SOUTH-EAST ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Brunei: a small country alone in a turbulent region
, March 30, 2013
Brunei is a small country on the central northern coast of the island of Borneo.
On its land borders, it is completely surrounded by Malaysia. The Malaysian state of Sarawak lies to the west and Sabah lies to the east. Due to a colonial-era land grab, Brunei is separated into two discrete halves connected only by water. To get an idea of the size of Brunei, it is possible to get from one end of the country to the other by bus in only one and half hours.
What Brunei lacks in territory it makes up for in natural resources. Brunei is rich in oil and gas, making it one of the most prosperous countries in Asia. The CIA World Factbook estimates Brunei’s annual per capita income to be US$50,500.
Do not look for any service stations other than Shell — there aren’t any. When we visited, the country was busily preparing for a visit by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who is very much a VIP in Brunei. Shell, the giant Anglo-Dutch petroleum multinational headquartered in The Hague, exports most of Brunei’s oil and gas.
The population of 405,000 is 65 per cent Malay. Non-Malays can gain citizenship only with great difficulty. The offspring of two non-Malay citizens, — for example, Chinese — do not automatically gain citizenship.
Malay — or Bahasa Melayu, to give the language its correct name — is the official language, but it is not usually spoken at home, where a local dialect is used. Only Malays can join the armed forces. The Second Battalion of the Royal Ghurka Rifles, known as the Brunei Garrison, is stationed in Brunei.
Brunei is one of the last absolute monarchies left on Earth. The Washington-based research institute, Freedom House, classifies Brunei as “not free”.
The ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has a net worth estimated at US$20 billion. Various political consultative and legislative bodies are created and folded at his whim and no political parties worthy of the name exist.
Brunei’s Malay population is Muslim, although some of the other ethnic minorities follow other religions, including Christianity. Raising one’s fist and yelling “Merdeka!” (“Freedom!” in Malay) is likely to produce an allergic reaction.
Unlike citizens of some other oil-rich Islamic states in the Middle East, the Bruneians actually work quite diligently. The number of migrant workers is limited. The price of rice is subsidised by the state and food is cheap. Alcohol is banned.
Ever since a scandal involving the Sultan’s tearaway younger brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the ruling family has limited its displays of conspicuous consumption. Cancelling scheduled flights of the national airline, Royal Brunei, because the Sultan has decided to enter a polo tournament at short notice, and the aircraft is required to ferry his polo ponies, is a thing of the past. No-one, however, doubts that power lies with the Sultan.
Brunei is important because it will host the 22nd ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) Summit during April 24-25, 2013. The event will be held in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital city of Brunei and a major settlement.
As with most such events, a great deal of tidying up is going on, including a major renovation of the airport. The taxi service is likely to be stretched, as there are only 30 taxis in the whole country. Bandar, as the city is universally known, has a very good suburban bus service (if you can find the bus station), but it is unlikely ASEAN’s grandees would take kindly to sharing a seat with the commoners.
As host of the ASEAN Summit, Brunei will set the direction for ASEAN policy for the coming year. Brunei, like several other ASEAN members, has a claim to a group of islands in the South China Sea. Brunei has been promoting a binding code of conduct for interaction in the South China Sea.
Just how complicated the whole South China Sea area is was demonstrated recently when, on February 11, 200-odd heavily-armed Filipinos landed in the Malaysian state of Sabah, east of Brunei, to assert the ancient claim of the Sultan of Sulu to Sabah.
The Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu suffered the loss of some 50 killed in action, while the Malaysian police lost at least eight men. When Malaysian forces used air power against them, the invaders melted into the jungle to wage guerrilla warfare.
With Malaysia’s hotly contested general election due to be called within weeks, 86-year-old former Malaysian Prime Minster and power behind the scenes, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, could not help but ask “where the money came from” to fund the invasion, as the Sultan of Sulu is reportedly broke.
News outlets associated with Mahathir’s National Front party named opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim as the “person” funding the invasion. This comes at a time when Anwar’s party has its first real chance at gaining power in 55 years in the forthcoming election, which must be called within weeks.
This murky affair promises more twists and turns.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who has recently returned from a tour of South-East Asia, including a stay in Brunei.