.
To that end, Brunei is one of twelve countries negotiating the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)) trade deal, while the Sultan announced the establishment of a Brunei Research Council (BRC) aimed “to encourage both public and private research and development (R&D) in areas such as energy, environment, food security, healthcare and health services, as well as ICT, so as to ensure the nation’s long-term competitiveness.”
Brunei wants to attract more tourists, focusing on beaches and jungles, but that potential might be curbed by ongoing restrictions on alcohol and de facto curbs on buying cigarettes in what is a notably sedate country with few social outlets.
But that same sharia bedrock, that will likely put off the armpit army of unkempt backpackers seen traipsing through neighbouring countries, could in turn pull in other visitors.
“Sharia tourism” is a growing niche market that Brunei, like Malaysia and Indonesia, is trying to capture, while the country’s jungles are being looked at as sources for halal medical treatments, as part of the Sultan’s R&D and investment sweep. With an Islamic twist, of course.
– Roughneen was in Brunei for the October 2013 ASEAN and related summitsShow