Brunei – The Sultan and his ideology

In one of previous blogs I wrote about Brunei and the planned implementation of the Sharia Law. A few weeks after the actual implementation (1st April 2014) the Sultan stated that Brunei is postponing it without any explanations. On the 30th of April the Sultan stated the following “Today… I place my faith in and am grateful to Allah the almighty to announce that tomorrow, Thursday May 1, 2014, will see the enforcement of sharia law phase one, to be followed by the other phases”. 1 As a continuing part of my Blog about Brunei, I now try to illustrate who the man behind the state is, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and I take a closer look to the government to understand why they implement such a radical Islam law and how this could affect ASEAN in future meetings. So who is this Sultan one of the last remaining absolute monarchs in the world? Is this Sultan a person who does something good for the country in Brunei or is he harming the country with the planned and not yet implemented Sharia Law?

Hassanal Bolkiah (Sultan of Brunei)

Hassanal Bolkiah (Sultan of Brunei)

However, the Sultan was born in Brunei Town (now Bandar Seri Begawan), Brunei on the 15th July 1946 and he is the 29th Sultan of Brunei. He was born as the eldest of ten children of the former Sultan Sir Haji Omar Ali Saifuddin and thereby has 3 brothers and 6 sisters. The first years of his education were privately before he went to the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England.  As the eldest son it was just a matter of time until his father will name crown prince of Brunei, which happened in 1961. Six years later Sir Haji Omar Ali Saifuddin resigned and Hassanal Bolkiah became Sultan on October 5, 1967 and the coronation took place on the 1st August in 1968. After the death of Sir Omar’s wife in 1979 he withdrew from public affairs and wasn’t directing his son anymore, what he did for the first decade of the coronation. Since 1979 the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah took a very dominant role in the administration on Brunei. Sir Omar died in 1986, and on the 5th October, 1992, the sultan, who also acted as prime minister and as the minister of defense and of finance, celebrated the 25th year of his reign. He also continued to rule under a state of emergency declared by his father in 1962. In the 1980s and 1990s the sultan regularly appeared at or near the top of lists of the world’s richest individuals, his fortune deriving from Brunei’s oil and gas. His actual net worth should be around US $ 19.5 billion. 2

“The Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, better known as the Sultan of Brunei is one such person who is well versed with this art of spending the riches in the most lavish ways.”

The Sultan is has quite extravagant and extraordinary life standards. What I mean by that? Just to exemplify what I mean with extravagant. His expenditures for example are pretty exceptional. The Sultan’s public relations assistants were given US $1,123,830 euros each or he paid US $243,670 to his badminton instructor. Other special outlays are the staff that cares his exotic birds were paid US $94,780 dollars or that the Sultan of Brunei paid US$ 24000 for his hair cut, which was most expensive haircut ever. Furthermore, he possesses a lot of other things as well, such as 2500 cars or six smaller planes and two choppers. The Sultan also holds an ‘honorary commission’ in the Air Force of the UK as an Air Marshal and is also as above mentioned the Prime Minister, as well as holding the portfolios of Minister of Defense and Finance. 3 Moreover, another example for the extraordinary life of the Sultan is the amount of money he spent for the marriage of his daughter which went on for a week. The expected costs for the marriage would be between US $15 and $20 million. 4

Educational development – Since the Sultan is in power many things changed. The educational development led the country to literacy rate of almost 100%. During the time of his leadership the education developed e.g. in 1984 when a bilingual education policy ‘dwibahasa’ was introduced to ensure that pupils attain a high degree of proficiency in both English and Malay. In 1985, the National Education System incorporating English and Malay as the media of instruction was implemented. Free schooling to all citizens and permanent residents of Brunei Darussalam was also introduced. As a result, the literacy rate in Brunei Darussalam rose from 69% in 1971 to 92.5% in 2001. 5

Reopening Brunei’s parliament – Before, in anticipation of independence from Britain, he began to create a native bureaucracy, replacing British expatriates in the civil service with Bruneians, and he cracked down on corruption. In September 2004 the sultan reopened Brunei’s parliament, 20 years after it was suspended. Spectators understood it as a tentative step towards giving some political power to the country’s citizens. 6

Royal Scandal – On the other hand for example, his brother ensured a scandal. In 2000, it turned out that his younger brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah that he was responsible for misuse of state funds as former chief of Brunei Investment Agency over concerns. He spent $ 2.7 billion on personal luxury goods for over 10 years. As the elder brother and Prime Minister it is the Sultans responsibility to avoid those failures.

Sharia Law – Furthermore, he wants to implement the Sharia Law a penal code which I’ve mentioned in one of previous blogs which is highly discussed all over the world in terms of human rights. He tried to explain this step with the protection of western influences. For many people this also a negative sign in terms of international relations, since countries are more likely to move to a liberal form where human rights are very important. Due to the fact that Brunei is already and will be more and more dependent on other countries it is important to maintain international relations. Most of the laws will also apply to non-Muslims as well. If it will affect tourist is not clarified or announced yet.

How could this affect ASEAN?  In Thailand for example, there you have Yingluck Shinawatra, a female Buddhist as a Prime Minister. Additionally, Thailand has a lot to deal with Muslim insurgency in the southern part of Thailand since the 2000’s. In the Philippines e.g. the President is Benigno Aquino III, a catholic. In his country they also have problems with the minority of Muslims in their country. Rogue Muslim rebels even seeking to declare an independent state. Last year, another separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed a deal with the government, agreeing to a new autonomous region that gave it more political control. Four decades of conflict in the south have killed 120,000 people and there is no end in sight of ending the internal conflicts.

ASEAN Summit

ASEAN Summit

Synoptically, you can see that the Sultan of Brunei is first of all a very interesting personality. He belongs to the richest persons on this planet and shares an extraordinary lifestyle with expenditures a middle-income inhabitant would not even think of. The planning of the implementation of the Sharia Law gives the Sultan at least in outside countries a poorer image, since critics doesn’t see the reason for doing it. On the other hand during his period of leadership things have improved in Brunei such as the development of education which is also his deserving, since he is Sultan and Prime Minister of Brunei. Furthermore, the Sultan is definitely a controversial and also extravagant person, but Brunei itself is developing which is partly his merit. Finally, the implementation of the Sharia Law could have a negative influence of the future ASEAN meetings or on other international levels which. Anyhow, there are member states which have leaders with another religious background such as Buddhism or Christian. Additionally, in those countries they have certain conflicts with Muslims which is kind of contradicting to Brunei where the leader is a Muslim and seems to be very radical by implementing the Sharia Law. It definitely will be interesting to see any future affection of the enforcement within ASEAN.


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