The age of Brexit and Trump have swept the Western world by storm. Many policy-makers and analysts have come to consider this as the emergence of the era of extreme populism. As the West struggles to contain itself from an increasingly polarised political climate, nations such as Brunei have further embraced its own conservative bent as a response to the uncertainty in the global landscape. When the tiny-oil rich Sultanate decided to introduce Sharia Law in the post-oil 2013 crash, it shocked the West, whom it always sees as a moderate peace-loving Kingdom.
Subsequently, Brunei faced an unrelenting barrage of criticism by the media, particularly from the West. Brunei’s image suffered greatly. Whenever top Western policy-makers and analysts thought of Brunei since all sorts of negative impressions come into mind. Never mind the High Development Index score and the exceptional welfare, peace and stability that Bruneians have enjoyed under the Sultan’s 50-year reign. Never mind the universal education and healthcare, as well as the other generous oil and food subsidies the local populace have enjoyed. Never mind the transformation made to the community that once lived in dilapidated and cholera-infested Malay water villages a generation ago to achieve an excellent standard of living.
It then begs the question, is it a fair assessment to view Brunei through what certain Western media paints it to be? The danger of this orientalist outlook is that it will precipitate Samuel Huffington’s ‘Clash of Civilisation’, meaning the shift to the political extremes for both the West and non-Western countries such as Brunei will cause a rift in civilizational preception and, hence, relations. How would Brunei and the West, in this case, notably fare well in its foreign policy dealings, people may ask. The complicated answer is that while Brunei has introduced Sharia Law, it is still a functional secular and democratic state with an exceptional Human Development Index record.
In secular and democratic terms, it is outlined in the national constitution itself that Brunei will forever be a sovereign democratic state, that among many, will guarantee religious freedom. What many seem to overlook is that Brunei’s democratic idea is also embedded and adapted to the national cultural and security context through the Melayu Islam Beraja (Malay Islamic Monarchy) philosophy. It is a form of Brunei’s own social contract that binds the King and People together.
On this note, the relations between the Sultan of Brunei and the People are strong. When Brunei’s former Second Foreign Minister Lim Jock Seng was interviewed, he recounted a moment when he suggested to the Sultan the need to put to austerity measures in place. This may include cutting the education and healthcare budgets. The Sultan replied, “All the money that comes from oil and gas and everything to the government—it’s for the people. So spend it on the people.”
Additionally, the country possesses a national parliament, which the state re-introduced in the 25th September 2004, after twenty years of dormancy. The parliament convenes every year since to discuss national issues, pass or propose legislation and approve national budgets. Apart from military affairs and other domestic security matters, appointed legislative council members (or LegCo members) are able to express ideas openly to improve Brunei. There were also youths and women appointed to be LegCo council members, signifying a positive step towards inclusive governance.
Admittedly, it will take some time to develop a strong and disciplined institutional and democratic framework. Indeed, there needs further assessment of the Brunei-style parliamentary system. But the last thing the country wants to do is having the parliament growing too fast and turning chaotic like what is, unfortunately, happening in some countries such as Sri Lanka right now. But, overall, Brunei is moving in the right direction when it comes to its democratic development. Slow and steady wins the race.
Moreover, Brunei only has a population of less than half a million people, which roughly accounts for less than 0.0012% of the people living in the Asia-Pacific region. Having a strong and stable sovereign government that provides safety and security is paramount to the people living in this context. And through good leadership by the Sultan, Brunei has continued to survive well into the 21st century under his 50-year rule, maintaining the unbroken record of the nation’s 600 years history. There were certain mistakes made, understandably, but it would not hurt for Western analyst or policy-makers to sympathise Brunei’s geopolitical stance in the region too.
Furthermore, as Brunei embraces secularism and democracy to fit its own cultural and security context, so too will it embrace Sharia Law to fit its own cultural and security context. It will carry out the laws as long as it does not violate international law and human rights. Moreover, where Sharia Law could not solve a case, the government states, it is to be transferred to the Civil or Criminal Court system – through the national Judiciary based on English Common law, one which the country proudly have inherited from the British after independence.
Brunei even pledged to extend its support to contain extremist ideologies abroad and at home as part of its many efforts to promote regional security against forces such as ISIS. These things do affect the country too. When a civil servant was found to have made financial contributions to ISIS and sharing extremist content, he was immediately detained by the Internal Security Department (ISD). Brunei was also instrumental in identifying and deporting four ISIS sympathisers who were residing in the country.
These things extend beyond government. Bruneians, through social media such as Reddit, also took steps to identify people and report suspicious activities to the government. For example, when a car with an ISIS sticker was sighted in the country, it was the ‘Bru-Redditors’ who reported the case to the national security forces. These cases demonstrate Brunei’s dependability and relevance as a key regional ally to combat extremist ideologies.
To conclude, Brunei is a primarily misunderstood nation. It is high time that people look past the Sharia Law headlines and see the tremendous impact the country has to its own people, as evidenced by the high Human Development Index score. To brand Brunei in a negative light just because that is what the media says without looking at the broader facts can only further erode Western soft-power influence over the country.
The bottom line is that the country is a friendly and peace-loving society that is living in a predominantly secular and democratic government that is led by a great King who cares for the people. On Sharia Law, it is also tailoring it to the country’s historical, cultural and security context and what is acceptable in international law.
It is time to look past the negative headlines and realise that Brunei has more to offer to the Asia Pacific than is previously thought of.
This is what makes Brunei the Enlightened Kingdom in the Asia-Pacific.