JAKARTA – Petroleum-rich Brunei rarely makes the news. Hardly a surprise, given that the Sultanate’s 422,000 population and 5,200 km sq. land area make it one of the world’s smallest countries.
But last year the Abode of Peace was headline material. And it wasn’t because 2014 marked 30 years since independence from the United Kingdom, a timemarker that went unnoticed.
In April, Brunei’s autocratic ruler Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah introduced harsh punishments for infractions of Islamic law. Making adultery and gay sex punishable by jail terms earned the Sultanate a rare, fleeting place in the spotlight.
American TV stars such as Jay Leno and Ellen de Generes backed boycotts of hotels in the U.S. owned by Brunei’s ruling family, in an attempt to get the Sultanate to revise the punishments, which are known as hudud. Editors at Stateside publications fired off emails to correspondents in the region, to ask if any reporters were available in Brunei to get the local take on the Hollywood histrionics.
Last year might end up the thin end of the wedge however, given that the punishments introduced in 2014 included fines and jail terms. Next year the Sultanate make infractions punishable by whipping and amputations.
it’s all part of an increasingly restrictive social and religious regime in the Sultanate, where booze is hard to find and where khalwat – meaning “proximity” between unmarried or unrelated men and women – is banned and punishable by fines or even jail.
67 year old autocrat Hassanal Bolkiah, some of whose family are notorious for what might euphemistically be called high living – including proximity to unrelated women, plural – has added an increasingly Islamicized tone to his pronouncements in recent years.
Seen as unlikely to dilute the punishments, which have been described as Taliban-esque, the Sultan scoffed at Western criticism. “People outside of Brunei should respect us in the same way that we respect them,” he said.
It might be that as Bolkiah nears his eighth decade, he is feeling some soul-tarred remorse for hedonisms of times past. Perhaps he winces at the lurid excesses of his brother and former minister Jefri, who kept a harem and owned a yacht he named ‘Tits.”
Jefri, for his part, might be thankful that crude, adolescent humor is not a flogging offense under hudud.
Others speculate that the punishments are meant as a diversion from the Sultanate’s struggles to diversify what is an energy dependent economy, as commodity prices fall.
Speaking to Xinhua in November, Brunei’s monarch said that the country is courting investment in sectors such as halal food processing, petrochemicals, information and communications technology.
This might be easier said than done. Oil and natural gas production account for 60% of GDP and more than 90% of exports, allowing the Sultan to build a lavish welfare state, part of which includes giving Bruneians cushy civil service jobs backed by free healthcare and education.
But energy exports will halve by 2035, leaving the former British protectorate with much to do if it is to compete with regional rivals for investment.
“Looking ahead, key policy priorities include increasing human capital and generating employment opportunities, particularly for the youth, enhancing financial sector depth, and boosting private sector growth,” the International Monetary Fund reported in July 2014.
More bluntly, the OECD advised the Sultan that “it is urgent to foster the development of other high value-added manufacturing and services sectors.”
For sure, reforms aimed at boosting the country’s non-oil economy could make for some good news stories in 2015. But no matter what comes about – save for something as improbable as say Apple relocating it’s headquarters to Bandar Seri Bagawan – such changes are unlikely to deflect attention from the looming implementation of flogging, and worse, for violations of Islamic law.Show