BRUNEI’S JOURNEY TO SHARI’AH LAW: THE SOUTHEASTERN ASIAN SURPRISE

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THE RICH STATE OF BRUNEI AND SHARI’AH LAW:

THE NEW CHALLENGE FOR THE SOUTHEAST ASIA

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There are some places in this world where  the oriental magic never ends. Every time you go there, you feel yourself trapped in some amazing adventure of Arabic nights and when you come home, you can never be the same person again. So many memories, colorful pictures, different scents, delicious tastes, unforgettable people and unique local traditions. I think I understand my friend who just came back from the state of Brunei, sharing with me the enrichment of the  culture I have not thought about at all.

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What we officially know about this tiny oil-rich sultanate  of Brunei? It is a sovereign state under the formal name the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace,Brunei Darussalam.

It is located on the northern cost of the Borneo Island, in the Southeast Asia , bordered by the South China Sea and the Malaysian state of Sarawak. .As of 1 January 2016, the population of Brunei Darussalam was estimated to be 441 201 people. There are  4 districts, and the capital city is Bandar Seri Begawan.

The old legend tells us the story about discovery of Brunei by  Awang Alak Betatar who was later named as Sultan Muhammad Shah, the first Muslim ruler of this secret island. It is written that he moved from the Garang into the Temburong region, finding the beauty in the Brunei river  estuary. The name of this sultanate is derivative from the Baru nah – there.Before the Brunei Empire was built under Muslim rule, the Buddhist rulers were in power. The small state, hidden on the oil rich ground, even before the  petroleum was found in 1929, was under the pressure of the global actors. In the beginning, it was Spain which  had an issue with Brunei because of the religious influence over Philippines in 16th century. Then in 19th century, Britain attacked Brunei so Japan did too but  in 1941. The small state was attacked during the history with no mercy and it was a post-world war II  treasure, given to the British rulers and British Military Administration formed the Bruneian goverment. Many years after, this state was ruled as a protectorate of the UK and the obtaining of the final independence was made through  many hard steps but it happened on January 1984, the Proclamation of Independence was stated by  His Majesty Hassanal Bolkiah, who became sultan.

The historical collage of the sultanate of Brunei shows us that this tiny and proud nation was fighting a real battle to survive among big players and interests keepers on the international political scene. After the oil was discovered, Brunei has entered a new phase in every segment of life, so called golden years:“Since the discovery of oil in 1929, however, petrodollars have revived the Bruneian economy and ushered in an era of significant development. The standard of living and quality of life has been significantly raised, and benefits like free health care, education, housing, no income tax and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world all point towards the extent of progress in Brunei.” It is challenging to conclude that sultan didn’t want to exploit the oil without sharing it with people so he has tried to build strong economy based on many national development programs. During the  1990s, the goverment empowered the social services and public utilities. In the 2000s, they started with the process of development and enhancing of private investments, inviting the foreign attention in participation in economical field,even enabling the foreigners to own a land in Brunei. Many new professionals from all over the world came in Brunei and started the initial companies, based on oil production. That was the epicenter of Bruneian  financial blood:“The oil and gas sector contributes about two-thirds of GDP and the major part of exports. Average daily oil production in 2013 was 135,000 barrels.” 

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Bruneians, almost over a night,thanks to oil,  became the fourth most wealthy people in Asia, with great state benefits. The good economical position enabled the one of the latest monarch on the world to keep his popularity and to even step into some kind of autocratic governance. The local residents, mostly ethnic Malays live in Utopia land.  They do not pay income tax but they do enjoy free education with a possibility for cheap home loans and social housing. If you are educated and you want to work, you can definitely find a job in many of goverment sectors and all you have to do is to attend the obligatory prayers and to use many administration advantages.However, due the global economical stress, things in Brunei are getting bad :“However, tumbling oil prices have begun to undermine this cosy social contract. Oil- and gas fields are ageing, their equipment increasingly costly to maintain. With petrodollars scarcer than before, Brunei’s economy has contracted for two years in a row and will shrink in 2015, when the government will run a budget deficit of 16% of GDP. The IMF has advised it to freeze public-sector wages and hiring, cut fuel subsidies and abandon big projects. It calls for measures to boost low productivity and encourage job growth.”  Petrodollars are the timeless curse for every land which was given the oil. On one side, you can do all with the oil and it seems you can make the imitation of paradise but on the another side, it can be gone as the sand castle, with no mercy, only if the global powers make different calculations and hit you with the big ZERO.

