A billboard promoting the many talents of the Sultan of Brunei. Photo via Flickr user watchsmart
It’s pretty rare that Brunei makes international headlines, unless Prince Jefri Bolkiah has bought another jewelery business or decided to christen his new superyacht Tits (and its tenders Nipple 1 and Nipple 2). In fact, aside from the vast wealth of its royal family, little is known about the tiny sovereign state in northern Borneo.
So unless you’ve worked for Shell at some point in your life, surveying the huge oil fields responsible for the royals’ fortune, you’d be forgiven for not being too knowledgeable about Brunei’s people and government, or for not knowing that, starting tomorrow, it will become the only Southeast Asian country to implement Sharia law at a national level.
But why does that matter? Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa first coined the phrase “the perfect dictatorship” in 1990, in reference to Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI managed to centralize power through institutionalizing unions and employing the carrot-and-stick method of governing; as workers demanded higher wages, the PRI would suppress their demands with concessions, such as apparently improved health care and subsidies on basic essential food. Once in a while it would shoot or imprison movement leaders just to show people it wasn’t fucking about.
This method of bargaining is reminiscent of the Bruneian way of doing things—only there’s not really any bargaining in Brunei. The majority of the population live extremely relaxed lifestyles thanks to the huge amount of concessions the government grants its people; most work six-hour days and get a bonus every year; gas costs about a dollar a gallon; and the entire nation is tax-free.
And it’s the preservation of that laid-back lifestyle that distracts people from other issues. Even though every citizen technically has the right to free speech, it’s pretty apparent that, in reality, they really don’t—hardly surprising for a country that operates an absolute monarchy. Every Wednesday and Sunday, for instance, an “opinions” page in the Borneo Bulletin—the most popular of the two government-produced English newspapers—aims to provide people with a platform to speak out about whatever’s on their mind. But what seems to be on most people’s minds is how amazing the national police force is, or how fantastic the Ramadan buffet at a certain restaurant has been.
Yet the people of Brunei don’t seem to care too much about the stifling of their free speech, which is mostly down to three reasons: The country is rich; the government is generous; and the population is small, meaning authorities find new projects—as well as new laws—easy to administer and regulate.
A mosque in Brunei. Photo via Flickr user amanderson2
Tomorrow, Brunei will become the first and only Southeast Asian nation to enforce Sharia criminal law. The code—which will only be applied to Muslims (who make up 67 percent of the population)—could ultimately ensure Brunei’s status as the world’s newest “perfect dictatorship.” Googling the topic, the results almost exclusively detail the Sultan’s already “feudal” rule, or describe the severe kind of Sharia law being introduced in Brunei as “barbaric and draconian.” Both of those things may be true, but Brunei’s is a feudal rule that people can handle, because the benefits of living there seem to far outweigh the negatives.
Rather than fearing Sharia law, people in Brunei are instead questioning the reason for its introduction. According to a source from the Telegraph, it may be because influences are brought into the country from students who have studied abroad—but that sounds pretty speculative to me. As far as I can gather, no one really understands why it’s being implemented.
Having spoken to various locals, the most obvious reason seems to be that Sharia will be used as a deterrent for petty crimes. But crime in Brunei is already extremely low, and there isn’t really any reason to steal. The government gives you everything you need, so if you get your hands chopped off for stealing a five-pack of ramen, you only have yourself to blame. Also, the death penalty has always existed in Brunei, so little has changed there, except for the admittedly brutal fact that—if you’re Muslim—you’ll now be stoned to death rather than hanged.
Western opinion has often played upon the fact that people don’t—and won’t—speak out against the implementation of Sharia law, but this usually simplistic assessment fails to account for a number of important local factors. Bruneians have no time to speak up, because, by 3 PM, they’re out of the office, heading to the coffee shop in their new E-Class. And really, would you complain if you were living tax-free with a stable, high-paying job, two cars, free education and health care, and a house rented at close to nothing, all in constant 95-degree weather?
The implementation of Sharia in Brunei doesn’t make a lot of sense—the state is already incredibly safe, and it’s not like altering the criminal code is going to do a huge amount to further guarantee that safety. And while Sharia’s brutal practices understandably draw ire from the West, the people of Brunei don’t appear to be all that bothered—they’re happy living in a peaceful nation under a “perfect dictatorship.”
So while there are clearly problems with Sharia law that can’t be excused by any amount of government concessions—and even though you may question the Bruneians’ apathy about living under a dictatorship—I’d ask you to look into all the other factors that make Brunei the country it is before taking what Western media have to say as gospel truth.