October 24, 2010 § 3 Comments
Who lives there?: About 400,000 people, of whom about 150,000 live in the capital Bandar. Brunei consists of two enclaves on the northern coast of the island of Borneo (which is otherwise split between Malaysia and Indonesia). Only 9000 live in the eastern enclave of Tembourg. About 70% are Malay, the rest are a real mixture but with a significant Chinese population. Most people speak a local dialect of Malay which is unintelligible to Malay speakers.
In a possibly apocryphal story (but which does have some linguistic support) Brunei means “here we are” in Malay, and got the name because that is what the settlers said when they arrived and it kind-of stuck.
Around 70% are Shafi Sunni Muslim, the rest are a mixture ,with Buddhism and a form of agnosticism known as “free thinking” prominent. The nation is variously known as Brunei Darussalam, Brunei, or The Abode of Peace.
Brunei also claims some territory in Malay Borneo and some of the uninhabited Spratley islands and reefs off the coast. These are also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, both Chinas, Vietnam and (until recently) France.
The government of Brunei owns a ranch in Australia which provides much of Brunei’s food. This ranch is bigger than Brunei.
Brunei rock is an acquired taste:
How does the system work? (the theory): Brunei is an absolute monarchy where the Sultan of Brunei has all executive and legislative power. He has further emergency powers as the head of the army as Brunei has been under martial law since the revolt of 1962 (which is not officially considered over).
There is a twenty person appointed advisory council. Governance is centralised but at a local level there are further advisory councils. These consist of directly elected villagers whose job is to act as mediators between the people and the state. It is made clear that these individuals, and these councils, have no power at all – and there job is solely to advise.
How does the system work? (the practice): There is a very good correlation between theory and practice. Brunei’s official doctrine (MIB) says that the Sultan is the source of all power and that elections, a democratic process and a political culture are unnecessary – and so it has come to pass that none exist. There is little to no freedom of press or freedom to form an opposition – opposition to the sultan is banned.
There are plans on the table for a new 45 person legislature with 15 directly elected slots but no timeframe has been put forward. Instead the powers of oversight of the advisory council have been slightly increased.
How did we get here?: The Sultans of Brunei were a large regional power from at least the 14th century – their power peaking in the 16th. In the 19th century it lost much of its territory to other regional kings and so accepted British protectoracy in 1888 – which lasted till 1984.
The Sultan of Brunei introduced a new constitution in the 1950s which allowed more power to go to advisors and in 1962 held the first, and thus far only, elections. The leftist anti-monarchy Brunei People’s Party won every single elected seat – but didn’t have overall control of the legislative as the majority of MPs were appointed by the Sultan. Feeling they had a mandate to do so, the BPP launched a rebellion against the Sultan. This was crushed with the help of the British, Brunei never held elections again, and the country has been under martial law ever since.
In the 1960s Brunei found oil and natural gas – leading to Brunei’s incredible wealth and spurring a surge in development.
Who’s in charge?: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. As well as exercising supreme executive power, he is one of the world’s richest men. His personal fortune is thought to be around 20 billion dollars. He is thought to own up to 7000 cars including 130 Rolls Royces, 531 Mercedes-Benzes, 367 Ferraris, 362 Bentleys, 185 BMWs, 177 Jaguars, 160 Porsches, and 20 Lamborghinis. He is known to own two gold-plated Boeing 747s, and his private theme park is thought to have cost $3 billion.
There is not much of an independent civil society in Brunei and the only other factors of any significance in Brunei’s politics are the permitted political parties. Currently the only legal party is the NDP. It was formed by former political prisoners, dissidents, and members of the BPP, but as a quid-pro-quo for legalisation they have vowed to support the monarchy and their official ruling ideology (MIB).
Two other political parties were legal until recently and still have a following. The Brunei National Solidarity Party campaigned for freedom of speech, representation and redistribution of wealth. In 2007 they were asked by the monarchy to make their president resign – yet despite doing so they were de-registered without explanation in 2008. The other major civic force, the Brunei People’s Awareness Party were disbanded in 2007 but still have a following.
Shafi Muslim scholars also command significant influence.
What does it look like?: Much of Brunei is covered in the Borneo lowland rainforest. It is fairly impenetrable – which is why much of the people live in cities and eat food from Australia.
What are the issues?: Aside from issues of governance, the main issue is life post hydrocarbon. Brunei is the world’s fourth largest producer of natural gas and the 41st largest producer of oil (which is impressive for a country of this size). However proven reserves are only expected to last until 2015 – and whilst the government is confident of finding more reserves, it has not done so yet. In general the population of Brunei is reasonably content as a result of the booming economy, the oil money and the unprecedented levels of development. If the economy starts to collapse that could rapidly change. Whilst Brunei has taken some steps to diversify into banking and other sectors, there is a feeling that, at the moment, plan a is to find more oil.
A good source of impartial information is: There is no free press in Brunei. Bru Direct is the most up-to-date English language news source – but criticizing the government is illegal. For a critical view you have to look at NGOs like Freedom House.
A good book is: There are a fair few decent books on Brunei’s politics – although they tend to be heavy and very few of them are written by Bruneians. Ideological Innovation Under Monarchy: Aspects of Legitimation Activity in Contemporary Brunei is very thorough. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III and Britain: The Making of Brunei Darussalam is a god modern history focussing on the British role. Brunei, 1839-1983: The Problems of Political Survival is old but not dated. Brunei in 2004: window dressing an Islamizing Sultanate is the most up-to-date.
When are the next elections?: No elections are planned.