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Pengiran Anak Sarah (Crown Princess of Brunei) in her army cadet uniform in 2009.

Nevertheless,the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, who also holds the position of prime minister, announced in 2014 the intention of adopting and implementing the controversial Shari’ah Law into his sultanate. That was the biggest headlines in the media all over. Why?First of all, that would be the first Shari’ah Law imposed in Southeastern Asian religious landscape. Second, it would mean the social changes of the Brunei and also the change of the religious habits of its residents. Jay Leno, John Legend, and Richard Branson openly protested against such a decision and advocating the human rights and freedoms, calling this act as a back into medieval times.They were going so far and announcing the boycott of Sultan’s Beverly Hills Hotel but not any of these acts had influence on his decision and belief  that the Shari’ah law will be the biggest success of the sultanate of Brunei. He even separated the process into the 3 stages. The first stage of implementing the Shari’ah law covers the small crimes such as fines and prison for pregnancy outside the wedlock, non-Islamic religious propaganda, absence from the mandatory Friday prayer and it is already adopted. Bruneians are facing now with  end of the second phase of the Shari’ah Law which introduces the society with the hard punishments, like  cutting off hands for property offenses. The final and the last level starts very soon, during this year and :”will introduce executions, including stoning, for offenses like adultery, abortion, homosexuality/sodomy, and even blasphemy. Bolikah has defended his decision, saying that it was ‘not for fun, but to obey Allah’s command as written in the Quran.’ Unfortunately, the leader of Brunei evidently has not thought through the long-term implications that imposing sharia law will have on his country.” 

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Sultan’s dream to turn Brunei into some kind of “Islamic Singapore” with great economical heaven and skilled work labor could be realized only if Shari’ah Law doesn’t apply to non-Muslims. But, that is not a plan of the goverment and definitely not the purpose of this Islamic law. It will apply on all people who live in Brunei, even on 33% foreigners, who will leave this state due the risk of being caught in the trap of respecting the law which has no any mercy or sympathy for kuffr. Beside them, many moderate and educated  Muslims do not want to live under strict Shari’ah law and its rules so they will also leave the country and find some other shelter from Sultan’s Shari’ah haven. That will open the new problem for small Brunei: the migration of brains in negative way. Instead of migration of brains in positive way. People will start leaving the country and not coming there which will be devastating for his plan to enforce the Brunei’s economy till 2035. As in everything, people are also divided about this. Some Westerners who live there say they do not have problems because of the Shari’ah Law since they accept that they live and work in Muslim state. They believe that even before Shari’ah Law it wasn’t so possible to be loud about your religious choice so this new law will only legalize that:” Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said: ‘Being a minority in Brunei, they’ve always lived under restrictions, even before the Sharia law was imposed. So I think they are used to living with restrictions. They have a coping mechanism built in. The Chinese population has been there since the 15th century.’

Commenting this state is not very easy. It is rich and the goverment gives a chance to everyone but also there are some  restrictions. Older citizens who enjoy the  state privileges will always support this monarch and admire his fight for this sultanate. Younger generations will complain about the lack of possibilities for the real fun, because of the limits which come with implementation of Islamic law. However, wild youth will jump to the neighborhood of Malaysia, using the beauty of sinful fun and life. At that moment, worries about Sultan’s Utopian Islamic dream will be far away from them, lost in some exotic bars.

The rest of the world is monitoring the speed of Shari’ah Law metastasis of Bruneians society and system. They need this sultanate but they also despise the boundaries of fundamental Islam. To blackmail Brunei with  not-favorable trade agreements just because of adopting the Islamic legal dress wouldn’t be diplomatic wisdom but rather trying to analyze the level of success after the Shari’ah Law was accepted. I honestly dont count on  occurring of any radical ingredients in this sultanate but wouldn’t be surprised to see how many Muslims will be bored and irritated with the supremacy of  Qur’an law.

That is the whole package and when it is finally opened, the petrodollars wont compensate the desired freedoms.Every Friday,at 12 PM,  the capitol city is in peace – almost like a ghost town. Everyone is praising Allah. None works, The law is strict about it. The whole  state is embracing the religion as never before.At the end of the day, this sultan has a vision for years and this sultan has never betrayed his people.

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Brunei, the sultanate of unexpected treasures and strong Islamic law. The mysterious natural pearl and rich history  which whispers to us ancient secrets waited to be heard and further told.

It is Baru nah.It is there. The Shari’ah Law will never change it.

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